How This Entrepreneur Helps Women Of Color Launch Their Startups
Written by: Dominique Fluker
In 2013, serial entrepreneur, Kathryn Finney, created Digital Undivided, a social enterprise that takes an innovative approach to economic empowerment by encouraging women of color to own their economic security through entrepreneurship. Based in Atlanta, DID is now the primary pipeline for women of color into innovation-focused entrepreneurship, helping founders raise over $25 million in outside funding.
At its core, Digital Undivided uses data to launch development initiatives that create pathways into the innovation ecosystem for black and latina women founders. Founder, Finney envisions a world where women of color are able to own their work and become empowered to control their economic destiny. Finney’s data project, #ProjectDiane named aptly after civil rights icon Diane Nash, was created in 2015 to actively collect information about black and latina women startup founders and discovered only 11 black female founders that raised more than $1 million, which ultimately inspired the launch of DID’s Big Incubator, a 30-week program in Atlanta for creative businesses run by women of color.
Fast forward to 2019 and Digital Undivided has helped build 52 companies, $25 million in investments raised, and 2,000 founders reached. . I recently spoke to Finney about her vision for Digital Undivided and the work that still needs to be done to help women of color effectively launch their startups.
Dominique Fluker: Share your career journey. What led you to create the Digital Undivided, a social enterprise that fosters economic growth through the empowerment of Black and Latina women entrepreneurs using innovation as a tool?
Kathryn Finney: I’m a Yale-trained Epidemiologist who built my first company in the early 2000s, (an online media company focused on fashion and lifestyle, which I later sold). It was while building my company that I attended an early tech incubator in New York. There I found myself to be just one of the three women in a group of 40+ folks, and the only other person of color. This was in New York City, a city that is close to 50% people of color.
I grew up in Minnesota, so I was used to being “one of a few”, but as a lifelong overachiever, what I wasn’t used to was people having no expectations of me. None whatsoever. Few people talked to me and I was treated as if I were invisible. While I was the only person of color, I had to really push in order to be seen and acknowledged in the room. And when I finally got to pitch, a male investor told me that my idea was good but that he “doesn’t do black women stuff”. Another told me he didn’t think I could relate to other black women because I had an accountant (and apparently Black women don’t have accountants).
My experience wasn’t unique. It was something that many other women of color experience as well. Thus, the birth of Digital Undivided.
Fluker: Share the mission of Digital Undivided. How are you creating an economic impact for Black and Latina women tech entrepreneurs?
Finney: Here at Digital Undivided, we’re building a world where women own their work and economic security through entrepreneurship and innovation. We want them to think BIG.
We do this through #ProjectDiane, a groundbreaking research initiative on women, entrepreneurship, and innovation that helped pave the way for increased attention, support, and funding for Black and Latinx women entrepreneurs; the BIG Innovation Center, a culturally-relevant innovation space in Newark and Atlanta that has over 30 pipeline-building events for local women entrepreneurs every year; and the award-winning BIG Incubator program, a 30 week incubator program in Newark and Atlanta for high potential Black and Latinx women (applications to our 4th cohort are open now).
Fluker: Since 2013, DID has impacted over 2,000 people and helped raise $25MM in investments. Your pioneering research, “#ProjectDiane”, drew widespread buzz for disrupting the dialogue around women of color and tech entrepreneurship. Talk about why you’ve created the #ProjectDiane initiative.
Finney: Having worked closely with women of color entrepreneurs for years, we know anecdotally that there IS a problem in terms of fundraising and support for Black and Latina women in tech. However, there was no data back then to show just how much a problem it truly was. We know that we can’t solve a problem unless we quantify it, so we then decided to do the work ourselves. Which resulted in ProjectDiane being born.
ProjectDiane 2016 sparked a nationwide dialogue about inclusive entrepreneurship and innovation. Anecdotally, women founders knew that the tech space and venture capital, in general, wasn’t a welcoming space for women, but prior to ProjectDiane that was little empirical data to support these observations.
ProjectDiane 2016 found that there were only 12 Black women led startups that had raised over a $1million in outside venture funding. There were only 88 startups led by Black women in the US, with an average raise of $36,000. The average raised by mostly male, white founders of failed startups is $1.3 million (CBInsights).
To date, ProjectDiane has received over 1,100 features/references, 1 Billion impressions including feature-length articles in Fast Company, CNN, Wall Street Journal, Inc Magazine, Forbes, Essence, and other top publications which influenced/ and or led to the creation of over 30 programs, events, and symposiums.
Fluker: DID runs the BIG Innovation Center, home to the BIG Incubator program, a 30-week program for high potential startups led by Black and Latina Founders. Share your thought process on creating the BIG Innovation Center.
Finney: Quantifying the problem through #ProjectDiane really helped us figure out what our next steps should be. We saw a strong need for role modeling and visioning. We also saw the need for a space that will embolden people to give themselves permission to think BIG. So that’s how we came up with the idea for BIG Innovation Center. At BIG, we not only incorporate our roots and culture into space but really took pride in what makes us, “us”.
Fluker: In April 2018 you’ve collaborated with Vanity Fair to highlight 27 black women who’ve raised over $1 million in venture fundraising. What’s your take on the current state of the tech industry for black and Latina tech startup founders?
Finney: There should be more pipelines into the innovation economy. Support organizations like Digital Undivided who are creating pathways for women of color entrepreneurs through mentoring programs and networking opportunities. Join crowdfunding initiatives for WOC-led businesses. If you’re a seasoned entrepreneur, share your time and expertise as a mentor to these amazing women.
We also need to lure WOC entrepreneurs away from the big, expensive cities like New York and San Francisco, and into the neighboring tech hubs like Newark and Sacramento. The latter offers lower costs of living AND business operations (crucial to early-stage businesses) and at the same time, serve as home to major research institutions, diverse populations, and cultural experiences that can help add value to a startup’s success. Lastly, the tech industry must let go of its penchant for pursuing “patterns” (the well-worn “next Mark Zuckerberg” hoodie-wearing, Ivy Leaguer bro), and focus on the person instead. Does the founder have resilience? Coachability? Willingness to pivot when things aren’t working out as originally planned? At DID, we found that these traits are more closely correlated to startup success.
Fluker: How do you see Digital Undivided expanding within 3-5 years?
Finney: We’re bringing our award-winning BIG Incubator program to five more cities by the end of 2020. We have already started the first of these program city expansions in Newark, NJ.
Fluker: Share tips for the black and/or Latina tech founder to gain access and funding.
Finney: Don’t let your doubts hold you back– just do it! Look into programs such as the BIG Incubator which cater to diverse women founders and can understand the unique challenges presented to them when starting a business.
And embrace the language of “ask”– closed mouths do not get fed. People DO want to help, but they need to know when you need it.