Earlier this month, I travelled to New York City to attend digitalundivided’s FOCUS100, which describes itself as “the most diverse tech conference on the planet.” I was inspired by dozens of women who either have founded technology companies or are having a direct impact on bridging digital divides. The federal government shutdown kept me from addressing the group last year when I served as Acting Chairwoman, but this year, I was thrilled to attend.
According to published reports, African American women in the tech industry receive less than one percent of the financing venture capital funds provide each year. So in 2012, Kathryn Finney founded digitalundivided.com, to arm diverse female tech innovators, from all over the world, with the training, mentorship and exposure needed to successfully participate in the male dominated industry. “The social enterprise that develops programs that increase the active participation of urban communities, especially women, in the digital space,” provides classes and events to promote four key areas: (1) Start – a workshop series focused on teaching urban entrepreneurs how to turn their ideas into a product; (2) Grow – a network of meet-ups that allow entrepreneurs to support each other; (3) Focus – a program that mentors tech companies that black women cofounded; and (4) Invest – a project that helps urban tech companies find funding.
And the strategy is working. To date, there have been 48 FOCUS Fellows and over 30 percent of them have raised investment for their businesses, and 10 percent have raised more than $500,000 in funding. Additionally, several FOCUS Fellows now hold major positions at leading startups like Uber. digitalundivided’s guidance has been directly influential in positioning new founders with opportunities to grow their businesses through knowledge sharing, expert advisory and funding resources.
For those who wonder if a diverse universe of tech entrepreneurs really exists, attend and connect with FOCUS100. The annual Fall event oozes innovation and energy from a lot of twenty-somethings (and those of us in denial) and is truly inspiring. I had lunch with a half dozen of this year’s Fellows and as they were telling me about their business models, I found myself thinking over and over again, “Wow! What a great strategy. I wish I had thought of that.” But they also gave me a homework assignment. These women cited many federal rules that could be relevant to their businesses and since time is a premium, they conveyed that it would be great if the government could develop a “one-stop shop” website that informed entrepreneurs about the various federal agencies that could impact their businesses.
Later in the afternoon, I had a great “fireside chat” with Allison Remsen of Mobile Future. I told the story of a woman I met recently, that really underscored the importance of the Internet to prove the power of a good idea when legacy companies disagree. Ms. Issa Rae (also in attendance) told me how an open and free Internet has changed her life. She had an idea for a television series, but was repeatedly told no by the traditional networks. There was no audience interested in her content, they said. But she knew her idea was great and that this story needed to be told, so instead of burying her head in the sand, she produced her own content, posted it on YouTube, and after millions of online viewers showed interest in her comedy series, Awkward Black Girl, she got the call to develop her own pilot for HBO. I believe she has or will be working with Shonda Rhimes, the head writer, creator and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal and new this season, How to Get Away With Murder.
Back to my previous point, one that I will call the Issa Rae, et al equation: Good idea + strong content + millions of viewers = The doors opening up for you. Expect to hear more about these young ladies finding similar success in the tech industry because, as I often say: All closed doors aren’t locked.