Kathryn Finney’s dad was a high-school dropout living in inner-city Milwaukee and working for a brewery, unloading boxes from a truck. His life path seemed pretty much set. But then, at 36 years old, he took a data-entry class taught by someone from IBM, which had an office nearby. The training program was part of a national re-education push by the Reagan Administration.
Finney’s father discovered he had an aptitude for computers, started an internship at IBM, and then found his way into a job at Digital Equipment, a one-time computer industry giant. Throughout the rest of his career, he worked his way up, first becoming a software engineer at Microsoft, and then rising to a senior executive role at EMC.
“The irony of it is that my dad’s work allowed me to have that pedigree that he didn’t have,” says Finney, who is the founder and managing director of Digitalundivided (DID), a social enterprise working to establish a larger minority presence in the tech industry. “But it was really about someone coming into the hood and giving them an opportunity, giving them the spark of tech.”
Finney’s father has since passed away, but the legacy of that data-entry course remains profound. Finney herself is a living example of how such an intervention can change people’s lives. After graduating from Yale, she established The Budget Fashionista and in 2011 took on a role Editor-at-Large as women’s blogging network BlogHer. As a black woman in tech, she has found new meaning for the word “minority” – but that’s something she’s working to change with DID.
Not only does the company hosts FOCUS100, a tech conference focused on black women, but it is also teaching coding and entrepreneurial skills to minorities in inner-city neighborhoods. In 2014, it will open training programs in Harlem and Detroit, and it has a presence in Chicago, Houston, and Oakland – all communities that have large African-American populations.
“If we go to Silicon Valley, it will be East Palo Alto,” Finney jokes.
Fifty years on from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the most recent figures from Silicon Valley show that in 2010 less than 1 percent of the startups that received venture funding had black founders. CNN’s research has also shown that blacks are severely under-represented in tech companies. The figures are more dire when you narrow the field down to black women.
However, suggests Finney, it’d be counter-productive to get discouraged by the numbers. In fact, she says, there are many good-news stories about black women in tech, including Mercaris’s Kellee James, Rachel Brooks of Citizen Made, and Monif Clark of Monif C, all of whom have closed substantial funding rounds.
“Definitely there’s not enough, yes there are some challenges, but we do exist,” says Finney.
Part of the challenge is just getting people to talk more about success stories among minorities in tech, she says.
“The only faces you see, the only people you cover in campaigns and in the media, are young white guys. If you were a young black woman or a young Latino woman and you wanted to get involved in tech and you don’t see anyone who looks like you, it’s hard to take that chance.”
“In order to change the face, you literally need to change the face.”
Culture also plays a role. Many people in black communities don’t understand the concepts behind high-growth startups and are used to building businesses to pass along generational wealth, says Finney. Such people aren’t looking for big exits but want to be able to provide for their families over time. “Explaining that concept [of high-growth startups] is something we do quite a bit.”
DID is one of a host of support networks and non-governmental organizations springing up to help get more minorities into tech. Other initiatives include the NewME accelerator, CODE2040, Black Girls Code, and Washington DC-based CodeNow. The federal government is also attempting to do what it can to help. Accordingly, the White House recently honored Finney as a “Champion of Change” for tech inclusion.
While there hasn’t been a lot of media coverage highlighting minority tech success stories, says Finney, the emergence of groups like DID are starting to make a difference.
“We’ve seen how just our very presence has started to change the discussion, just the fact that we are there,” says Finney. “We’re starting to see the change happening, but there is a long way to go.”
As was the case with her father, sometimes it just takes a spark.
Related: Listen to our PandoWeekly podcast about inequality in Silicon Valley.