When Kathryn Finney founded digitalundivided — an organization devoted to engaging minority communities with the tech world — she didn’t know quite what to expect. It was 2012 and it didn’t seem like there were a lot of resources available to African American women in the field.
“We had no idea who was going to come,” says Finney of digitalundivided’s FOCUS100 conference, which will be held this week in New York (on Oct. 3 – 4). “No one had done a conference about black women in tech before.”
There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about the lack of diversity in tech — and about the lack of female and African American representation in that world in particular. Finney began her site The Budget Fashionista during the early days of the fashion blogosphere in 2003. She says that she’s seen firsthand the challenges that many black female entrepreneurs in tech face.
“I was the only black person at one conference and one of three women,” she says. “and I remember just how marginalized we were. Everyone just kind of ignored me.”
In the years since then, Finney says she’s thought a lot about how other women and people of color can be given opportunities to break into what is often an insular field. She says she draws inspiration from the story of her own family in particular.
“My father was a brewery worker and the brewery shut down,” she recalls, noting that this was a common story in her hometown of Milwaukee during the 1980s. “My father saw himself as a displaced worker.”
The senior Finney managed to meet with an executive at IBM and get an internship at the company at the age of 36. That opportunity launched his second career, eventually landing him at Microsoft.
Finney shares these lessons she learned from both her father’s story and her own to navigating the world of tech.
Embrace your outsider status
“The best way to handle it is to embrace being the unicorn,” says Finney of often being the only woman of color in a room of executives. “It’s not your job or responsibility to give racial sensitivity lessons. In fact, it distracts you from your ability to grow your business.”
Don’t try to be the official spokesperson
As many tech companies have gone through some soul searching about diversity in recent months, there have also been some high profile comments from some techies decrying the need to recruit from underserved communities. “For the most part I don’t engage [with those people],” says Finney. “I don’t look at that as my job. Our responsibility isn’t to diversify tech. Our goal is to help black women get into the tech pipeline.”
Create a path for others
To do that, Finney and digitalundivided are concentrating on helping women of color find opportunities that suit them. Part of the problem, she says, is that many people have a misguided idea of what working in the field means and are discouraged from pursuing the field before they even begin. “We have to show people the path and show what the end of the pipeline looks like,” says Finney.
Give entrepreneurs the support they need
Digitalundivided also runs the FOCUS Fellows program, an eight-week course that guides selected entrepreneurs through the ins and outs of running a successful business. Creating a strong support system for women in tech, says Finney, is key to success down the line.
“You’re kind of like the mafia,” she says of her group, which is already two years strong. “Once you’re in, you don’t leave.”
Follow Lakshmi Gandhi on Twitter @LakshmiGandhi.