For Women in the STEM Pipeline, It’s Leaky and Full of Lead
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Less than 1 percent of venture deals go to Black women founders.
By Libby Coleman
As Silicon Valley accumulates ever more wealth and power, discussions about who’s left out of its largesse are becoming more common. A shocking 0.2 percent of venture funding goes to Black women founders, and though recent years have seen gains, we’ve not come a long way, baby.
Nonetheless, some will not be deterred. “I think we’re on the cusp of great change,” maintains Kathryn Finney, a networker extraordinaire and a fairy godmother of sorts to demographically unlikely founders. “We’re on the edge.”
Finney started her organization, digitalundivided, in 2012 to put the digital divide, and its effects on wealth inequality, front and center. Along with #ProjectDiane, the organization studies the who’s who of seed lucre (its research generated that 0.2 percent figure). Finney’s organization also focuses on “investing where others won’t,” including by connecting founders with mentors and investors. This summer she’ll be opening the BIG Innovation Center, home to an accelerator for promising startups led by Black and Latina founders. OZY scored some of Finney’s time to talk about who to watch, quotas and the history of the field’s diversity (it’ll surprise you). Our conversation has been edited.
Kathryn Finney: Kathryn Finney — I’d be remiss if I didn’t say my own name. Other people too, especially in our programs, where women are working in many different fields. Some are Nicole Sanchez at eCreditHero, Kellee James at Mercaris, Kelechi Anyadiegwu at Zuvaa and Cheryl Contee at Attentive.ly.
OZY: Was there ever a time when there was parity between women and men in tech?
KF: What we’ve found, researching a documentary, was that there wasn’t necessarily parity, but prior to 1970, computing was considered a female field. A lot of things had to be done by hand, and they hired female mathematicians. In programming there was a majority of women up until the 1970s, when computers became more sophisticated. There’s a really great book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures, about Black women “computers” who worked at NASA and helped calculate the landing on the moon. She has a movie coming out starring Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson and many others, based upon her book.
OZY: What’s the biggest obstacle to getting more women into STEM positions? How are you working on solving that?
KF: Our main objective is always to find untapped potential in our community. We look at entrepreneurship as the key. We deal with women with ideas with centered around technology. How do we help them grow and help them be successful? Once young folk come into tech, we show them what they can do with it and how tech entrepreneurship can create economic empowerment in their communities.
The creative aspect hasn’t been encouraged enough. It’s not just about selling someone else’s solution — it’s about ownership and about equity. It’s about who has the permission to create, to own something. Do we want them to get hired at tech companies? Do we want them to be Sheryl Sandberg, or do we want them to be Mark Zuckerberg?
I’ve learned that the pipeline is leaky and made of lead — it can be very poisonous. And it’s crooked for us and there’s a lot of gook that slows the flow. People fall out. A lot of my time is spent mentoring a lot of startups to not give up. Tech wants diversity, but diverse versions of themselves — Black people who are like them. They don’t want inclusion; they want assimilation.
OZY: What are the best ways for government to intervene?
KF: One major intervention would have to be pension funds. If pension funds, which are huge investors, said we’re going to divest from all firms that don’t have diverse investments, you wanna see how quickly every eligible Black Latina female–led startup gets funded? Probably within a day. The government can use its financial resources to say if you want the public’s money — pension funds are from a diverse workforce — then you have to invest in people who look like their grandchildren and children.
OZY: What do you think about quotas for women in STEM in universities or at companies?
KF: I think that’s fine. When I was at Yale — the school I went to was part of the medical school — there weren’t enough Black students applying to the school, for whatever reason. As a result, it was making it very difficult to reach any sort of quota that it had internally. We have to make sure if we’re going to force it that there’s a pipeline and a flow.
OZY: Are women better at STEM than men?
KF: No. We all have talents and things we bring that are different. Women aren’t better, but women are necessary.