Tech space

#RewriteTheCode: Woman’s Kickstarter-funded film will tackle tech’s diversity problem

Kathryn Finney founded one of the top fashion blogs on the Internet, and noticed a dearth of African-American women in the industry

“Which is harder: being a woman in tech, or being black in tech? What if you’re both?”

Those are the questions that #RewriteTheCode asks in its fundraising campaign video. The Kickstarter-powered project aims to crack open tech’s diversity issue with an honest documentary exploring the intersection of race and gender in the tech industry through the stories of black women founders. The campaign exceeded its $25,000 goal in under 2 days, a significant indicator of people’s appetite for a film like this. Women in the World spoke with the film’s producer, Kathryn Finney, who’s also the Managing Director and Founder of digitalundivided, an incubator and accelerator for diverse founders.

Women in the World: Can you describe what #RewriteTheCode will be about?

Kathryn Finney: #RewriteTheCode will be a documentary about the intersection of gender, race, and tech. We’re going to explore intersectonality and the subject of identity by interviewing black women who are founders of tech companies. Through our data-gathering operation, #ProjectDiane, we’ve learned that there are about 300 black women founders in tech from around the globe. They raise an average of $36,000 in funding. Only 18 have raised more than $100,000 in outside venture or angel funding, and only five have raised more than $2 million over the past five years.

WITW: You surpassed your $25,000 goal with more than 500 backers. Your deadline is June 30. Why do you still need more support and where will the extra money go?

KF: The $25,000 goal was set for a 15-minute documentary, but the documentary we’d like to do is longer and costs $150,000-$250,000. We weren’t raising the full amount because we didn’t think we could get $150,000. We’d like to interview more people and include more stories to make it longer, and better. We’re also going to post clips of select interviews online. The additional funds allow us to do more screenings and create an educational guide for the documentary so classes can have discussions around it. Every backer who backs us shows that this is something they deeply care about. There is something incredibly powerful about a group of black women raising funds from diverse people to do a documentary on other black women, in an area where we are completely invisible. For us to say 500 or 1,000 people really care about this, that’s very, very visible.

WITW: Why should everyone, not just black women entrepreneurs, watch this film?

KF: There’s an invisible population in this field that’s running all of our lives and we have to ask ourselves, “Why are these people invisible?” There’s a huge market that’s completely untapped. There’s a certain inspirational nature to this documentary as well because it will feature people who have been through enormous hardships who are trying to build companies. Tech also influences every part of our lives, and people outside of it have to care more about what’s going on.

WITW: How did you become interested in increasing diversity in the tech industry?

KF: My father was an engineer and I started one of the first lifestyle blogs [The Budget Fashionista] 12 years ago.  At events, I noticed that I was often the only woman, and often the only black person. I wondered, “Where are we? Why aren’t we here?” I wanted to do something to get more people like me into tech because I saw what it did for my life on a personal level.

My father didn’t graduate from high school until he was 30, and found himself at a local workforce development course. He took a class on data entry, and went from that to an engineer in the span of less than two years. Seeing the power of technology to rapidly change our lives, I know the transformative impact that it can have on the larger community. The foundation of all the work that we do is the opportunity that my dad had.

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WITW: Why is diversity in tech so important?

KF: Tech operates the world that we live, and the world that we live in is diverse. Diversity is imperative for tech companies. How can you serve your customers if you don’t have an idea of what product they need, because you don’t have a connection to them? It’s important from a business standpoint. Many tech icons are funded by venture capitalists, and a lot of their funds are financed by very diverse people. Elon Musk has pretty much built his empire off of about $5 billion and various sources of government funding. The United States is so diverse that we are essentially giving money to build these companies. They should, at the very least, help out their funders, who are us.

WITW: What is preventing women of color from being accepted in the tech community?

KF: We’re often not a part of the same network that those who are in tech are part of. There aren’t that many black women who went to Stanford, MIT, or Harvard, and there aren’t that many black women who live in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is very territorial, you don’t have many people going to Atlanta, Chicago, and DC. As a result, their networks are so small, and we’re just not a part of them.

WITW: What challenges do minority women face when they’re trying to receive funding, and how can they be resolved? 

KF: Most of the reasons why young guys are getting money for ridiculous ideas is because they’re a part of the right network. People think, “I want to give him funding. He went to Stanford, his ideas might be crazy but I think eventually he’s gonna be a rockstar so I’m gonna give him money.” We don’t get that same consideration and we’re not an old network. As an incubator accelerator, our purpose is to find and support diverse entrepreneurs. Pretty much every black woman who has received any funding has something to do with us, and we are connected to pretty much 99.9 percent of the black women who receive funding.

WITW: What is your advice for black women founders who are entering this white male-dominated field?

KF: My biggest advice would be to really build your community. If people don’t see you, you have to make yourself known. The ones that have been able to do it the best have been the ones who showed up at pretty much every sort of diversity discussion that you could possibly have in Silicon Valley. Those who have been a part of programs like ours have also been successful. As a black woman in tech, it’s almost impossible to do this by yourself and get in without having an existing organization that gets you to a sponsor.

From a practical standpoint, you have to get sponsors who are white, preferably white men. We have seen that our fellows who have had white male sponsors have done significantly better than our fellows who have not had white male sponsors. When you’re a black woman and you have intersectionality going on, it’s just much easier if you have a sponsor who’s a white male. I know that’s probably not what people would normally say, but that’s just a fact.

Our application is coming up for our next FOCUS Fellows class is coming out in the next month or so, and I would say look out for that. Being a part of our incubator accelerator, you become a part of our network as a byproduct.

Also, just make sure that you’re building a real business. The room for error for us is very, very, very, very small, especially right now. So make sure your business is actually a true business. It takes our fellows a year to two years to raise seed funds that normally take within a couple of months. You have to have a real business to sustain you because it’s going to take you longer to raise.

 

WITW: Why do you think people in tech have a difficult time hiring more diverse people?

KF: They’re only looking in certain places. Until recently, people weren’t looking at historically black colleges, they just recruit from the same top ten schools. Expanding it, rethinking the needs and what makes someone qualified, being open to other options will help. In tech, it doesn’t really matter where you went to school if you can do the work. Move out of these very elite networks and re-think what it means to be a techie. My dad didn’t graduate from college until he was forty, but he was an engineer at Microsoft when he was in his mid-thirties.

You also have people in tech who are used to thinking in terms of binary numbers, dealing with 0’s and 1’s. When you add in any sort of diverse person, not just black women, you’re adding 2’s and 3’s. They’re not used to that, they’re used to dealing with very straight, logical answers. Human beings don’t work that way.

WITW: What can companies do to hire more diverse talent?  

KF: Definitely expanding their networks to other schools and looking at other programs that are not school-based. Local-based training programs could also be options for them. Companies should also do internal training. To get more women engineers, Etsy looks internally at women who are in customer service, who may not have engineering backgrounds, and they train them to become engineers. There may be people in your customer service, in your admin pool, who would be great engineers. You can start an internal training program for them. That’s something that’s very easy, it shows people that there’s a path at the company, and it’s good for employee morale.

WITW: Why did you name it #RewriteTheCode?

KF: We named it #RewriteTheCode because we think the code in which the culture of tech has been built is completely wrong. The sexism, all the “ism”s, is so engrained that there needs to be a complete rewrite of the code. It’s going to be a long process, but it’s on its way. 

WITW: What is #ProjectDiane?

KF: #ProjectDiane is a data collection project, a way for us to find and gather all the black women founders on a global level. It was very hard to quantify how bad it was for black women founders, and in tech, if you can quantify it, then you can start talking about solutions. Now we know that black women on average raise $36,000 of outside funding, and it takes $41 million, according to CrunchBase Insights, to have a successful startup. How can we build successful startups if we’re only raising 0.002% of what it really takes? Once we had that data from #ProjectDiane, we were able to start having a real conversation about what the problem is.

WITW: What was your strategy for such a successful Kickstarter campaign?

KF: We spent three years building our network. You have to have a network before, especially for a non-product base. We also learned the importance of being generous. When you are generous, it will come back to you. When people see that you’re doing good work, they want to support that. About a month before our Kickstarter, we sent emails to all our friends to alert them about the launch date and our goals to get them ready. That’s how we were able to get a large number of backers so fast. We also directly Tweeted to other Kickstarter backers right after they Tweeted about backing something else, and we directly emailed potential supporters. You also have to ask early, and often. That’s hard for certain types of women, but you have to ask people for help. It’s so crucial to the success of your Kickstarter.

WITW: How have people responded to your Kickstarter campaign?

KF: I think Silicon Valley doesn’t want to be told how to solve diversity in tech. We’re just going to have people tell their stories, and we don’t know what people will want to say. But I think there’s a little bit of fear in what’s going to come out in this documentary and what it will reveal about the tech community. Some black women are loving it because it’s bold and our story rarely gets told. Other women of color who are not black women really want to see it. We’ve inspired people to do similar documentaries for their particular groups as well. For white women in tech, I think there’s a realization about intersectionality. I’m hoping that this documentary will be a catalyst for discussions about intersectionalities and identities.

WITW: When will #RewriteTheCode be finished, and what are your plans for it?

KF: We’re hoping to finish by the end of this year, and we’re going to send it to festivals. We’re hoping to do a tour and visit universities with the film and have discussions and hopefully bring some of the featured founders with us. And hopefully we’ll be able to put it on television as well. 

WITW: What was the most surprising thing that you’ve learned from your research?

KF: The biggest thing is just exactly how bad it really is. It’s one thing to say that black women don’t receive funding and it’s another thing to say that black women received less than .0001% of the total venture/angel funding over the past 5 years. To be able to quantify how truly bad the problem is has been shocking to us, but it has been invigorating to us as we set to do the documentary and expand to other programs.

WITW: What do you hope to accomplish with #RewriteTheCode?

KF: We hope that people come away and say, “Okay so why aren’t they getting money? What’s the problem with Silicon Valley?” Not, “What’s the problem with black women?” I want people to wonder about what they can do to help change it. Hopefully people will leave inspired to create their own companies. I want people to understand the impact of technology in all our lives and how important it is that we have diverse employees in it to respect who we really are as people. I hope it pushes for more change within tech, specifically to help black women founders create and grow their companies.

 

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