At Google headquarters in Manhattan, a cadre of polished, accomplished women met to break the venture capital and angel-funding wall that has been so difficult for African-American women to overcome.
The select group of some 30 black female company founders was chosen from a pool of more than 300 applicants for the first Black Women Talk Tech Conference. They gathered with investors, tech subject matter experts, and experienced entrepreneurs to discuss the unique needs of black female tech founders, and build the community of support necessary to grow their businesses.
Their goal: to encourage and nurture the next black female-led billion-dollar company.
Black Women Talk Tech was the brainchild of Lauren Washington, cofounder and CEO of KeepUp; Regina Gwynn, cofounder and CEO of TresseNoire Beauty; and Esosa Igohdaro, cofounder and president of CoSign. The day included panels on growing a startup, a pitch event featuring investors, media and incubators, structured networking and personal development sessions.
Washington said the idea for the gathering started after she met Gwynn and Igohdaro several years ago at various tech conferences. As usually the only black women in the room, she said they were drawn to each other and ended up talking about the same frustrations and hurdles.
“Our goal was to bring as many black women in tech into one room and start tackling these problems together,” Washington said.
The conference started as a weekend retreat with 10 women over a year ago. From that, the trio realized there were some universal themes they were all experiencing and decided to expand the gathering into something more accessible and inclusive.
“I helped organize this because one of the most valuable assets I’ve had as an entrepreneur is a network of other entrepreneurs who knew exactly what I was going through,” Washington said. “To create a network that truly reflects my experience as a black woman is even more powerful. We can’t expect to have these systemic problems solved on their own, we have to band together and create our own solutions.”
Sessions ranged from “How to Prep for the Next Phase: Handling Growth, Raise, Exit or Shut-down” to “Best of Both Worlds: Finding the Balance Between Tech & Business,” “Unicorns: Black Women Founders Who’ve Raised Over $1M and How They Did It” and “Self Care: Resilience, Stress Reduction and Coping as an Entrepreneur.”
Organizers asked entrepreneur Laura Mignott to serve as MC of the event.
“It was a fabulous time, and I left feeling truly inspired,”Mignott said. “I create events like this around the country and it was the first one where so many women of color we there, on stage and in the audience. I hope it continues to grow and happy to be involved in any way I can.”
Five black female entrepreneurs also presented their businesses during a pitch competition before a panel of judges from the worlds of investment, business and entertainment.
“The event was better than I could have imagined,” Washington said. “This was truly a labor of love as we didn’t make money off of it and it was our first time creating a conference, but in the end, it was worth every minute.”
“To peer out into an audience full of women who look like me and to listen to panels of women who intimately shared my experience was inspiring and affirming. Everyone else felt it as well,” she said. “… The energy in the room was palpable. I didn’t realize it until I was there, but as one speaker put it, it was truly a radical act.”
Whether radical or not, the gathering clearly is seeking to defy the odds. An American Express Open report found that the number of businesses owned by African American women has grown 322 percent since 1997. During the same period, the rate of entrepreneurship in America has been in decline.
Yet funding for businesses founded by black female entrepreneurs remains low. Digital Undivided found that black women receive only 0.2 percent of all venture dollars. Women are often far more successful at crowdsourcing and online fundraising than using the traditional VC or angel sourcing—suggesting the old-school captains of industry may be leaving value on the table. Washington and her colleagues also felt that black women led-businesses have specific needs and deserve the resources necessary to grow them.
Despite these challenges, the women were not gathering to complain, but rather to build and level with each other, speaking tough love about the ruthless nature of business development.
“You’re not going to find a solution for a problem unless it’s for a need that is undeniable,” said Jessica Matthews, 29, one of the “unicorns” who has raised $7 million in venture funding for her renewable energy startup, Uncharted Play.
During her address to the group, Matthews also said that in speaking to aspiring entrepreneurs, “I don’t even know how to have a conversation with you” if you haven’t done the hardheaded analysis proving the viability of your product.
After the conference, Washington said the event’s success generated enough interest such that they plan to turn the gathering into a yearly conference. She said the trio also plans to launch a monthly newsletter that highlights all the women at the event to bring visibility to their efforts.
“There has been so much support and excitement from participants, speakers and other organizations that we’d be remiss not to continue this movement,” Washington said. “We hope to add in other events throughout the year, but are still working on exactly what that looks like.”
Photo Courtesy of Black Women Talk Tech.
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others. A founding reporter at POLITICO, Carrie contributed on political economy at Forbes, wrote editorials for The Washington Times under Tony Blankley and advised the digital Millennial women’s site Bustle.com. Carrie earned a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, concentrating in business policy. She has a B.A. in communications at Brigham Young University and completed a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.