On Creating a Pathway for Black Women in Innovation Entrepreneurship: An Interview with Kathryn Finney

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Kathryn Finney, founder and managing director of digitalundivided (DID), a social enterprise that fosters economic growth through the empowerment of Black and Latina women entrepreneurs using innovation as a tool.  An Echoing Green Global Fellow and Eisenhower Fellow, Kathryn started digitalundivided after selling her company, The Budget Fashionista, one of the first lifestyle blogs. Since 2013, DID has impacted over 2,000 people and helped raise $25MM in investments. Her pioneering research, ProjectDiane, named for civil rights shero, Diane Nash, drew widespread buzz for disrupting the dialogue around women of color and tech entrepreneurship.

Jocelyn: Congratulations on your recent piece in USA Today!

Kathryn: Thank you!  We were so pleased with the coverage.  I’m especially happy that they were able to profile some of the great entrepreneurs we are supporting at digitalundivided.

Jocelyn: digitalundivided is on fire!  You are doing amazing work with women of color entrepreneurs.  But before we get to that, I saw that you were also the editor at large for BlogHer. Tell us about that.

Kathryn: I sold my company – The Budget Fashionista – one of the early lifestyle blogs and then went on to work at BlogHer as Editor At Large.  My job was to create a community around fashion and lifestyle.  It was an amazing experience.  I got to meet and work with BlogHer founders, Elisa Camahort Page, Jory des Jardins, and Lisa Stone. They are all still mentors of mine.

While I got good money for selling my company, working at BlogHer gave me exposure to working at a much larger startup of about 100 employees.  I learned a lot about building a business to scale.  BlogHer had taken on venture investment.  I got to sit in on meetings where I was able to learn about that.  It was very informative.

While BlogHer was always focused on building and supporting a diverse and inclusive community of women bloggers, others didn’t share this focus.  I attended a lot of business conferences while at BlogHer and I was always asking the question, “Where are the Black women in the tech startup world?”

So, in 2012, I helped organize a conference in New York City called Focus 100, that was the first conference for Black women running tech companies.  We had no idea who or how many women would attend.

We ended up hosting 130 attendees.  Folks like Mandela Schumacher-Hodge and Zuhairah Washington were a part of our pitch contest. Senator Cory Booker (who was Mayor of Newark, NJ at that time) was our keynote.  Luvvie Ajayi, who is now a multi-media powerhouse, was on our social media team.

Jocelyn: Wow!

Kathryn: All these amazing people were there and one of the activities everyone loved – both the mentors and the founders – was this “speed mentoring” exercise, where founders met with amazing mentors for 1-hour blocks of time.

We wanted to expand on the success of the speed mentoring by creating an accelerator program. Potential partners would ask us to provide data to support the problem. I went to look for data on how many Black women tech founders were out in the world and there was no data.  No one had even attempted to count us.

And that was a problem because we knew we had something – an opportunity to mentor and build a pipeline of Black women entrepreneurs – but the lack of data made it hard to sell the idea to others.

Jocelyn: What did you do?

Kathryn: It’s funny because one day as I was lamenting this, my husband said, “Don’t you have a fancy research degree from Yale?  You ran large scale research projects and wrote published academic papers. Why don’t you do the research? “

Jocelyn: Haha!

Kathryn: Of course, he was right.  The answer was right in front of me. Why couldn’t I do it?

So, we dove right into the research. The data was stark.  Out of the 24 million Black women in the U.S., we found out that only 84 startups were led by us.  In fact, the data was so bad we spent a good month questioning and double checking the numbers.

Jocelyn: Wow.

Kathryn: I think part of the problem was language.  Black women didn’t know what a startup was.  Lots of Black women own and start a new business but we don’t always see ourselves in that light.

Jocelyn: I see this same issue with the definition of a technologist.  As you know, Black women over-index for time spent online and we are fluent in multiple media platforms, which we often customize for our own ends.  But we don’t always make a connection between this fluency and opportunities for us to excel in computer science or the tech sector.

Kathryn: That’s right. And at the time (2014 – 2015), people weren’t talking about Black women and highlighting our accomplishments like they are now.  Our research, which we title ProjectDiane, in homage to civil rights heroine Diane Nash, helped people to care.

We built the digitalundivided Big Incubator out of that data.

Jocelyn: That’s an amazing story.

Kathryn: In the early days, we made a lot of assumptions that turned out to be false.  For example, we assumed that the startup path would be the same for Black women as it is for white men.  And, that we’d be able to measure our progression with the same metrics.  But that’s not the case.

There are things that we do that we cannot measure.

For example, one of our newest entrepreneurs is Jasmine Edwards, founder and CEO of i-Subz, a platform that “makes it easy for quality substitute teachers and schools with underserved students to meet and connect with purpose.”  During a recent demo day, Jasmine pitched her company, and in addition to the investors in the audience, her three little boys were in attendance.

Think of the impact of that.

These three little Black boys are seeing their mom in this powerful role.  What will that mean for them as they grow and how will that inspire them to dream big?

The point is, we can use standard metrics to assess Jasmine’s progress.  We can measure how much funding she secures to scale her company. We can measure how many customers she serves, etc.  But how do we capture the impact of her journey on her children’s lives?

Jocelyn: What a powerful and inspiring story.  Let’s change tack a bit.  BlackHer is all about advancing Black women’s economic and political power by telling our own stories and taking action for progressive change.  How can entrepreneurship do that and what happens to the entrepreneurs that don’t make it?

Kathryn: It’s a very good question.  Some participants in our incubator realize after Module 1, that the entrepreneurial journey is not right for them.  And we think that’s a big win.  Sometimes we valorize entrepreneurship.  And while starting a business can be exciting, empowering, and lucrative, it’s also a ton of hard work.  Finding out early and with little investment, that the journey is not for you, is great.

Also, we tell our participants, “Do not go into debt.  Do not leave your job until you know that your business is a going concern.”

We’ve seen too many women go into debt.

Jocelyn: Too many of us have no cushion.  It’s hard for us to take risks.   

Kathryn: To be clear, we can take risks and we should, but our risks need to be calculated.

I recently connected with a woman who spent all this money to get her e-commerce site up and running and she was struggling with cart abandonment.  She’s in so deep that she feels like she cannot get out now.  But I realized after a few minutes of talking to her, that she isn’t yet clear on who her customer is.  That’s a hard place to be.

The other thing that I tell folks, and this can be hard for entrepreneurs to hear, is that people may like and want your stuff but that doesn’t mean that they will pay for it.  We must do a thorough job of assessing the demand for our products and services.

Jocelyn: Talk to me about what else must happen to make it possible for more Black women to become bosses.

Kathryn: It takes Black women twice as long as white men to raise money.  We need more SEED revenue to get our businesses off the ground.

In addition to engaging the investor community, cities can help with this, but it’s a challenge.

Jocelyn: Say more.

Kathryn: Economic development has been more about poverty alleviation than economic growth.

We need to ask, “How do we help folks thrive not just survive.”  But this paradigm shift is still new.  Also, cities often want to give startups money to build bricks and mortar vs. set up QuickBooks.

The rules of engagement are different for entrepreneurs.  We need to help policymakers see this and ensure that politics doesn’t get in the way of good policy.

It’s unfortunate, but even some of the Black folks who are the decision-makers don’t see entrepreneurship as a viable path for us.  We’re familiar with micro-loans, but million-dollar investments are not something we’re versed in.

Jocelyn: I think this is an important part of the entrepreneurship conversation.  Sometimes it feels like we’re told that #BlackGirlMagic is the only ingredient for success. And, while we’re all for lifting Black women at BlackHer, there are structural changes that need to take place to create an environment within which we can succeed. 

Kathryn: You’re right.  Training and resources must come from local systems.  We’ve been also thinking a lot about how cities might leverage bonds and pension funds to invest in us.  One of our entrepreneurs in residence, Aly Nicely, is doing something about this.  She has an online training platform to build the pipeline of minority beauty suppliers for major retailers like Target and Walmart.  She’s already received offers to buy her company!

Jocelyn: What else do you want BlackHer readers to know about you or digitalundivided.

Kathryn: I want them to apply to our incubator!  You are good enough.  Your idea is good enough.  Please apply.  The process of applying may help you gain clarity about your business idea.

Jocelyn: Who are your BlackHer Sheroes?

Kathryn: My mother and my grandmother.  They are both badass women who did stuff that they weren’t supposed to do! Stacey Abrams and Ayanna Pressley – they are both stepping into the light and embracing it.  They remind me that I can do this because they are doing it.  I also admire Oprah because she built something in a space where people said a big, Black chick could not succeed.

I call up ancestors when I need a friend in my head to tell me what I should do.  #ProjectDiane, our research, is named after Diane Nash who does not get the credit she deserves.  I imagine myself standing on the shoulders of this great pyramid of Black women.  We’ve done great things and will do more.

Jocelyn: Let me ask you the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s February 2020 and the miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

Kathryn: We created an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is well-funded and well-documented.   The path is clear.  There is seed funding for startups, Series A funding to grow, and advice on how to exit, so that Black women can start right back up again.




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