June 2016
June 2016
The Archives

Kathryn Finney Is Tech’s Bold New Voice

You can't exist in startup land and not know the name Kathryn Finney. She is leading a mighty charge for women of color and the tech world is taking notice. She has a candid conversation about her #ProjectDiane report and why we need more women launching and scaling startups.

Kathryn Finney has been on the rise in the tech scene since she began making waves with her popular blog, Budget Fashionista, back in 2003. The Internet was a rapidly evolving space and blogs were a new concept that was catching on. Finney struck gold with her gift to talk about the latest fashion trends in a fun and cost effective way, giving women the wisdom to “love what you buy and buy what you love.” It became the go-to blog for fashion bargain shopping and she quickly popped on the radar of the likes of Style Network, The New York Times and Redbook magazine. The Today Show and CNN came calling as well, and Finney followed up the buzz by publishing the Amazon bestseller, “How to be a Budget Fashionista: The Ultimate Guide to Looking Fabulous,” in May 2006.

Not bad for a tech savant that initially set out to be an epidemiologist after graduating with honors from Yale. By the time a prominent media company acquired Budget Fashionista in 2014, Finney had already received a Champion of Change Award from the White House, was named to the 2013 Ebony 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States and was one of the Top Ten Women in Money by AOL in 2010 along with Maria Shriver and Elizabeth Warren. But it was the founding of digitalundivided (DID) in 2012, a social enterprise that fosters economic growth in communities by finding, training, and supporting women of color entrepreneurs, that took her success and tech conversations into the next hemisphere.

This year DID released #ProjectDiane, a research study about the state of Black women in tech entrepreneurship in the United States. The report ripped the veil off of tech to expose the disparities Black women face in tech and the investment landscape.

I caught up with Finney last month to have a candid conversation about DID, the current tech scene and the work that needs to be done.

NATASHA CLARK: What is the story behind the name digitalundivided?

KATHRYN FINNEY: Several years ago, I joined one of the first NY tech incubators. It’s there where I really experienced the preconceived notions and prejudices that people in the technology industry had against women, and especially Black women. It was not about the idea or the skillset I brought to the table, but about my gender and race. My experience got me thinking about other Black women entrepreneurs who might be going through the same thing I was.

So in 2012, I started digitalundivided, an organization focused on fostering economic growth through the empowerment of women of color entrepreneurs. We chose that name because back when we started, our vision is a digital future that is not divided by society’s “-isms”: racism, sexism, etc.

CLARK:  It’s popular to think that tech means coding or software. How does Kathryn Finney define tech?

FINNEY: Tech has gone beyond coding or software. At this point, it has become a way of life for us. We take an “Uber,” “Google” something for research, and watch shows on YouTube. So the definition of tech has become any means of innovation that puts technology (hardware, software, cloud) in its core.

CLARK: digitalundivided is a unique blend of tech and entrepreneurship. When I spoke with Lauren Gilchrist after she spoke at the Lean Startup Conference, she felt people are so focused on pumping women into tech that no one is talking about what happens to those women once they get there. Many quit because of office climate or things like no promotions. Is the answer the missing entrepreneurship element that digitalundivided talks about? Encouraging these women to work for themselves?

FINNEY: Sure. Rather than waiting for existing tech companies to change the way they do their hiring and retention, why not encourage and support more new companies that are inclusive from the get-go and making sure these companies are successful. It’s one thing to say that inclusion improves your bottom line, it’s another thing to show how it does that.

CLARK: #ProjectDiane was a powerful report. How did it come about and what were some significant takeaways for you?

FINNEY: #ProjectDiane was inspired by trailblazing women like Diane Nash, an unsung heroine of the Civil Rights era whose brilliant tactician mind led to several of the movement’s major victories (including the march in Selma) and Diahann Carroll, who redefined the image of Black women to a global audience. They have inspired us to continue their fight for equality to the present time, when women of color in the fields of STEM and tech entrepreneurship still grapple with “similar but not the same” treatment from the larger startup community.

Some of our most significant takeaways/findings from the project are:

  • Black women are extremely entrepreneurial and lead startups. The 88 Black women-led startups in #ProjectDiane are a part of the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S. (over 1.5 million businesses owned by Black women). These businesses generate over $44 billion a year in revenue.
  • But Black women-led startups are undercapitalized compared to other startups. Black women startup Founders raise $36,000 on average, while the average (mostly white male-led) failed startup raises $1.3 million.
  • In fact, we have only verified 15 Black women founders who have raised at least $1 million dollars in outside investment.

CLARK: The report showed women who participated in accelerators did a better job with fundraising. My cofounder and I are winding down from an accelerator program and it was sometimes a painful and frustrating experience as a woman of color. I recently caught a video of you where you shared your experience. What can we do to change these experiences in these programs?

FINNEY: We really don’t focus on changing the opinions/thoughts of these programs, but focus on promoting and developing programs that are targeted to a diverse set of tech entrepreneurs.

CLARK: And don’t some of these experiences and preconceived notions make it harder for investors to give our startups a fair chance?

FINNEY: Yes, it does. It’s a crazy catch-22: investors say they can’t fund diverse companies because they don’t have a proven track record of success. But how can we start establishing a trend of success when no one’s giving them the opportunity to get started?

CLARK: You’re working on so much. What is something you really want to move the needle on in the next year?

FINNEY: We really would like to finish raising our VC fund, the Harriet Fund, focused on funding Black and Latina women founders.

For more on digitalundivided and their important work click here. Don’t forget to download your copy of #ProjectDiane.

About the author

Natasha Zena

Around age eight Natasha Zena was told it was a woman’s job to take care of the home and since then she has built a career out of telling women they can do whatever the hell they want to do. She is the co-founder of Lioness, the go-to news source for everything female entrepreneur. Natasha was recognized as an emerging leader in digital media by The Poynter Institute and the National Association of Black Journalists. She has mentored women entrepreneurs and moderated panels at a number of national accelerators, Startup Weekends and conferences such as The Lean Startup Conference, the Massachusetts Conference for Women, Women Empower Expo and Smart Cities Connect. Natasha is also the author of the popular whitepaper, "How To Close The Gender Gap In Startup Land By 2021." In her spare time, she writes short fiction and hangs out with her son, Shaun.

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