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Epidemiologist, network TV lifestyle expert and venture capitalist aren’t titles usually found on one résumé. But they are for Kathryn Finney, founder of digitalundivided, since each of them tapped into her passion for innovation and leadership. Here, we chat about how digitalundivided is shifting the startup world to better support women of color entrepreneurs, the biggest piece of advice she would give new entrepreneurs and the early business lessons she learned sewing.
Jessica Pliska: Was there an early experience growing up in Minnesota that shaped your professional outlook?
Kathryn Finney: I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My grandmother was a seamstress with her own sewing business. Those early memories of her running her own company, bookkeeping, making sure people were paid – all those things – taught me so much about sewing, but also, whether I knew it then or not, the fundamentals of business. So much so that I started my first company in fourth grade, a friendship bracelet business. A very lucrative business in fact, since there was such a big high school sports scene where I grew up and my bracelets could be customized to match school colors. I even had my older brother who was the town’s high school basketball star as my spokesperson.
Pliska: What stuck with you from that experience?
Finney: It was the control I had, and saw my grandmother having, as a business owner that piqued something in me. Deciding what to do with capital, from money to my time, was very liberating to me. My family abided by the saying, “If you make it, you get to decide how to spend it.” I remember paying for my family’s dinner one night when I was nine and seeing my parents faces in shock. Being around my grandmother’s business also sparked my passion and appreciation for fashion and other lifestyle topics.
Pliska: Speaking of which, you were a sought-after fashion and lifestyle expert who also trained in public health and epidemiology who now works to support startups. Was there a professional through-line across your path?
Finney: None of that was planned! I’ve just always had an instinct to seize any moment of opportunity. I started college thinking I would become a politician. But I quickly realized I didn’t want to work in politics after I interned on Capitol Hill. After college, I went abroad and became ill with malaria. I saw first-hand how much class influences folks’ ability to live well, which revved my passion in public health and epidemiology. I worked in that field for a while traveling internationally, but had to come back to the states because of my father’s health. I was running a major nonprofit at 25, when my husband threw out the idea of starting a blog, which no one saw as anything more than a hobby then. That fashion and lifestyle blog, the Budget Fashionista, led to a book deal and media company. And it was also the beginning of my realization of the serious issues facing women of color in startups.
Pliska: Issues taken up by the work of your current organization, digitalundivided. Talk to me a bit about how it got started and the work you all do now.
Finney: digitalundivided was born out of my experience at an accelerator in NYC. It was the first time I experienced people having not low, but no expectations of me because I was a woman and I was black. It was really challenging to be in a situation where people thought I had nothing to offer because of my racial identity and gender. I went to one of BlogHer’s conferences after, and it gave me the idea to do a conference for women of color entrepreneurs. A flood of support happened as soon as that idea dawned on me – space for the conference was donated, seed funding came, etc. That initial gathering grew into digitalundivided. Our work is focused on leading high potential black and latinx women founders through the startup pipeline with the necessary training, networks and access to funding to be successful.
Pliska: What advice would you give startup founders of color?
Finney: Trust your instinct – but listen. Sometimes founders are the only ones who can truly see the vision of a business, so don’t get discouraged if it feels like you’re the only one who does at times. But it’s important to listen, too. If you’re building a consumer product and no consumer seems to get the concept, then you should probably let it go – the market speaks. It’s important to let things go at the startup phase so you can figure out where you’re an A-student. And particular for founders of color, there can be this tendency to question opportunity, a skepticism about the motivations behind signs of support, which is understandable given how underrepresented we are in the field. But sometimes it can put a possible win at risk.
Pliska: How can the startup space better support women of color entrepreneurs?
Finney: Write checks to talented women of color founders. We need the venture capital field to do real self-examination and check the biases that make assumptions on who can do this work. By checking those biases, the rules of the game can change and that’s how we get new solutions across the ecosystem. And encourage high potential women of color founders to apply to programs that can cultivate their market impact, like our BIG Incubator.
March 14, 2019 at 10:56AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs