There’s a fairy godmother up in Harlem named Kathryn Finney. These days, she’s wont to describe herself like this: “Big hair, even bigger ideas.”
What’s the big idea? It’s to take on the dirty white secret of a tech industry headquartered in Silicon Valley: It might pretend to be colorblind, gender neutral and meritocratic, but really it’s very male, very white, rather Asian and hardly at all black or female. In other words, the start-up world is basically a bro club.
Finney’s diagnosis is more diplomatic: “It’s all about networks, and what you’ll often hear is, ‘What networks are you part of?’” she says. “That’s problematic for people of color because we’re not usually allowed into those spaces to build and become part of those networks.”
Finney’s remedy is to create networks and pathways to guide outsiders, especially women, into tech. You want a pipeline of kick-ass, black women techies? Finney began building one last year. It’s a tech conference called FOCUS100, and in the space of 15 months, it’s become a Big Deal, where big deals can happen. It’s now part of Finney’s new business, Digital Undivided, which aims at nothing less than diversifying the tech sector.
I said, ‘Bullshit’ — I know I’m not the only smart black woman in tech.
”It’s hard enough getting women entrepreneurs funded. Try having another color on your skin,” says Jeanne Sullivan, a founding principal of private equity firm Starvest Partners. “Fabulous” and ”larger than life” but also straight-talking and down-to-earth, Finney has organized a movement to change that.
The scant research on the subject backs her up. A 2010 study found that 1 percent of venture-capital-funded founders were black. (Twelve percent were Asian and 87 percent were white.) Eight percent were women. Women and black founders tend to raise less seed money than their white male counterparts. The problem is not limited to start-ups. Black women comprised 3 percent of the entire computing workforce in 2011. When CNN tried to learn the race and gender demographics of 20 influential tech firms, it was snubbed: Most companies refused to say how many women or minorities work there. Finney, a married New Yorker who grew up in Minnesota, found success in the early 2000s with her blog, the Budget Fashionista. (She still rocks the flamboyant accessories including, at times, cat-eye spectacles, ostentatious neck plates and big belts.) The blog won her some renown, major-league TV spots and a book deal. The experience also gave her an intimate understanding of the tech world’s inequalities, including how people of color tend to consume tech, not create it — nor share in the wealth it creates.
As a Yale grad — she has a master’s in epidemiology — and daughter of a computer engineer, Finney got more network access than many women of color. Over the past few years, she’d begun to think about how to make a more lasting mark. “Kathryn Finney: Budget Fashionista,” she says. ”I didn’t want that to be my legacy.”
Still, FOCUS100, which debuted in 2012, wasn’t part of some grand plan. “It needed to be done and I could do it,” says Finney. Potential sponsors and others pushed back, worried about “pipeline” problems: Allegedly there weren’t enough qualified black women for such a conference.
“I said, ‘Bullshit’ — I know I’m not the only smart black woman in tech,” says Finney. She kept going and scrounged up funding — pulling some out of her own pocket — and put on the conference. About 160 people showed up: investors, entrepreneurs and then-mayor Cory Booker.
So did Kellee James, who had just started a company called Mercaris, which provides market data about organic and non-GMO food commodities. James was skeptical — tech conferences are hard to pull off, she says — but “was converted,” partly by Finney’s ”imagination and energy” and partly because the conference was useful. It matched her with two “perfect” mentors, including Majora Carter, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner who started Sustainable South Bronx.
Finney says response to the first conference overwhelmed her. “There were a lot of women there who felt they were the only ones in the space, but you look around and see — wait, I’m not the only one.” She began to think that supporting outsiders in tech could be “how I made my impact in the world.”
Nicole Sanchez happened upon Finney at South By Southwest this year. With a Harvard College degree, a Harvard MBA and five years at fancy consultancy Bain & Co. under her belt, Sanchez had all the bona fides of a promising founder. But she’d never thought of herself as a company owner. Finney asked why she was looking for a job in tech instead of looking to start a tech business. “Literally I dismissed her,” says Sanchez. “I was like, oh, you’re crazy. Thank you for the encouragement, but I’m going to find myself a job and add value in that way.”
But when an idea came to her over the summer, she felt empowered to go for it, thanks to Finney, she says. “Kathryn was the first person who gave me permission to think about starting my own company.” Sanchez won this year’s FOCUS100 pitch competition for her new company, TenderCaring, which helps people navigate and engage options for eldercare.
“She’s the type of person that as soon as you meet her, she’s already given you advice,” says Danielle Jones, CFO and co-founder of Lineapple, which aims to reduce time spent waiting in line and provide consumer data to businesses. When they’re together, Jones says, Finney constantly introduces her to people, gives her ideas and suggests new contacts. “She’s very caring,” says Jones. “She’ll tell investors you need to look at this company and what they’re doing — like a mother talking about her kids, basically.”
In 2013, Finney started Digital Undivided, which organizes the conference and the community that’s grown around it and conducts tech workshops in urban communities that are traditionally estranged from the tech industry. There’s a reason it’s in Harlem.
When asked what the tech industry will look like in a decade, Finney sounds cautiously optimistic. Technology is a decentralizing force, she says, and that augurs well for diversity – of gender, race and geography too.
You listening, Silicon Valley? “Don’t get me wrong, I love the Valley, the weather is great,” says Finney. “But the world doesn’t look like that.”
Why you should care
The dearth of women and women of color in tech is not a pipeline problem, according to Kathryn Finney — and she’s got the talented young protégés to prove it.