Though only .2% of start-ups led by black women receive VC funding, their ideas generate a whopping $44 billion in annual revenue.
Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the country, generating over $44 billion a year in revenue. So why do fewer than one percent of their start-up ideas get funded? When a start-up earns $1 billion in venture capital, people like to call it a “unicorn.” But we’d like to introduce you to a few true rarities: black women making it work in tech.
\nKelechi Anyadiegwu: Founder, Zuvaa \n
Sayreville, New Jersey
Kelechi Anyadiegwu (pictured above) is a little shy when she answers questions about the process of launching her online African clothing retailer and social platform, Zuvaa. “I just went for it. I didn’t see anyone doing it and I’ve never really been interested in having a traditional 9-to-5 office job, so one day I thought of it and started building out the site. The next day, I created the social media accounts for it. My method is probably not the best way to go about starting a business, but that’s how it worked out for me.”
At the time, the 26-year-old Nigerian American was still in school, finishing a human interaction graduate program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She’d been building websites and joining online communities since she was a kid. She even started her company without having to dig deep into her own pockets for seed money.
“I think it cost me a couple hundred dollars to build the site,” she says. “I knew how to do online community building, optimizing user experience, and things like that, so I didn’t have to hire anyone. I probably put in about $500 total in the beginning, and I flipped that into over $100,000 in sales in our first year.”
That was 2014. Last year, Zuvaa generated half a million dollars in revenue. By the end of 2016, Anyadiegwu expects to hit $2 million.
Like Uber, Airbnb, and other tech companies, Zuvaa doesn’t manufacture products; rather, it’s an online marketplace that connects merchants from across the diaspora with consumers, giving them a chance to share ideas and style tips and build relationships. “I want Zuvaa to be synonymous with high-quality African prints and textiles. I want to create a brand that creates vibrancy. We try to keep the marketplace selective. The sellers have to apply to be in it. We only offer the best of the best.”
Anyadiegwu’s ambition earned her a spot on the Forbes 2016 “30 Under 30” list of entrepreneurs to watch in retail and commerce. Today, she manages a small team of Zuvaa’s consultants, working lean to maximize revenue. Down the line, she hopes to create her own incubator space, this time for African designers looking to expand their reach.
Kathryn Finney: Founder, Digital Undivided
Harlem, New York
Kathryn Finney says when she was first starting out, the worst part about being a black woman in tech wasn’t blatant cruelty—it was that her colleagues didn’t pay her much attention at all. “I was on a panel at an accelerator (in 2006) and it was literally the first time in my life that I felt invisible. People had no expectations of me,” she says.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Who has the right to have ideas? Who has the right to monetize ideas? This is about freedom.[/quote]
As a kid from the suburbs of Minneapolis who attended Yale, Finney was used to less-than-diverse environments that still managed to nurture her sharp intellect, outgoing personality, and technological savvy. At the time, she’d left her day job as an epidemiologist to focus on her blockbuster fashion blog, The Budget Fashionista (which she sold to Speak Media in 2014), along with a small tech development production company. A leader in the burgeoning lifestyle blogger space, she’d been invited to pitch a Birchbox-like subscription service for black hair-care products, one of the first ideas of its kind.
“One investor at that event told me that he didn’t do ‘black women stuff,’ whatever that means,” she says. “Another guy told me that I wasn’t relatable to black women because I had an accountant. This was absurd to me.” Finney didn’t sell her black hair-care subscription box concept. Ten years later, subscription services are a $5 billion industry.
Despite her deflating experience at that accelerator, Finney kept going, deciding to build new pathways to success for herself and others like her. In 2012, she founded Digital Undivided with the financial and social support of BlogHer, where she serves as editor at large, and eventually worked with a team of seven researchers for three months to release a report on the state of black women in tech entrepreneurship in the United States. The study, called #ProjectDiane, saw Finney leveraging her background in health data to pinpoint quantifiable pain points for minority entrepreneurs, examining 60,000 startups to reveal that only 88 were led by black women.
“The name #ProjectDiane is from Diane Nash. She was an amazing civil rights leader and one of the architects of the sit-ins,” Finney says. “I didn’t choose to name it after a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) because this is not just a STEM problem. This is about who is worthy of having ideas. Who has the right to have ideas? Who has the right to monetize ideas? This is about freedom.”
For three years, Digital Undivided hosted a technology conference called FOCUS 100, where she says that locks, braids, flowing tresses, brown skin of various shades, and bold lipsticks were the norm over the typical (let’s call it dudebro) attire at similar conferences. Finney also launched her own accelerator and incubator, FOCUS Fellowship, which provides support and networking opportunities for black and Latina founders of start-ups. For her efforts to increase inclusion in tech, Finney earned a White House Champion of Change award in 2013.
Next up for Finney is the BIG Innovation Center, a 16-week accelerator program in Atlanta exclusively for black and Latina women, the first of its kind. She’s also a general partner at the Harriet Fund, named after Harriet Tubman, which offers preseed venture funding to black and Latina women-led start-ups.
Brit Fitzpatrick: Founder, MentorMe\n
Brit Fitzpatrick embraces her reputation as a gracious Southern belle. The Louisville, Kentucky, native refers to her elders as “sir” and “ma’am,”—her smile is literally pageant-perfect (she was Miss Kentucky International 2015—and when she asks “How are you?” she sincerely wants to know. It’s tempting to picture her kicking back with a mint julep, but Fitzpatrick has actually spent the past few years risking it all for her start-up MentorMe, a cloud-based platform that matches fledgling tech entrepreneurs to experts who can help them.
“I left my job in 2013,” she says. “I sold my car, left my apartment in Memphis, and used the money to get to San Francisco for a four-month accelerator. If it didn’t work, I would have moved back to Tennessee to nothing. What’s funny is that while I was in San Francisco, investors in Memphis wanted to invest and so it all worked out for me.”
She received $175,000 in that round of angel funding and has since raised an additional $100,000. According to #ProjectDiane, that’s 50 percent more than other black women founders—still just a fraction of the $41 million needed on average by a start-up before it can achieve an initial public offering or successful acquisition.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Going to San Francisco was when I started to open my eyes to the challenges for women and people of color. I’m not someone who likes to view my gender or race as a disadvantage.[/quote]
“I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I went out there,” says Fitzpatrick. “Going to San Francisco was when I started to open my eyes to the challenges for women and people of color. I’m not someone who likes to view my gender or race as a disadvantage.”
She recalls one particularly condescending moment in the funding process, when after two minutes of meeting with her, one man told her that he didn’t think she had it in her to be an entrepreneur. “He said he didn’t think I would get out of my comfort zone. I had just sold my car and was living in a house with five guys for goodness sake! He didn’t know any of that; he was just making assumptions based on my appearance.” That experience, she recalls, “seeped in a little bit and I lost confidence. It’s hard to sell your idea if you aren’t confident.”
She recovered, eventually winning the award for best pitch from the 2014 Points of Light Civic Accelerator program. For this, Fitzpatrick thanks Kathryn Finney. After a SXSW Digital Undivided event that same year, she ran up to Finney and made a simple request about networking: “Can I get a list of black women tech founders?” Finney took her question and ran with it, eventually releasing the #ProjectDiane study. MentorMe is flourishing with Fitzpatrick’s small team working remotely. Though she says she’d love a proper office, she’s happy to avoid overhead expenses. She also launched a second company, Geeked Memphis, which hosts programming and events for creatives and entrepreneurs. Like Finney, Fitzpatrick’s desire to find a community inspired her to build her own.