Black Women Game Changers in Tech Series: Kathryn Finney

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At a 2017 venture capital panel discussion recently curated by The Network Journal, event moderator and TechFam founder Mike Street remarked that his biggest takeaway was that Black women in the tech space are rarely noted. Stats back up his statement. Less than two percent of venture capital money funding is awarded to Black women founders. But since women of color are no strangers to adversity, the Black women founders in today’s tech space bring their own chairs to the meetings and sit in them since there aren’t always seats for them at the table.

Quantifier extraordinaire Kathryn Finney is one. She is one of the first Black women to have entered the tech space and is one of the first Black bloggers to have had a presence online. She founded digitalundivided, a social enterprise that empowers Black and Latino women to own their work through entrepreneurship and innovation, and, later, Project Diane that conducts research and stats on Black women in the tech space.

Earlier this year, she was one of several women of color entrepreneurs in tech to receive $1 million in funding through JP Morgan Chase’s Small Business Forward initiative.

In a 2017 conversation when I interviewed Finney for an article published in The Network Journal’s Winter issue, she spoke about her work in making sure that women of color founders in tech are represented. In this first installment of a series, we take a peek into what makes Finney tick.

Willoughby: How has Project Diane impacted the tech space?

Finney: Project Diane is our data initiative on Black and Latino women in tech. When we released the report in 2016, it really caused the tech world to shift pretty dramatically. It was the first time someone had quantified the problem of the lack of Black women in tech.

It’s hard to solve a problem if you can’t quantify it. After we created Project Diane, it was downloaded more than 2,000 times; it had over one billion impressions across all of the media hits; and there were over 1,000 articles written about it. A number of people have used it as a catalyst for their own activities, particularly catalysts to increase the number of Black women investors in the venture capital space.

When we released it in 2016, there were three Black women general partners in the space. Now, there are over seven, and a number of Black women have since become investment associates, which is the path towards becoming a general partner. Overall, Project Diane has had a pretty amazing impact. To date, we have helped over 59 companies raise over $25 million, and helped over 2,000 people.

Willoughby: To what do you owe your success?

Finney: Particularly with Project Diane, my graduate-school work in epidemiology has helped us to design, research and collect data. We are very data driven with our work, and we use data to make decisions and build programs based on what we actually see and what the data tells us rather than what we think.

Also, it helps that we’ve been around for a long time; the institutional knowledge we’ve amassed has helped us to move in ways that are more difficult for others who don’t have it. We have historical knowledge to draw back on. On a personal level, being out there, being one of the first Black women influencers to build a company in the VC space has been really helpful to people who’ve said, “Because she did it, I can do it.” And so, I’ve given others a path. When I do public speaking engagements, and people say, “Your blog is the first blog I have ever read, and now I have my own blog and I’m making money…,” that, for me, is why I do what I do. It’s very gratifying.

Willoughby: What led you to launch digital Undivided and why are you passionate about Black women founders in the tech space?

Finney: The real catalyst for what I do right now was when I was a part of an incubator program in New York City and was met with a great deal of hostility. I was one of four women and the only woman of color. It was probably the first time in my life where people had no expectations of me – not just low expectations, but no expectations. That was very difficult for someone like me who was an overachiever.

I grew up in communities in Minneapolis where I was often the only Black person, so being the only person of color wasn’t a challenge for me. I was used to being the only chocolate drop in the room. What was a challenge was the hostility that my identity created.

At the time, I was one of the more famous influencers and a successful blogger in the tech space, appearing on television talk shows and such, and yet, my experience in that incubator was very hostile. And that really had an impact on me. I thought, “If I’m being treated this way, and I’m supposed to be somebody, how are other people being treated?” That was the catalyst for me to launch digital undivided four years later.

Willoughby: What personal attributes have you found to be the most helpful in your work?

Finney: Outworking. I may not be the smartest, or the cutest, but I WILL outwork you!

Willoughby: What is your business philosophy that underscores your work?

Finney: For me, it’s always about living in my own truth. I know it sounds Oprah-like. But it also applies to entrepreneurship. It’s really about understanding who you are, and understanding what your business is – clearly; not what you want it to be, and not what it’s marketed as, but really what it is, what you’re good at, and what you’re capable of.

And always standing in my truth has served me well. Even when it’s difficult, even when others don’t stand in their truth. It brings me back to my center and helps me understand what I’m doing and helps me to walk forward on the line I need to walk on.

Also, I love what I do. I wouldn’t say I’m a workaholic because I’ve learned the importance of balance, but if I have a goal, I will work it, and you will not beat me. Don’t have beating Kathryn Finney as one of your goals! Don’t do it! And I’ve learned how to work smarter. Having a child does that to you. I often put him to bed, and go back to work.

Willoughby: What has been your biggest lesson so far?

Finney: This might sound like a cliché, but my biggest lesson so far has been how to say “no,” and how to say it clearly. I’ve learned that some people don’t like that. They don’t like that word, especially when it’s said clearly and quickly. But I’ve learned that the quick “no” is very important. I’ve gotten in trouble by having too slow of a “no.” I learned how to do this because I saw the result of a slow “no,” which made me look wishy-washy and mean. Had I said “no” at the beginning, yes, the person would have been mad at me, but it would have been short-lived. Being able to self-reflect will make you a great leader.

Willoughby: Any advice for younger women entering the tech space?

Finney: Know that you are entering a hostile environment. A report recently released noted that less than 1 percent of the tech world has Black women in it. No matter what they say, they don’t want us there. You have to be really aware of this before entering the space because it impacts how we navigate it, and how we win.