Sherrell Dorsey Is Telling the Stories of Black Techpreneurs
The data journalist created 'ThePLUG,' a daily newsletter that reports on tech founders, investors, and innovators of color.
Black-led start-ups are underfunded, especially those helmed by black women. But data journalist Sherrell Dorsey is not worried. She has a solution and it all comes down to how entrepreneurs communicate with investors. In early 2016, Dorsey founded ThePLUG, a daily newsletter that reports on tech founders, investors, and innovators of color. What started as an experiment to illuminate stories of innovation outside of Silicon Valley has turned into a platform that can potentially increase financing for black entrepreneurs by mending what she calls the “data gap.”
“A lot of times investors are looking for patterns in data,” Dorsey told me by phone from Harlem. “So when that information is not shared in public” it can negatively impact investment. Dorsey believes this lack of data around issues affecting the new majority of American consumers may prevent mostly white venture capital investors from understanding the problems solved by black business owners.
By reporting stories of black entrepreneurship in ThePLUG, Dorsey is improving the flow of information that eases conversation—and moves dollars—between founders and investors. “The conversation was veering off to, ‘There’s no black people in tech,’” she said. “But the challenge is, most of the press has been dominated by ‘Mark Zuckerberg this’ and ‘Elon Musk that.’”
In May, the 30-year-old FIT graduate, who worked in fashion before moving onto Uber and Google Fiber, will receive her master’s in data journalism from Columbia University. This year, ThePLUG will dive deeper into original investigative reporting and Dorsey will return to Charlotte, North Carolina, to expand programming for her networking and training event series BLKTECHCLT. Below, Dorsey told me about her work creating a more inclusive tech space for black entrepreneurs.
VICE: Why did you start ThePLUG?
Sherrell Dorsey: I was following the everyday news cycle of tech news and not seeing a great deal of mainstream media prioritizing black and brown contributions to this space. I thought it was an intellectual disservice. And so ThePLUG started out as an experiment. I was like, if I were to put together a daily tech newsletter, could I even find five stories a day from the web that talked about black innovation?
I had just started at Google Fiber. I was up at 5 AM before work pulling together this newsletter, very hack-like. I might have had $5, signed up for a subscription to Goodbits and MailChimp, and just started pushing out this newsletter. A lot of it was anecdotal. I would share, “Oh I’m going to this tech conference,” or, “I had a conversation with this person that I’m working on a story about.”
Who was your initial audience?
Folks I had interviewed before, black investors, venture capital investors—people who were actually looking for deals. In fact, I still get hit up today by venture capital firms who are like, “We don’t have great representation in our portfolio, so we subscribe to ThePLUG so we can find out who’s doing what.”
The funding gap mirrors the black-white wealth gap in this country in terms of its socio-economic implications and who is granted access to various opportunities. Where does ThePLUG fit in this?
For me, it’s been about visibility. I was fortunate to be part of an early coding program that got launched in 1996, and I joined an organization called the Technology Access Foundation back in 2001. That was kind of my first step into seeing that there are black people who are engineers and software developers.
So for ThePLUG, it’s like here are visuals of people that look just like you that have been doing this work. I want to continue to help drive that narrative. For folks who don’t come from environments where they have direct access to technology, in the sense of, “I can use this to build something.” That representation is critical.
What about BLKTECHCLT?
Charlotte is a majority black city with no hub for black technologists. That baffled the hell out of me. There are these well-heeled, well-credentialed people of color, and this is a start-up community that is growing. Charlotte is one of the largest banking industries in the country. There’s all this investment going into fintech and healthcare. But when I was attending events, I was the only woman or person of color and it just really blew my mind. I was like, why hasn’t anyone said, “We need to create a space to make sure we have a high density of black entrepreneurs plugged into the growth of this city?” And so my work has really encompassed this idea of: How do we fill in the gap?
That’s important, especially to communities of color. How do we challenge when we don’t see ourselves as part of the conversation. The Brookings Institute has this whole study on black and brown communities where you don’t see a lot of kids wanting to become inventors, because they don’t have a lot of inventors living in their communities. And so in such a visual, high-tech, highly connected society, that’s why ThePLUG and BLKTECHCLT are important. But I think most of all, when we think about our own personal leadership, it is extremely important for us to also figure out how to become visible as options for kids of color.
Do you think the case study provided by some immigrant groups in the US, where funding is family-and-friends-focused and ownership is kept within the community, provides a good alternative model for financing?
I did a trend story for Fast Company a couple years ago that talks about the stealth group of wealthy black investors who are coming together and starting to informally become angel investors to black tech company founders. I think we’ll continue to see that trend grow, where people who may have made their money in construction or in a car dealership or a McDonald’s franchise, now they’re saying, “Let’s all come together and start investing in the next generation.” We’re seeing that with people like Rich [Dennis] from Sundial Brands, who sold SheaMoisture to Unilever and has now launched a venture capital firm specifically for black and Latina women. You also see these athletes who’ve gone into venture capital and rappers like Nas—these pockets of individuals who are using their wealth to help grow the wealth of these founders and help them scale their businesses so that they can in turn go and hire black and brown people.
I think it’s definitely important for us to create our own lanes and opportunities for money and cycle that money throughout our communities. But first and foremost, we have to learn the language and we have to learn the process and we have to continue to stay educated. We’ve got to know money. I didn’t talk about money at my dinner table [growing up]. You go to college, you go get your job, you work your job, you put your 401k together, and you live a happy life and take your two-week vacation each year. That was the conversation. So now I’m having to be in rooms where I’m having very different conversations about creating legacy and wealth, and that’s a whole ’nother state of mind.
Black women are one of the most educated groups in the US and we’re the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. What do you see for the future of black women as entrepreneurs?
I think that we’re going to start building businesses and resources that solve acute problems for our most desperate communities.
Can you give an example?
I’m thinking of folks like Majora Carter, who converted a storefront in the South Bronx into a tech learning lab and got contracts to do quality assurance testing, hired people from the community to do it, and pays $15 an hour. In the evenings, they have video game battles and right next door she converted that place into a coffee shop. No, you’re not a software engineer, no you’re not getting a computer science degree, but you get to participate in the tech sector in a way that works for you. So I think we’re going to see more ingenuity from black women around: How do I solve this problem? How do I make sure my community has shops, access to good healthcare, access to childcare that’s not going to put you in the poor house? I think these things are on the horizon. We don’t need another food delivery service. Maybe we need something that can really help us get to the next level in our life, and move us from survival to thriving. That’s my America.
For many black-led start-ups, there’s a social element, which is normally at odds with capitalism. Is this why these startups are having trouble with VC funding?
To be honest with you, I think it’s a data gap in the way that investors have looked at social enterprise.
What do you mean by “data gap”?
When we hear the stories of start-up founders who’ve been turned down, especially those who’ve raised money with investor rooms that don’t look like them, essentially the feedback is, “Well I don’t know that problem.” A lot of times, especially in the black community, when you look at entrepreneurship, there’s been very little data collection—like, the kind of businesses we’re creating, the kind of problems that we’re solving. They’re all in siloes. You have academics and big researchers that will research various issues. But when you get a founder that’s coming to the table with an actual solution for some of these challenges, those challenges don’t necessarily resonate with individuals who may not have ever experienced those things. A lot of times investors are looking for patterns in data, so when that information is not shared in public, you get a knowledge gap.
What’s next for you?
I’m wrapping up my data journalism degree here at Columbia. I gotta hand my degree to my grandfather, who I don’t think even completed high school. He’s going to put it on his wall.
Did he migrate up from the South during the Great Migration?
He was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, until he was about 13. His family faced so much racism and oppression, so they moved to Detroit. He was a carpenter and went to Seattle to build his life there—served in Vietnam for a little bit—but he was actually the person that bought me and my cousins our first computers. He was the reason why we were able to do anything, because he was like, Nope, everybody’s going to have computers. He always bought the latest gadgets. He wanted to make sure we were very competent, so that’s why, when I walk across that stage, I gotta give him my degree. That’s for him.
Photography and Styling by Maroon World
Makeup: Wanthy Rayos
Hair: Illy Lussiano
Nail Artist: Eda Levenson of Lady Fancy Nails
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
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