Kathryn Finney Is FOCUSed on Getting Black Women STARTed in Tech

Kathryn Finney of Budget Fashionista launched DigitalUndivided with the intent to increase participation of black women in tech (Image: Source)

Attention tech entrepreneurs: If you’ve never heard of Kathryn Finney before, then pay attention; she is someone you should know. In fact, more importantly, if she knows you, she can be the best friend you’ve never had.

Known across the blogosphere as The Budget Fashionista, Finney is famous for teaching the fashion-conscious, but financially-challenged among us, how to look runway-ready for a fifth of the cost. The Yale epidemiology graduate started the blog in 2003, before the invention of WordPress, and after her husband, a web-developer at Victoria’s Secret, pointed out that her shopping was putting a crimp in their pocketbooks.

“When I started doing the Budget Fashionista I was newly married, living in Philadelphia. Knew no one, but my husband [who] worked a lot. I was shopping. I was bored. I was spending a lot of money,” says Finney, who previously worked as a research scientist, specializing in HIV/AIDS in women. “I’ve always been the flyest scientist. I went to India and didn’t bring any clothes in my suitcase so I could bring back fabrics.”

Budget Fashionista’s popularity grew tremendously. Finney scored a position as editor-at-large for BlogHer, was tapped as a regular fashion contributor for NBC’s Today show; became the first fashion blogger to receive a book deal from Random House, penning  How To Be A Budget Fashionista: The Ultimate Guide to Looking Fabulous for Less; and even moved to Los Angeles to begin working on a television show.

Right now, you might be wondering what fashion blogging has to do with the innovation economy. Well, the television show never came to fruition. After everything had been negotiated, the title cards were complete, and only the word Action! was left, Finney’s decided not to pursue a career in entertainment. She felt a deeper calling was still ahead for her in technology.

She credits her father, Robert Finney. Because it was he, she says, who bestowed upon her the worker-bee work ethic that helps her keep all of the balls in the air, without forgetting to give back. In him, she witnessed a 36-year-old husband and father of two small kids, a high school dropout, and displaced factory worker, take an unpaid internship, flip that into a full-time job, move his family a state away to Minnesota, work his way up the ladder in corporate America, earn a bachelor’s degree, and eventually become a senior software engineer at Microsoft. Growing up in the eighties, around her childhood home Finney remembers finding napkins and scraps of paper scrawled with software code. When her father died in 2001, he was an executive at EMC, a world leader in data storage.

Robert didn’t do it alone. He had help. When he was laid off from the Schlitz brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (the same one where fictional characters Laverne and Shirley worked) he sought the help of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers, founded by Rev. Leon Sullivan, a man who was heaven-bent on providing the black working class a leg-up to elude poverty and oppression. He did this by taking individuals with little hope and few prospects, offering them job training and instruction in life skills and then helped place them into jobs.  That program changed her father’s life.

Kathryn Finney (far right) of Budget Fashionist fame and an editor at large for BlogHer put in work at SxSW this year. In addition to curating the panel “Art of the Start(up): How to Successfully Launch a Tech Company” which inlcuded former Essence Editor-in-Chief Constance White (second from left); she hosted a Digital Undivided Reception in conjunction with Kendra Braken-Ferguson of Digital Brand Architects (far left) and Former Essence Magazine Fashion Editor Darlene Gillard Jones of the Gillard Jones Agency; and hosted a tweet chat with Rachel Sklar, a TechStars mentor, and author of Change The Ratio, a book about increasing the visibility and opportunities for women in Tech.

Similarly, Kathyrn wants to give black women that same type of leg-up in the tech space.

She was first thrust down this path in 2007 after participating in a popular technology incubator, which she declines to name. She was surprised by the overt sexism and racism that was espoused by not only the participants, but by the judges and organizers who were some of the top leaders in the field.

At a time in her life, when she was one of the progenitors of style blogging, regularly making television appearances, one incubator participant had the audacity to ask her if she knew any of the top fashion and beauty bloggers. “I realized there was a dismissal that was so complete that they didn’t event Google me. I wasn’t even worth the cursory Google,” says Finney.

Another participant told her that her business idea, a kind-of Birchbox, online curation tool for black women’s hair products, wouldn’t work–not because he understood the black hair care market, but because he said Finney had an accountant, and thus would not be able to relate to normal black women. To which, Finney responded: “’I live in Harlem, so we can agree that I know more black women than you know. And they have accountants.’ If they are saying this to me and I have all the pedigree and things you’re supposed to have to be successful in the tech industry what would they say to someone else and would that person even get in the door.”

That thought settled in her soul for three years and when she realized that the status quo still had not changed for blacks in the tech game.  She joined forces with event director-extraordinaire, Darlene Gilliard Jones, and decided last October to host #FOCUS100 Pitch Bootcamp and Symposium,  the first event from DigitalUndivided, a social enterprise that builds forward thinking initiatives to fundamentally change the digital space by increasing the number of urban women digital entrepreneurs.

With help from sponsors like BlogHer, Ogilvy, Adreesseen Horowitz, and Starvest Partners, to name a few, the event drew more than 45 black, female-run companies, who were planning to launch or currently running a digital tech company. Newark Mayor, Corey Booker and MacArthur Fellow/Sustainable South Bronx founder, Majora Carter, were two of FOCUS100’s high-profile speakers. The event’s social footprint reached over 3 million people with 47 million impressions that resulted in several angel and venture funding deals.

Her next endeavor START, took place on Saturday, April 13, as an interactive symposium held at the Spelman College Science Center NASA Auditorium. It taught urban entrepreneurs how to start and grow digital businesses. While FOCUS100 was for entrepreneurs with a viable, registered corporation, START is a pipeline initiative that will bring Silicon Valley to the hood, with the intent to provide access to tools, resources, and individuals that would otherwise be unattainable to some of its participants. Attendees will be able to pitch their digital business ideas and could win up to $5000 in prizes.

No matter what Kathryn does, whether it involves fashion or uplifting female tech entrepreneurs, it’s fabulous.

For more information on START ATL, visit DigitalUndivided.com.

article by Marcia Wade Talbert via blackenterprise.com

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