How To Encourage More Brown Women To Launch Tech Startups

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The following blog post is written by a Brown woman and is advice to be followed by Brown women who are interested in technology, starting a company, launching a startup or being more successful in business.

A few weeks ago, TechCrunch wrote what I considered to be a "dumb" and patronizing article asking why there appeared to be so few Brown women launching tech startups.  I began writing an angry blog post but decided instead to lead with action instead of words.

I invited two Brown women, @drgoddess and @kiratiana, who I knew from Twitter and conferences to head out and join me for StarutpWeekend in San Francisco.  We had all spent time talking together at SXSW about how to launch our ideas.  Kiratiana bought her ticket, booked her flight and arrived Thursday night!  You can read the pre-event blog post Startup Weekend Hits San Francisco Again For 2011 I wrote up.

The Ladies of BlogHer 2010 Conference in NYC

(From left to right: Ananda, Latoicha, Nadia, Diedre, Gina)

These women are just a sampling of Brown women attending conferences.  Each year I've seen the number of Brown women at blogging and tech conferences grow.  Social media has been a huge part of that to help with awareness, promotion and the feeling that you're not alone out there!

I see that by age 10 or 11, parents are talking about and treating their kids differently.  I cannot tell you how many fathers I've talked with who have big dreams of their sons becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg.  Eveninvestors want to fund the ideas of young people interested in doing big things.

So many people feel that if you get kids started early on tech, they will pick it up and prosper.  You've forgotten about society's constant reminders of gender roles plus this focus doesn't help all of the women out there who are already adults.  In fact, helping adult women embrace technology and launch tech startups is a two-fer because they teach new messages to their kids through being role models!

The Big Question

Q: Why are women, especially Brown women, not planning, developing and showcasing tech startup ideas?

A: Dear Techcrunch, the reason more Brown women aren't launching tech startups is because they're not seeing role models, peers and friends do it.  They're not talking about it, not going to conferences and not reading up on how to get started.  I can directly attribute my attendence tonight to the San Francisco StartupWeekend to my initial sit down conversation with a Brown woman engineer by the name of Erica (@swirlspice) in the spring of 2009 and this same story has repeated itself time and time again.

I'm very excited that I was able to move the needle in the direction I wanted without being a whiny commenter on the TechCrunch site.  Instead I made a difference by inviting a friend who is a Brown woman like me to attend StartupWeekend.  I also wanted to make a special effort based on my amazing experiences over the last few months regarding the Brown startup world where I:

  • Cheered on Jes Carter who is building Toour - an app allowing you to "create, discove and share tours of your favorite places"
  • Was amazed to see Gokit launch at SXSW in less than 24 hours
  • Attended a positive and uplifting brunch organized by Kimberly Dillion, founder of House of Mikko
  • Smiled with happiness to see Angela Benton announce the NewMe Accelerator incubator for Brown startups

Women need to be asked and encouraged

Allie Micka, co-founder of Advantage Labs, a Drupal shop, shared how she hadn't even really considered going to conferences until a guy friend of hers asked if she was going:

I was the first woman at any DrupalCON, the only woman in Antwerp. Until the brouhaha over the keynote, I never really thought about why I went there in the first place. But the decision to travel there was triggered by a tiny and important event, so I'd like to share it.

I had been communicating back and forth with Matt Westgate about some e-commerce functionality. At the end of one of his emails, he tacked on the following:

PS - You headed to Belgium?

This question wasn't a part of an outreach initiative to involve women in open source. I doubt he questioned that my interest might be affected by my gender. It was simply, "we're having an interesting conversation that would be even easier to have in person". Before I read that email, the thought of traveling to DrupalCON hadn't crossed my mind. But my response to that simple question was to make it happen! And thus my life was changed.

and she became the first woman to attend DrupalCon.  Boom!

Allie's note on the Drupal forum also struck a chord because I ended up attending DrupalCon for the very same reason; my friend Dave HallDrupal developer and programmer extroidinare who lives in Australia asked me if I was going.  I decided to align my move to San Francisco with attending DrupalCon and got to meet Dave for the very first time in person last May.  Funny to see the same patterns repeat themselves.

This is when I realized that simply asking, "Are you going?" is enough to make a difference in someone's awareness.

Women are notorious for using technology but not stepping up as SME's or joining the community around it.  I do feel Drupal offers more in the way of community in this aspect as does the Ruby community due to women like Sarah Allen.

attended one of the events Sarah Allen organizes called, "Ruby On Rails Outreach Workshop For Women" and had a great time!  It was a two day workshop to get us familiar with the fundamentals of programming in Ruby.  There were volunteers, sponsors and I could tell everyone there knew they were there for a purpose greater than themselves and know what?  It felt good!

Action Step: We need Brown Allie's and Sarah's in the Brown women tech world to organize, cultivate interest and most importantly show up and be visible.

 

photo credit: killerturnip

Make your career steps and work public whenever possible

I have a hell of a lot of offline discussions with people.  You see this reflected in my Twitter stream.  I'm working to put out more about what I'm doing offline for all of you but geeze, it's exhausting.  I will continue on though because I see the results of my efforts every single day when I get emails like the following:

Hi Adria,

I finally got up enough courage this morning to send you an email.  I never email strangers (introvert also) but after watching your video (how to change your life in 10 minutes), I think that's the title, and learning that you've reached out to people by email whom you did not know and made yourself better at networking I knew that one day I would email you.  I have so much to say and I know that your very busy so I'll keep this brief.

I'm an african american woman who loves technology.  I gave up on it years ago because of the struggle that I had in obtaining a job in the field.  I later learned that I have to prove myself and that I didn't invest enough into the field.  I'm writing you to ask for your assistance and advice to get me on the right track.  I'm willing to invest in learning as much as I can.  My goal is to become a trainer/teacher in technology (ultimately to the under privileged).  Because I've been out of the field for so long and I don't have a lot of money, I want to invest and brand myself in the right tools. Also, let me say that I read an article in Black Enterprise that led me to your Freshworkshops website after reading your blog "but you're a girl" I was inspired.  I admire you Adria and I hope that you can assist me.

I work as a temporary employee for a company called ____________.  They build websites for colleges & universities.  I was so excited about that job because I felt it was a foot in the door.  I'm the administrative assistant for the smaller office.  I decided to use my downtime to self teach and brand myself.  I want to gain certifications.  I feel that certifications on my resume will at least raise an eyebrow.

Ok Adria, I feel I've written enough.
Sorry for the long email.
Thanks for your time.

and I wrote back with links to videos, blog posts and book recommendations I've put out to help her on her journey.

Each one teach one

I had a great time sitting down with Dr. Goddess one night at SXSW and mapping out the essential business functions a startup would need to operate like email, a website, a billing system to charge customers, etc:

I let Dr. Goddess take it because it was all in my mind but I did ask her to snap a photo; and she did!  Trust and faith are big factors for success.

Don't be shady

Taking the time to sit down with others like yourself is important.  I've seen some shade at the intersection of women + tech + Brown where some women seem to feel that more than one Brown woman in tech is one too many.  I've observed and experienced what appears to be intentional exclusion.

Of course, on the other hand, I've had Brown women grab my hand, look me in the eye and say, "Adria, you need to talk to this person; they could change your life".   If you find yourself avoiding people for fear there will be "too many Black people doing ABC" or fear you'll become part of some vague group  "One of those Black girls who does XYZ", you need to deal with that and get over it.  There's enough pie for everyone.

How To deal with "You don't belong here"

Now let's revisit a later experience that Allie had at last year's DrupalCon event in San Francisco (which I attended!):

But five years later in San Francisco, when the number of women in attendance had risen from 1 to 300, I was settling into a BoF session when I was presented with another innocuous question:

This is a technical BoF. Are you sure this is where you intended to be?

This question was not intentionally harmful. It was an offer of help, in a tone of "hey, do you need some help finding your way to a session you might enjoy more?". But this "help" was based on the unconfirmed likelihood that I might not belong in a technical session. If I was new, I might have doubted my own aptitude and diminished my participation.

This post is not about lambasting the BoF guy or calling out the similar encounters we encounter every day, such as asking if I'm on the documentation team, a designer, or just there with my partner. This happens regularly and quite cordially, usually perpetrated by someone who you wouldn't call 'sexist'. But good or bad, tiny exchanges make up our community as a whole, and have a much broader impact. What if Matt, without any derogatory judgment, questioned my interest in showing up in Antwerp? What if he hadn't bothered to ask? Five years later, would I be contributing to Drupal, running a company that employs other Drupal contributors, and helping to support the local Drupal community?

I truly salute Allie for being able to take this with a grain of salt and I feel it's something that has to be learned through experience or being born with a tough shell.

I've had some offputting experienes at events as well but was prepared for them because one of my tech heroes, Valerie Aurora, wrote an excellent free handbook on "How To Encourage Women In Linux" but the title could easy say, "How To Encourage Brown Women To Launch Startups" and I'll probably write about this again.  Just take a look at the chapters:

2. Why are there so few women in Linux?

2.1. Women are less confident
2.2. Women have fewer opportunities for friendship or mentoring
2.3. Women are discouraged from an early age
2.4. Computing perceived as non-social
2.5. Lack of female role models

3. Do's and don't's of encouraging women in Linux

3.5. Don't take the keyboard away
3.6. Do give directions and explain them clearly
3.7. Don't make sexual advances towards women
3.8. Do act friendly
3.9. Don't complain about the lack of women in computing
3.10. Do encourage women in computing
3.11. Don't stare and point when women arrive
3.12. Do treat new arrivals politely
3.14. Do treat women as normal people
3.16. Do compliment
3.17. Don't invite only male speakers
3.18. Do ask women to speak
3.19. Don't micro-specialize
3.20. Do discuss broader topics
3.21. Don't make your meetings hard to attend
3.22. Do make meetings easy to attend
3.23. Don't make new people feel unwelcome

and there's more!

So, yes, I'm hella happy to be attending, I'm glad I reached out to other women to attend to do my part to grow the ever increasing number of Brown women in the startup world and I look forward to seeing your future success!

I've found that in order to be successful, you must step out of your comfort zone.

What's been holding you back from launching a tech startup?

 

Adria Richards is a technology consultant located in San Francisco, CA. Adria blogs at ButYoureAGirl.com about technology, web apps and her life as a technology consultant and posts helpful and easy to follow tech videos on YouTube.  Want to boost your productivity?  Contact Adria to to learn about the right technology for your business.

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