How to succeed in the tech industry when you don’t quite fit in
In many ways, tech culture is startup culture, and launching your own startup can be especially challenging when you’re from a historically underrepresented group in the industry.
Kathryn Finney is the founder and CEO of Genius Guild, which builds and invests in businesses led by black founders. She is also the author of a book coming out this week, “Build the Damn Thing: How to Start a Successful Business If You’re Not a Rich White Guy.”
Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with Finney about her experiences and why the term “startup” is synonymous with technology. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Catherine Finney: It really comes from this feeling that technology allows you to build things faster, faster, and more cheaply. For those of us who remember the early 2000s, you couldn’t build a website unless you knew how to code. You had to work with a website builder, right? A web developer. You now have what we call no-code or low-code solutions, where you can just go and the coding is already done for you. All you need to do is have a good case for the product you’re selling, and you could be online and running an online store in minutes. So those barriers no longer exist, and technology has removed them.
Kimberly Adams: In your book, you lay out the differences between a typical small business and a startup. And one of them is that they have different long-term goals. Can you explain that?
Finney: A traditional startup is really looking for a “positive event”, which is usually an exit, and “exit” meaning either it sells [itself] to a larger company or to another company or it registers like an IPO, like an initial public offering on the stock exchange. Because you have people like me — investors — who want our capital back. When you are a traditional small business, you may not want to sell your business at some point, you may want to create a legacy for your family members. You may not want to be pressured for growth. When you’re a startup, you want to grow, and you want to grow fast and fast.
Adam: Can you talk about your own experience in the world of tech entrepreneurship?
Finney: I was a Yale-trained epidemiologist, I traveled the world, I had a fabulous closet and fabulous debt, and I started a blog talking about budget shopping because I was forced to do budget purchases. And this blog became a thing, it became a business, and it became a media business. And it was while doing the Budget Fashionista that I wanted to do some kind of FMCG company. Black women purchase approximately over 40% of all hair care products in the United States. So it was a market that was just ripe for disruption. And I got into one of the first incubation programs in New York.
Finney: In this incubator program of about 45 people, four were women and I was the only person of any kind of skin color in this incubator program. And I got up and presented my idea. And the mentors gave me incredible feedback, such positive feedback. But when the questions turned to the audience, it was a completely different tone. One person told me that he didn’t believe I could identify with other black women. He was a white man. And of course, I said, say it. You know, maybe he had a different view. And he said, because you have an accountant. And I took that experience with me. And then I started an organization called Digitalundivided that really works to empower black and Latina women to take ownership of their work. And all of that led to the book and everything that I learned and put into that book. He’s the mentor I wish I had.
Adam: From your experience in the startup world, what are some of the main things you’ve seen limit diversity in the tech industry?
Finney: One is this concept of networks. Most investors, most of my colleagues are actually a bit lazy and tend to turn to their own networks to invest. And so that limits the opportunities, the businesses that you can see. And that limits the people you invest in and therefore your portfolio has been focused on a certain group of people. I also think for a long time people didn’t think you could start a business unless you were in San Francisco. And that, of course, has changed, but for a long time [there] there was a lot of pressure that you had to live there. And that made it very difficult not only for people of color and women, but for anyone who didn’t have a lot of money because it’s so expensive to live there, to be able to move around and to be taken seriously in this space.
You can get a glimpse of Finney’s ideas in this excerpt from his new book.
Efforts are being made to improve diversity in the venture capital industry. According to a 2020 survey by Deloitte and the National Venture Capital Association, slightly more venture capital firms have “diversity strategies” compared to a survey conducted in 2016.
He also found that women were still significantly underrepresented.