Debugging Tech for Women Biz Owners of Color

The deck is stacked against minority female entrepreneurs in one of America's fastest-growing industries. But an array of initiatives offers hope.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series on female entrepreneurs of color. Read more here.

Photo, usembassyta, flickr.com

Photo: usembassyta, flickr.com

Over the past three decades, we have watched the technology industry go from a misunderstood and obscure field to one of America’s most powerful (and most lucrative) entities. Yet a fifth of the American populace — women of color — is routinely held back from participating.

The lack of equal opportunity in tech is of growing concern, given the industry’s social and financial clout. Tech surpasses all other parts of the economy in job growth, according to a 2012 study from Engine Advocacy and the Bay Area Council Economic Institute — and tech jobs tend to pay well. And the sector will continue thrive, if bullish forecasts from investment experts are any guide.

But women presently account for just 20 to 25 percent of tech workers in high-impact fields like computer programming and software engineering, according to a report from the American Association of University Women. Access to tech’s higher echelons has been especially poor — in 2014, only 25 of the Fortune 500 had women CEOs. A mere seven of these women led tech companies, and only two of the seven were minorities — a glaring example of the poor representation of women of color in tech.

And the odds are stacked against minority women in every tier of the industry. Indeed, every single one of the 557 minority women interviewed for a 2015 study by the University of California at Hastings reported incidents of prejudice. The researchers also found that black women were most likely to have to prove their skills repeatedly to coworkers, Latinas were frequently labeled as angry when asserting themselves, and Asians received pushback when they didn’t adhere to traditional gender roles in their behavior. Both Latinas and black women reported being mistaken as janitors on a regular basis.

But gender and racial biases aren’t the only sources of the industry’s diversity problem. Several other systemic issues influence how women of color fare in tech.

Strangers in a Strange Land

For one, minority women often struggle to make their way in a world where few people resemble them, and where outsiders are not always welcome.

Take Anita Gardyne, founder and CEO of online caregiver resource Oneva, who has been working in male-dominated industries throughout her career and broke into tech world in the early 2000s. “There weren’t many people like me there at that time, and not a lot of support. The diversity issue wasn’t even really talked about,” she says.

In 2013, Gardyne took matters into her own entrepreneurial hands. The Oneva team has since raised a considerable sum of money, first by bootstrapping and then by assembling friend-and-family contributions and investments from African-American angel investors.

Of course, access to investors is crucial. But finding diverse tech funders to pitch is easier said than done. “Angels of color and female VCs are unicorns,” she says.

And a Babson College tally found that only 6 percent of all partnership positions at venture capital firms are occupied by women, while the 2011 National Venture Capital Association census says that just 2 percent of VCs are black or Latino. Yet, when it comes to investment decisions, diversity matters; female VCs are more likely to fund female and minority business owners, according to the Babson study.

Starting up wasn’t all bad for Gardyne, who had access to funds that many people of color don’t. “We’re a middle-class family who could retain some assets, and we were uniquely able to put them into a business. That’s uncommon for people of color,” she says, an assertion supported by research. “And I do bring an academic background [to the table], which makes it more likely for someone like me to get funding.”

Indeed, the absence of a technical degree can hurt a business owner’s chances with VCs, a Stanford University study found. With just under 30 percent of bachelor’s degrees going to people of color as recently as 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, communities of color can find it especially difficult to win funding.

AAUW

Credit: aauw.org

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Lack of visibility for successful female minority tech entrepreneurs is also a barrier. Maureen Erokwu, founder of Vosmap, a New York provider of imagery to Google Maps of the interiors of businesses, built her photography venture into a trusted resource for the tech giant within a year of being laid off from her previous job.

Despite that achievement, Erokwu says that as a queer woman of color in the tech world, she has often felt the weight of low expectations. “Being a woman, people usually think they have to hold your hand. And people of color are thought to be incapable of handling and executing certain business strategies,” she says. “It’s always been up to me to prove them wrong.”

A greater public profile for successful minority women in tech would help future generations, Erokwu and others say. The notion that computer scientists are white men who “stay up late coding and drinking energy drinks” dissuades women and minorities from getting involved in tech, Sapna Cheryan, an associate professor at the University of Washington, argues in her research.

Erokwu is attempting to address the issue by making herself more visible. “Growing up, I remember not having someone to look up to or identify with. When you see something, you believe it, you can be it,” she says. “So I told myself, ‘If I’m not seeing it, I’m going to have to serve as that person, so others will see me on a stage and think they have a chance as well.'”

Access is the Key

In a word, “access” is the key to solving the ongoing problems facing female entrepreneurs of color in tech — access to educational opportunities, access to funding, and access to the communities and connection points that can make or break a fledgling tech business.

Funding — or lack thereof — plays a major role in the successes and failures of all female minority entrepreneurs. But thankfully, some bigger players are starting to pay more attention to the problem. Intel Capital, for example, launched a $125 million diversity fund just last week that’s designed to invest in tech startups led by people of color and women. And Google for Entrepreneurs has implemented a NextWave program (alongside Code2040) which provides resources for business owners from underrepresented socio-economic groups.

Related: The Story Exchange on STEM Entrepreneurship

ProjectDiane

Credit: projectdiane.com

Organizations, incubators and accelerators, including NewMe, Black Founders and digitalundivided, are also creating and implementing programs to help individual women of color navigate the industry.

Kathryn Finney, a tech entrepreneur and cofounder of digitalundivided, is pursuing long-lasting solutions. “First thing is, there has to be a focus on programs that deliver outcomes, versus optics. Optics are important, because they let people know you care. But you have to invest in an actual pipeline of people doing the work.”

And she’s walking the walk. Digitalundivided is training female minority tech entrepreneurs, and helping them access necessary startup capital. And through ProjectDiane (an extension of digitalundivided), Finney is producing a documentary called “#RewriteTheCode: Intersection of Gender & Tech” that aims to address both visibility and pipeline problems by exploring barriers to tech entrepreneurship while spotlighting the black female business owners who have succeeded.

Finney also emphasizes the opportunities that could come from offering tech-focused learning opportunities to both children and older generations. “It doesn’t matter how much of an opportunity you give to kids,” she says. “If parents aren’t doing well, the likelihood of that kid doing well is greatly diminished.”

Hope for a Solution

Of course, not all minority women experience marginalization. Yumi Kim, owner of Curtain Call, Inc. in New York, told us that she never experienced anything negative due to being a woman of color or an immigrant from Seoul, South Korea. In fact, Kim says participating in the tech space gave her the chance to do what many hope to do: “prove our ability through our work.”

But while discrimination isn’t universal, it’s certainly prevalent. After all, women are still trying to combat the notion that their presence in computer labs and other STEM spaces is “distractingly sexy.”

Failing to overcome biases exacts a price; we know that diversity is good for tech business. A report from the National Center for Women & Information Technology shows that women leaders are great for the bottom line and for generating new ideas. Nevertheless only 10 percent of the people in charge of Silicon Valley’s 150 biggest companies are women, a study by law firm Fenwick & West found.

To put the matter plainly: “This lack of inclusion in tech is the industry cutting off its nose to spite its face,” Gardyne says.

Though the problem is deep and seems intractable, Finney is hopeful. “We will get there. We will definitely get there,” she says. “But it’s going to take time — and resources.”

Posted: June 16, 2015

Candice Helfand-RogersDebugging Tech for Women Biz Owners of Color