Sherrell Dorsey of ThePLUG takes a data-driven approach to telling black tech news. (Photo credit: ThePLUG)
Sherrell Dorsey of ThePLUG takes a data-driven approach to telling black tech news. (Photo credit: ThePLUG)

When telling a story, Sherrell Dorsey turns to numbers before words.

She’s the founder of ThePLUG, an online news site launched in 2016 that covers the work and culture of black innovators. And every article published is rife with data and factoids — for example, a deep dive into the lack of intellectual property creation at historically black colleges and universities, or an overview of #BlackTechTwitter, an online community for black techies.

Product development in the tech industry is driven by numbers, she points out, so “why not do the same in reporting” on it? Better yet, adds the Charlotte, North Carolina entrepreneur, why not do so for “an audience of innovators that do not get to see themselves represented as serious business owners in this space?”

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Tech’s diversity stats are indeed grim: The vast majority of employees at industry leaders like Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Twitter are white, or Asian — and representation for minorities in leadership roles is even worse.

Perhaps as a result, Dorsey’s info-centric approach to amplifying the issue and engaging marginalized technologists seems to be generating grassroots interest. She declined to share exact numbers, but says her newsletter now has several thousand subscribers, and that site traffic has improved by 30 percent for every month ThePLUG has been active. It’s also catching the eyes of corporations, with financial giant CapitalOne and VICE News’ tech vertical, Motherboard, teaming up with Dorsey as a financial investor and content partner, respectively.

And that’s not all she’s doing to help her fellow black tech workers. She is also the founder of Blktech Interactive — a career development hub serving more than 2,000 technologists and entrepreneurs in Charlotte — and a consultant for diversity and inclusion firm Build the Good.

Dorsey says the tech industry is an extremely uneven playing field, and views intentional inclusion efforts and data-driven reporting as parts of the solution.

A Data-Driven Approach to Equality

Prior to launching ThePLUG, Dorsey was technologist and freelance writer for publications like Fast Company and The Root. Her work focused on “bringing stories to light of underrepresented founders,” as she disliked how people of color were “typically not brought into conversations about the future” and wanted to change that.

The problem became even more apparent as she poured over industry newsletter subscriptions and news feeds for story ideas. Time and time again, she says, black people were left out of articles while “[Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg, [Microsoft founder Bill] Gates, they were in every conversation.”

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That observation was the turning point, Dorsey says. “I thought to myself, ‘I know so many innovators doing impactful work — why aren’t they highlighting them?’” Rather than waiting for others to do so, she decided to fill the gap herself. In April 2016, she launched a newsletter on black tech news that would turn out to be the beginning of ThePLUG. For her, it was “a labor of love, a service to the greater community.”

And from the start, statistics were front-and-center in everything ThePLUG published. Dorsey even went back to school for a Master’s degree in data journalism from Columbia University, to make sure she was up-to-date on the latest data collection tools and resources.

“Data helps us center the conversation,” she says, on tech’s diversity issues, and provides a way to quantify black involvement in tech. When someone, for example, talks about the effects of diversity recruitment efforts, or the growth of black tech conferences, Dorsey wants to know what they mean. Is there real movement, she wonders, or are these merely public relations statements? Dorsey says numbers can lead to truth.

She also hopes that the statistics shared by her and her team of four freelance journalists and two staff editors will ensure that people aren’t merely “consuming our stories then walking away” — that numbers provide a way to both clue people in and have her message stick.

From Fashion to Tech

Dorsey says she learned a great deal about audience engagement through, of all things, her time working in the fashion world.

She spent her childhood in Seattle learning about coding languages and programming as part of her everyday studies. But after graduation, she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Dorsey didn’t see it as a departure from her previous school work — rather, “I went to FIT primarily because I wanted to marry these ideas of art and science together.”

At the time, she saw the fashion industry as an e-commerce and online marketing leader, and wanted to learn more from the inside. Plus on a more global scale, “fashion really teaches you why people buy things,” she says — which is, in her estimation, because “people like to feel good at the end of the day.”

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She graduated in 2008 with those lessons in mind — but entered a workforce grappling with the Great Recession. Six months into her first post-college job, she was laid off. In search of financial stability, she turned to freelance writing gigs, focusing on the topics she knew best: tech and beauty.

As a reporter, she saw specifically the ways in which “[tech] was transforming everything in such a powerful way,” and decided to shift her career back toward that booming industry. She moved to Charlotte, where she worked for tech giants like Uber and Google — and learned firsthand about the diversity issues she now reports on.

Reaching New Audiences

Today, Dorsey is more dedicated than ever to shining a light on the lack of equality in tech, and the work black technologists are doing despite it. “It’s a very niche conversation, but it’s still part of the larger tech conversation,” she says.

She wants to continue that conversation by covering live events and conducting more industry research. She also hopes to elevate ThePLUG’s brand recognition — especially in new cities — through social media engagement and press features. In addition, she recently launched a subscription option for ThePLUG, to generate revenue beyond CapitalOne’s contributions by allowing people to pay for access to additional content, data libraries and end-of-year reports.

Growing her site is an uphill battle, but Dorsey is committed to “trying to claw our way, one subscriber at a time, and ensure the product we offer is of true value.” It’s work that’s worth doing right, she adds. “I want to be very intentional in what we’re building, and why, and how it is of use in the world.”

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