Women of color in tech are a strong bunch.
As I write this article, they are passionately working on their tech ideas, despite a stereotype that appears in my mind as I think about gender and race domination in the US tech – a white male (hey there, Zuck, Mr. Horowitz and many others).
The recent data reveals that being a woman of color in tech, on either investment or entrepreneurial side, is similar to being that rare non-white non-male member of a typical board of directors in a US-based corporation.
According to The Information, only 8.2% of the senior investment leadership in the US are women and 2% of them are Black or Hispanic (4 and 7 out of 552 respectively).
The good news is that things are slowly changing overtime. In its freshly released Index of Startup Activity: National Trends report for 2016, the Kauffman Foundation showed that the number of non-white founders, both men and women, has been increasing since 1996:
The New York tech scene has been particularly favorable for women in tech.
TechCrunch has recently recognized New York as a home to the largest number of companies with a female founder in the US (374, or 21% of all startups).
Startup52, NYC’s “premier diversity-focused accelerator,” a female-focused Pipeline Angels, a network of women investors that is “changing the face of angel investing,” and 37Angels, whose mission is “educating early stage investors” are among the companies here that are helping to bring more diversity and female representation to tech.
Recently, the founder of Startup52 Chike Ukaegbu organized the #WomenColorTech event. Over 150 attendees gathered together on a two week’s notice, including 25 female speakers and startup-demo judges. Sadly, the white males represented a minority of the audience, but… we can collectively work on changing that!
Minerva Tantoco, NYC CTO and Keynote speaker, and special guests, Gilda Barabino, Dean of The Grove School of Engineering, and Carla Harris, Vice Chair, Global Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley, along with a great panel of women in tech, provided some great advice for women of color in tech, with most of it being helpful for not just all women in tech, but all people in tech.
Do Not Reward your Children for A’s. Let A be a Norm
When other kids in their classes received pocket change for getting A’s in school, both Harris and Barabino were expected to perform at the highest academic level. The value of education was instilled in them at a young age and treated as an essential part of their lives. They both strived for achievements beyond getting good grades!
Advice: celebrate your kids’ achievements, but strong academic performance shouldn’t be a subject for ongoing rewards.
Hear Out Everyone Who Says You Cannot do it; then Prove Them All Wrong
Interestingly, all three event speakers had strong examples of negative motivation.
- A mid-grade teacher told Barabino that chemistry was not for girls. She graduated with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.
- Harris was told that she should not apply to Harvard University or study economics. She graduated with a business and economics degrees from Harvard.
- Tantoco pursued computers while she was told to be a doctor. She transformed the computer industry and realized that the best way to create the future was to “invent it.”
Advice: Has anyone told you that you cannot or shouldn’t do something because you are not X, Y, or Z? Let that inspire you to pursue your dream with even more perseverance and you will snatch an extra reward of proving your doubter(s) wrong once you succeed on your journey.
Do What You have Never Done Before
Harris expressed this lesson best by saying:
“Don’t be intimidated by the things you don’t know. Rely on the fact that you have done many firsts in your life, and you have done many firsts successfully. Even if you fail, every time you get one of two things – the blessing or the lesson.”
Advice: If there is no role or a formal definition for the next step in your career journey, define it. Speak to your mentors and your supervisor. You can do what you love on your own terms! Remember, being the first often means you’ll likely be the best!
Make it a Habit of Asking for Help
If someone tells you that they did it all on their own, they are a “brilliant liar,” said Barabino. However, it is difficult for entrepreneurs, who often have a type-A personality, to ask for help.
Advice: Do not hesitate to ask for help from your peers or co-workers. This will advance you forward! The worst that can happen is hearing a “no.” Exercise your asking-for-help muscles and asking for help will come to your naturally overtime.
Engage and Encourage
There is a large issue in our county with girls wanting to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, and with their interest dropping overtime due to lack of encouragement.
The nonprofit Girls who Code notes that 74% of middle-school girls are interested in STEM subjects, but only 0.4% chose a computer science major in college:
The #WomenColorTech speakers mentioned that each and every one of us has a “STEM identity” that needs nurturing and encouragement.
What does this mean? There are simple things we all can do to help women of color that are based on basic humanistic values:
- Women need encouragement and engagement: When you meet a woman in tech or a girl in STEM, learn more about what she is doing and encourage her to go forward;
- Women need role models: Become a mentor of a young women of color;
- Women need a sense of belonging in a tech group: Be friendly, say hi, ask questions;
- Give women a right to fail: Believe in a woman on your team and don’t be afraid to assign difficult tasks to her. She can do it! She’s good enough to have earned a right to fail, similarly to men.
- Diversify your leadership:…and the rest of the company will follow!
Your Face Says it All: Carry Yourself in an Approachable Manner
If you think of yourself as collaborative and are walking around in an unapproachable way, people will have a different narrative about who you are and might not get to find out what a great partner you would be!
Remember that your face has a lot of power. Internalize the saying, “It’s not about what you say, but how you say it.”
Advice: Be aware of what you put out in the marketplace…like…literally… and remember to smile
When Networking, Create Opportunities for Others
Investing in your network requires time, money, or both. If you are a student, be visible and known to your professors, since companies reach out to them asking about the smartest and the most driven students in class. If you are a working professional, start investing in your network by attending tech events and participating in tech-related meetups/activities.
Remember, if you meet someone with no immediate potential for collaboration, think of another woman or person of color whom you could connect to this person.
Advice: Network to benefit yourself and others. Become a super-connector!
Be Vocal, Speak Out
“I’m amazed about how often we do not push back when things that are not right” – Harris.
Advice: Speak out when you do not agree with what you see or hear.
How to Avoid a perception of being Bossy
Despite the whole great LeanIn saga from Sheryl Sandberg, the perception of women being bossy (vs being leaders) is not leaning away from some of us.
As long as we do not internalize and encourage these perceptions, says Harris, we will continue being leaders.
Advice: Do not own the perception of you being bossy.
Do not limit Your Opportunities because you are a Woman
The same year Mrs. Tantoco created a role for herself as the first CTO at Grey Direct Advertising in 1987, she also was pregnant with her child. Tantoco was torn and unsure about how to proceed with her new appointment. Someone slacked her in the head and said, “You will be a great CTO and you will be a great mom.”
A man wouldn’t even have thought about making a choice between these two greats!
Advice: You can balance it all – you don’t need to give up on one area of your life to succeeded in another one.
Pitching as a Woman
It’s likely that you’ll be pitching to a panel of men (hopefully, a diverse one after they read this article and bring on some more diversity into their teams J). Here are some things to keep in mind:
Do not let a Man Steal your Pitch
Men tend to steam-roll conversations, overwhelm a presenter with questions, some of which can be irrelevant.
Advice: listen patiently and say that you are moving on to the next point. Do not let a man derail you from your pitch!
Be Bold and Show Vivid Examples
Kelly Hoey, a prominent speaker and a writer, says that women should be prepared to demonstrate how their products work, especially if they are solving an unusual problem or shaking up an industry that hasn’t seen innovation in a while. Hoey described a situation when Miki Agrawal, the fonder of Thinx, was asked why the traditional methods of period-coping do not work well, such as pads. Agrawal handed a sanitary napkin to a male investor and asked him if he could step out to a bathroom to place it in his underwear and then come back and share how he felt.
Advice: demonstrate your product(s) and go as far as you need to to get your point across.
Diversity is Profitable
You get a higher exit value with a diverse team compared to a non-diverse one, mentioned Matt Wallaert, the director at Microsoft Ventures. Diversify your startup team when you are building it!
The second part to this issue is the afore-mentioned white-male-over-saturation of the investment industry. Hey, we have nothing against white males, but diverse investment teams are likely to relate to diverse startup teams easier and help bring their products to the market faster. “If women design cars, there better be a goddamn place for your purse!” – said Hoey.
Advice: diversify your startup or investment team!
Ensure you Meet the Basic Criteria before Applying for Investment
Ensure you can check off all the main basic requirements of a particular fund you’d like to pitch to. For example, it’s more likely that you’ll get interest from FemaleFoundersFund if you are a woman.
If you are a person of color, you can place a safe bet on Startup52, whose investment portfolio is impressively diverse:
- 55% of teams have a woman as a co-founder
- 83% are people of color
- 40% are immigrant
- 17% are LGBTQ
- 11% are veteran
Advice: check the criterial for funding applications. Pitch at place where you meet all of the basic requirements for both your product/service and the team.
Spread the Word, Distribute the Future
It is difficult to bring a small trend to the mainstream. Those who strive to bring more spotlight to women and women of color in the tech industry are tasked with spreading the word about their achievements to date.
Spread the word about female tech founders, the reports on the topic like #ProjectDiane, and some inspiring documentaries, such as PBS Makers show.
“The future is already here,” said Tantoco in the end of her speech, – “It’s just not evenly distributed. It’s our job to go out and distribute that future more evenly.”
Advice: Distribute the future, share your knowledge, be empathetic, patient, and encouraging to women of color!