On Covering the Black Innovation Economy: An Interview with Sherrell Dorsey

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Sherrell Dorsey, founder and editor in chief of ThePlug, the first daily tech newsletter curating the top news of Black founders and innovators. 

Sherrell, you are creating Black tech journalism that matters. But I also see that you received your undergraduate degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). How do you put those two interests together?  

I learned to code in high school at Microsoft.  When I was not practicing computer programming, I was dancing.  I studied at Northwest Tap Connection.  My life was consumed by technology and art.  FIT was the perfect fit for me because I got to learn the business and marketing side of fashion.  I particularly loved learning about consumer behavior –how, when and why we buy. FIT is also in the heart of New York City so, we got to meet with myriad designers to learn about and study how they built their businesses.  

You received a master’s degree in data journalism from Columbia University.  What is data journalism?

Most journalists use data to tell stories.  They use publicly available data like census data to illustrate a point.  But there are other journalists who code and are going a step further. They use data visualization and graphics to model their own data.  Every piece of journalism starts with a question. For example, a journalist might want to know how many nonprofits in a particular city received donations in excess of $5M.  She could run a script to pull in IRS 990 data which details the tax returns of nonprofits to answer this question. The goal is to create and share a data set so that others can replicate the results.  

Wendi Thomas of ProPublica produced an amazing piece of data journalism, called MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Her piece, in partnership with ProPublica, investigated a nonprofit hospital system that sued patients. They analyzed and synthesized the data and the reporting was so transformative that the hospital ended the practice and inspired other nonprofit hospitals to review their practices.

When and why did you start ThePlug?

ThePlug has been a 3-year long experiment.  It’s my personal exploration of what is missing in reporting on Black innovators.  The stories of Black innovation are few and far between. I wanted to create a publication dedicated to rigorous reporting on the Black Innovation Economy.  I also connect our coverage to larger trends in economic advancement for Black Americans. For example, how are Black innovators addressing or intersecting with the mortgage and affordable housing crisis in Black America?  How do we think about the rise of Black female entrepreneurship? We know that Black women are starting small businesses at higher rates than other demographics, but we don’t talk about the drivers of this activity and the fact that many of us are leaving American companies that are emotionally, psychologically, and financially abusive systems.  

In short, all of this activity is taking place and I wondered, who is keeping track of it and its manifestation in the world?  

ThePlug is a daily!  How do you do it?

I’m mostly a team of one and it has been a climb.  My aim is to focus on quality reporting over quantity.  I publish Monday – Saturday. I have several freelance journalists who write for ThePLUG, newsletter editors, and a research consultant.  Still, it takes a lot to manage and grow a company while also being a dedicated practitioner.  

How do you define success for ThePlug?

My goal is to raise the standard of our reporting over and over again.  I want to continue to earn the deep respect of my followers and seasoned journalists.  I also want to be engaged with my readers. That’s the kind of community I’m working to foster.  

Is there one article or investigation that you’re particularly proud of?

We built a database of Black-owned co-working spaces and published the data in partnership with Vice magazine.  That was a significant accomplishment. I collected the data through primary research and crowdsourcing. We learned that there are about 75 Black-owned co-working spaces in the U.S.  

It was important to put these businesses “on the map” and begin shaping a narrative about why Black-owned workspaces are important.  For me, having a place to create is fundamental. It gets to this question of who gets to be an innovator. Spaces, where innovators come together, are likely to be in cities that are gentrifying.  As we know, more and more public space is off-limits to us. And for me, this is part of a larger historical narrative about the segregation facing Black people.  

From lunch counter sit-ins to sundown towns, that maintained white segregation through violence, creating and taking up space is something that we have always had to do, especially as we transition to a 1099 economy.  Our report showed that we are forming new communities around innovation. Still, less than 10% of co-working spaces are owned by Black folks.   

Your work is fascinating and powerful.  I love how you combine analysis with social commentary to help us better understand ourselves and our communities.  Among your other identities, you are fundamentally an entrepreneur. I worry sometimes that we mislead Black women when we glamorize entrepreneurship as a huge moneymaker and push them to work with VCs.  What do you think about that?

I agree.  I think sometimes we aren’t honest about how people started.  If you have money, you don’t have to raise it. Also, it’s important to build our businesses intentionally, in a way that is sustainable and meaningful.   Venture capitalists are seeking huge upside, which means that founders who seek their money are going to have to perform the sacrificial work required to meet those goals. Entrepreneurship is already a sacrifice, and it’s up to you as an individual founder to decide how much you want your work to dictate your life.  Elon Musk has been known to sleep in his office, work 100+ hour weeks, and have very little time for his family.  

That said, I’m excited to watch Black tech founders who are VC-funded celebrate success.  

I also advise founders to stay focused.  It’s not easy to build something, so staying focused on a specific demographic is very important. You’ll need to learn how to decipher the difference between rejection and feedback. And you’ll also need a layer of perseverance to keep building. 

How can BlackHer subscribers and readers help you?

Become a subscriber of ThePlug!  Like BlackHer, we are amplifying Black people. It’s so important that we support each other’s work.  

We’re building more niche experiences at ThePlug. Once a month, we’re interviewing folks in the innovation space.  Last month, Cheryl Grace, senior vice president at Nielsen was our guest.  She shared great research on Black consumers and consumer behavior.  

Cheryl is great!  She’s a BlackHer Shero!  Let me ask you the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s December 2020 and a miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

We see far more funding directed to Black women and fewer empowerment seminars.  Instead, we have access to more effective information and programming to innovate.





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