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Members Only: Tech's Diversity Problem

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 29/02/2016 Nikki Johnson-Huston, Esq.

2016-02-28-1456681696-8902814-DonafyAppPhoto.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-02-28-1456681696-8902814-DonafyAppPhoto.jpg
Photo by John Graves
In the last few weeks there have been several stories about the difficulties that women and minorities face in the tech industry as it relates to opportunities and, most importantly, funding their tech ideas. These stories remind me of my own experiences as a black woman in tech during the recent launch of my social innovation app Donafy.
By profession, I am a successful tax attorney with my own law firm, which may not seem like the most traditional path into startups and tech, but there is no such thing as a 'right path'. Tax law aside, my inspiration for social innovation derived from my advocacy work with those living in poverty and experiencing homelessness. Specifically, Donafy was an outgrowth of my own family's experience with homelessness when I was nine years old.
I chose to create my app in spite of the fact that I had no background in tech and didn't have the ability to code. I had a vision of being able to allow people to access information on nonprofits that would provide services to people in need and technology seemed the simplest and most cost effective way to do this.
I quickly realized that I would have difficulty getting financing so we decided to self-finance, or bootstrap, the initial version. The ability to self-fund even just an MVP (minimum viable product) is a luxury not everyone has the ability to do. The realization about funding came abruptly due to an inability to get funders in the tech space to even listen to my idea.
Yes, I have had to make sacrifices that better funded tech startups don't have to make. The need to self-fund required us to limit the area where Donafy was launched to my home city of Philadelphia, rather than attempting to launch in multiple metropolitan areas even though we had interest from several other cities. We also could only afford to build on the iOS platform. The budget just didn't allow us to build both iOS and Android platforms.
In spite of these challenges we will be celebrating our one year anniversary this week and will be expanding to Tampa, Florida in the next couple of months with both an iOS and Android version. We have hopes to expand to other east and west coast cities by the end of the year. I learned to be patient during the startup process and that you "You can have it all, just not always at the same time".
In the process of engaging the tech universe, I have been dismissed more times than I can remember. Even now that I have a working app that has daily users, I run into the same dismissive attitudes. Imagine my surprise at being told that I didn't have enough business experience to create a startup when, besides having a law degree and successful law practice, I also earned an MBA and Master's Degree in Taxation. Life has already taught me what I am capable achieving so I have not allowed myself to become too discouraged by some of the dismissive and negative reactions from the tech 'elites'.
The fact of the matter is, I am a 41 year old black woman in an industry that values youth, whiteness, maleness and elitism. However, separate from tech circles I am a "boss chick" who is successful in my life. I also understood that the rules were not made for someone like me to succeed, so I make my own rules and create my own playing field.
You don't need to be a millionaire to succeed, but you need to be relentless and passionate about what you are doing. I work nights and weekends in addition to practicing law to make this dream a reality. The best advice anyone ever gave me was my grandmother who told me to "be so good that they can't deny you" and "excellence speaks for itself". It was her way of saying that regardless of the fact that I was born poor, black and a woman that I had to keep moving forward and never stop.
While I've had some success (although still no financing offers) we cannot minimize the importance of the issues of diversity and gender within the tech industry. The disturbing lack of access, and the sometimes outright hostility towards racial and gender diverse entrants into the space is not acceptable. But while I am trying to be part of that change in perception, I won't slow down waiting the years and possibly decades for people's minds to change about what I am capable of doing.
Women and minorities need to find ways to create our products and move our ideas forward regardless of what the establishment tells us. If the rules are set up against us, then make your own rules. If there are roadblocks, then blaze a new trail.
Is it ideal? No. Is it easy? No.
But change is made, not given.
We should be starting incubators at colleges for minority and women students. Look to wealthy people of color and women as possible investors. We must learn to do less with more. Most of us are already used to making "a dollar out of fifteen cents" so it isn't something we can't overcome.
In many ways the cards are stacked against us. Regardless of race or gender, your socioeconomic background may count against you when investors are telling you to raise money from friends and family. Minorities are even less likely to have family with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest regardless of how great your idea is. The cavalier attitude in this area is just another example of how the privileged among us enjoy the luxury of access and the rest of us can't get into the game. Even when I was in college, I worked 60+ hours per week to pay tuition and living expenses, so the freedom of creating a company from a dorm room would have been out of the realm of possibility.
Regardless of the impediments, I have earned a voice in tech because I refused to be denied a seat at the table. That meant sharing my idea for Donafy with everyone who came across my path and self-financing the prototype so I had something tangible to show to the world. I had to leverage my extensive network of friends and colleagues in order to get the word out on my app. I effectively used my personal and professional capital built through years of hard work and prior media coverage of my personal story of going "From Homeless to Lawyer", to open doors in the media to promote the social good of Donafy.
Frankly, I'm used to being the only person in the room who looks like me so it wasn't something that ever really discouraged me or made me think of quitting. Working in a white male dominated field like tax law will have that effect. At this point I'm old enough and successful enough that it didn't matter when someone snubs me at a meet-up or pitch competition (and they still do) because I'm not who they think a tech entrepreneur should be. It doesn't matter what others think about you but what you know to be true about yourself.
To those of you interested in tech or who are struggling to find your place in tech, don't give up. Find a way to make a supportive community of your own, so even if you can't provide money to each other, you can provide skill sets and support to help get projects off the ground.
Being a tech entrepreneur is grueling no matter your race or gender but can be particularly difficult as a woman or a person of color so be a support system to each other. Don't be afraid to ask for help or advice.
When it comes to financing be wary of seeking financing too early in the process. See what you can do yourself and once you have a business plan that explains how you can monetize your product, service or idea you may find someone who will support you. Even if someone won't give you money, ask that they give you resources or contacts which can lead to financing down the road.
Being a black woman in tech has been a collection of challenging, fun, disappointing, rewarding and exciting experiences. I look forward to the day that my race, gender or age won't matter, but until then I will keep moving forward.

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