It’s common knowledge that the tech industry has a diversity problem. It is an issue that many of the large Silicon Valley brands are working to fix, which is great, but if there is to be widespread diversity in an industry that is changing the world and appeals to every section of society, it is going to have to happen from the ground up, not just from the top down.
A new documentary in examining a very specific demographic that the industry has largely ignored: black women. ‘Rewrite The Code’ is the brainchild of tech mogul Kathryn Finney who is also the founder of Digital Undivided, a company that “actively works to disrupt pattern-matching in tech by identifying, training and supporting high performing diverse founders of tech-enabled companies”.
The documentary is focusing on the work of a specific initiative called Project Diane which seeks to explore the intersection of race and gender in tech through the stories of black women founders.
Kathryn and the documentary team sought to raise $25,000 from a Kickstarter campaign and ended up with more than double that amount – just over $53,000! That gives you an indication of the need for a film like this.
In the trailer we see some shocking statistics outlining the discrimination and disadvantages women of color face in the tech world. For instance, $48 billion was spent on Venture deals in 2014, yet only 0.0001% went to startups led by black women.
Project Diane identified 300 startup founders who just happen to be black women, to show that anyone claiming the numbers don’t exist are proven wrong.
The initiative was named after Diane Nash, an unsung heroine of the Civil Rights era whose brilliant tactical mind led to several of the movement’s major victories- including the march in Selma. Her courageous fight for equality inspired the docu team in a time where diverse women in the overall tech community grapple with “similar but not the same” treatment from the larger start-up community.
In an interview with Women In The World, Kathryn Finney says the average amount of money raised by black female tech founders is $36,000. By comparison, an average amount of $41 million is raised by other successful startups.
Kathryn says with the extra money raised, they can interview more women, make a longer documentary (the $25,000 was initially set to make a 15 minute docu) and provide even more role models for the next generation of black women. But she wants everyone to watch this film.
“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,” she told WITW.
Kathryn’s interest comes from being a tech startup founder herself. She created The Budget Fashionista, a successful fashion blog, 12 years ago and says every time she would attend meet-ups or conferences, often found she was the only black woman in the room. Her passion toward increasing diversity came from the simple understanding that everyone uses tech, so why shouldn’t more companies work with a larger section of the consumer base in order to better target customers?
“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,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges stopping more women of color entering the tech space is that there isn’t as much representation in Silicon Valley, or big STEM colleges in the US like Harvard, MIT and Stanford. Kathryn says being part of the right “network” is one of the advantages that has helped more men acquire larger funding amounts.
Aside from being part of a well-connected network, getting in from the ground up is crucial, which is why non-profit tech organization Black Girls Code is a vital part of the next generation of young black female tech enthusiasts. Founder Kimberley Bryant was interested in tech from a young age, but was shocked to find few people who looked like her as she studied computer programming.
“Much has changed since my college days, but there’s still a dearth of African-American women in science, technology, engineering and math professions, an absence that cannot be explained by, say, a lack of interest in these fields. Lack of access and lack of exposure to STEM topics are the likelier culprits,” she believes.
Kathryn says it is also the responsibility of those in positions of power in the tech industry, i.e angel investors and Venture Capitalists to look outside the normal parameters when it comes to funding startups. It is something that will take a conscious effort, but one that is possible. We saw recently how Seattle-based Angel Investor Jonathan Sposato made a statement that he will only be investing in female-led startups form now on because he wants to be part of a changing landscape of tech that includes ideas from a more diverse creator base.
Similarly, ‘Rewrite The Code’ is urging other investors to be part of the change.
“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,” she said.
“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,” she added.
The documentary will be finished by the end of the year and will be shown at festivals and possibly on TV. The video below features Kathryn and a group of woman talking about the impact of diversity in tech through the work of Digital Undivided: