A few years ago, I decided to join an early incubator/accelerator program to extend the brand of my blog, called The Budget Fashionista (TBF). TBF was one of the first fashion blogs when I founded it in 2003. My big idea to move it forward: A beauty membership site for black women.
I was a Yale-educated scientist running one of the most popular style sites in the blogosphere and thought, arrogantly, that with those credentials, the startup world would be smooth sailing. So, imagine my surprise when I met the harsh reality of “the pattern,” a term used to describe why it’s easier for some groups (i.e. white guys from Stanford) to get funding than others (i.e. black chicks from Yale). “The pattern” is so deeply ingrained in the incubator community that I had several cringeworthy experiences, like when a very famous tech god told me my business model was excellent, but he “doesn’t do black women.”
After my experience at the incubator, I started to think about the role of women of color in the world of technology. I knew from TBF that women, and women of color in particular, often consume social and Internet technologies at rates higher than their male counterparts. I knew that African American and Latino women purchase and use smartphones in higher numbers than any other group, including white guys. So it was obvious that black women “do” tech, even though tech doesn’t “do” us.
The idea that we, as women of color, can consume but not create technology bugged me for several years, and at a conference held by the women-led media company BlogHer (where I am the editor-at-large), I turned that bug into action. Inspired by the conference, which helps female-led companies in a variety of fields build their businesses, I developed FOCUS100, an annual event that aims to train 100 Black women founders and co-founders from tech-based start-ups on how to raise funding.
At first it was very hard to convince others of the vision. Black women tech founders? Nah. But a funny thing happens when you start to lean in: Eventually others start to lean with you.
We were able to convince premiere venture capital funders in Silicon Valley to give us seed money. Friends like BlogHer provided much needed mentorship and programmatic help. We begged a top public relations and communications agency, to let us use its event space for free. And we used our charm to get a prominent mayor to be our keynote speaker.
Black women founders and co-founders from close to 50 companies attended the inaugural FOCUS100 conference in 2012, and we launched a new movement in the digital entrepreneurship space, reaching more than three million people online. Thirty percent of the companies that attended the conference had meetings with potential funders; two became finalists for TechStars, which provides seed funding for startups; and the next group of digital superstars (who just happen to be black women) learned how to lean in.