How One Founder is Championing Women of Color in Tech

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Every now and again, someone comes along who not only talks the talk; they walk the walk. Meet Kathryn Finney -- who’s shaking up the white male world of tech.By Lydia Dishman (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

You have to wonder how she juggles everything.

Kathryn Finney, an honors graduate of Yale and Rutgers University, is now CEO of TBF Group, parent company of The Budget Fashionista, which reaches a global audience of more than 13 million unique visitors a year and acts as editor at large for BlogHer.

Between these daily responsibilities, you can often find her delivering keynotes at such conferences Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference, General Assembly, SXSW, New York Women in Communications, Women's Funding Network and Columbia Business School.

For these and other achievements, Finney’s been honored as one of the 40 Stars under 40 by Black Enterprise, a Top Woman in Money by AOL, a Black Innovator Award from Blacks in Tech (BiT) at SXSW and named a Champion of Change by the White House in 2013.

Closing the Gap for Women in Tech

Yet while Finney appears to have easily amassed an impressive list of accomplishments, she realized that as a woman of color, she needed to use her influence to change the ratio for female entrepreneurs in the tech sector.

Finney says it all started during a stint in an incubator. “I dealt with crazy challenges that had nothing to do with my skills or ideas,” she tells Women 2.0, “They were entirely about my gender and color.”

“I Don’t Understand Black Women”

Finney recalls at the time a well-known venture capitalist approached and confessed he “didn’t understand black women, so he wasn’t interested in what I was doing.” The interaction – or lack thereof – got her thinking about whether other women of color might be having a similar experience. “Is the industry losing the next Mark Zuckerberg just because the person isn’t white and male?” she posits.

Thanks to one of her speaking gigs during the Blogher 2012 entrepreneur conference, Finney had the opportunity to find out when she connected with hundreds of women and minorities about business and tech. “I realized this is something I wanted to do continually.” Nothing like that existed at the time.

Undaunted, Finney founded digitalundivided a social program that develops programs to increase engagement of urban communities, especially women, in the digital space. From there, digitalundivided spawned FOCUS100, which bills itself as “the most diverse tech conference on the planet.”

Solving Tech’s Marketing Problem

As any successful entrepreneur knows, you can’t simply build a platform or a business and watch the world change as a result. Finney understands that starting a company is tough, especially when you’re bootstrapping  – and even tougher if you’re a minority.

“Tech has a serious marketing problem,” Finney says. “There’s a tendency to only feature those who fit into the pattern,” she argues, which is in most cases a Millennial white or Asian man. That’s why digitalundivided started FOCUS Fellows. “The best way to help women of color succeed in tech is to actually feature women of color who are leading and creating successful companies.”

To that end, digitalundivided has a pool of black women entrepreneurs who have successfully raised venture and angel funding to scale their companies. “Giving these entrepreneurs a platform, featuring them in tech blogs and publications, so that other women of color can see the possibilities is the first step,” says Finney.

The result: over 30 percent of the 48 black female startup founders who participated in FOCUS Fellows have raised at least $50,000 in venture or angel funding and 10 percent have raised more than a half of million dollars. For perspective, studies show that less than one percent of startups backed by tech investors were founded by African-Americans.

Offering Real Support

Offering support is the next crucial step to help women founders succeed. Finney says that while there’s nothing wrong with relying on friends and family for support, especially in the beginning, she encourages entrepreneurs to explore ways to expand their network of advocates. Joining groups like NAWBO and attending conferences like AMEX OPEN’s CEO Bootcamp and FOCUS100 is a way to start, she says.

“One of my closest business friends is Monif Clarke of the eponymous plus size fashion line Monif C, who I met at a women’s business networking event close to 10 years ago,” Finney explains. “We often call each other up to talk through an idea or to get strategic advice on a particular plan.”

Tackling Challenges

According to Finney, a strong network can help entrepreneurs overcome one of the biggest challenges to starting a business: understanding, finding and securing equity-based funding.

“Most of the funding for women of color-led companies come from personal savings and/or debt, which makes the company very risky to the person’s personal finances,” Finney explains. “The best way to overcome this is to seek out the few VC and angels that are interested in investing in diverse companies,” she says, a process that can be sped up if you know people to make those introductions.

Creating a Diverse Pool of Talent

Once established, the business can expand its network to engage in targeted recruitment efforts, says Finney. Internship programs with colleges or partnerships with relevant diversity-centered organizations such as digitalundivided, are a pathway if you work strategically to attract candidates. “Market to them,” Finney advises, “make your ads and promotions talk to them.”

Once they are hired, retain them, she says. Startups have an advantage because they’re building from scratch, Finney observes. “At the very beginning, they should already set up their organization in such a way that diversity is a default part of the workplace environment,” she recommends.

In terms of the company’s network, Finney suggests asking existing employees to  refer their friends. This is particularly important for Millennial staff as arecent study by LinkedIn shows that having a BFF at work is motivating and makes them more productive.

Beyond that, “offer mentorship programs and encourage them to apply for promotions, particularly visible leadership positions.” In this way, the tech industry’s scale can finally begin to tip away from its current bro-heavy side and towards a more balanced and diverse group of people working to change the world.

Do you have a particular strategy that is helping diversify the tech industry?


About the author: Lydia Dishman (@LydiaBreakfast) is a veteran business journalist writing about the intersection of technology, leadership, commerce, and innovation. Her work appears in Fast Company, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Popular Science and the New York Times, among others.