When Kathryn Finney first started coming to the annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin nearly a decade ago, she noticed that African-American participants were few and far between.
"There were so few Black [techies], we had a dinner at a small soul food restaurant," recalled Finney, who was a blogger at the time. "There were maybe 20 or 25 of us. And we all knew each other."
Today, the emerging technologies, music and film conference is in its 30th year and draws thousands of attendees from across the U.S. and beyond. Luminaries such as President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and actress Kerry Washington are among this year's speakers.
Finney—an early social media influencer whose blog "The Budget Fashionista" reached millions (she later sold it for an undisclosed sum)—is now a SXSW veteran who has addressed the confab about expanding opportunities for under-represented groups in the tech sphere.
"There's a lot of talk this year about diversity in tech, which is a positive change," said Finney, who chatted by phone in between the flurry of sessions and social events. "People are finally acknowledging the [industry] problem, that we need more women and people of color in this arena. One of the challenges for the community as a whole is to provide more opportunity."
The Yale and Rutgers graduate, who's in her 30s, aims to help bridge that divide as the founder and Managing Director of digitalundivided (DID). Launched in 2012, the "social enterprise" identifies, trains and supports under-represented tech entrepreneurs, particularly Black and Latina women. They're provided with a network of mentors, angel investors and more, with which to build and scale their high growth companies.
"We support their entrepreneurship journey from the build phase to exit," said Finney, noting that they seek out women of color in tech with "game changing" ideas and give them a leg up in terms of developing their start-up tool kit and leadership skills. To date, the founder says they've helped to build 48 companies and raise $13 million in investment.
DID has several initiatives. The FOCUS Fellow program is a 16-week accelerator/incubator for Black women founders and co-founders of tech-enabled companies. START, which operates in partnership with the United Negro College Fund, teaches start-up basics to students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
There's also #ProjectDiane, a proprietary research study the team released in February after collecting data for more than a year on the state of Black women and tech entrepreneurship in the United States. The findings were used to craft focused strategies aimed at helping to increase the number of viable Black and Latina women entrepreneurs in tech.
Building on that knowledge, Digitalundivided used the SXSW platform earlier this week to announce a groundbreaking endeavor that could literally change the face of startups. The BIG Innovation Center will focus on creating success for Black and Latin women in tech. The 6,000 square foot facility will be situated in downtown Atlanta near HBCUs such as Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark Atlanta.
"We are champions of game-changing innovation and disruptive ideas," said Finney.
BIG, which scheduled to open in early summer, will kick off initially with two projects. The BIG accelerator will be a four-month tech accelerator that provides training in start-up methodologies, access to more than 100 mentors, office space for up to a year, and an open door to DID's alumni network of women of color founders.
There will be access to funding options from the Harriet Fund and the Harriet Angels Syndicate (inspired by iconic American abolitionist Harriet Tubman) which will be led Finney and Gayle Jennings O'Byrne, a seasoned investor. The fund will make direct seed investments in those companies accepted into the BIG accelerator.
Meanwhile, the BIG Developer Internship Program (DevPro) will offer paid apprenticeships for Black and Latino students from Atlanta-area colleges who have an aptitude for computer programming.
"We look forward to being a vital hub for Atlanta's emerging diverse tech community," Finney said.
Beyond Atlanta, the tech guru (whose father and husband are both engineers) believes that the work being undertaken is revolutionary, especially when one considers that tech founders are typically white and male.
"We're not asking anyone else to apologize for their success. But we're saying `Open up a window, unlock the door for others.'"