In the first half of 2021, $137 billion was invested in US startups. From this mountain of cash, black entrepreneurs received just one percent, while women-only founded companies received a measly two percent.
The figures aren’t broken out for Black women entrepreneurs, but based on the above figures, I’d hazard a guess it would be around two percent of the one percent. Based on that estimate, for every $5,000 invested, Black women would get $1.
As a Black tech founder, Jade Kearney is only too aware of the racial and gender bias in the VC system:
More Black women start businesses than anyone else in this country. Most of those businesses do not break even ever, because there's no capital that flows to them. The money has to flow to Black folks, Black women in particular, or it won't work.
Kearney’s own experience setting up SheMatters, an online platform supporting Black women who experience mental illness, led to her founding Black Girl’s Tech Day. The annual conference for women of color hosted its first event in New York in 2021, and is expanding to Atlanta, Los Angeles and South Africa this year and next:
Black Girl’s Tech Day is borne out of the struggle that I have as a black female tech founder. It's been a very tumultuous and challenging environment to get people to take me seriously.
If you're a black female founder and you are trying to raise capital, usually people want your valuation to be lower than what it's supposed to be. You are going up this constant uphill battle to get things that white males and Asian males get for having an idea on paper.
Kearney’s aim was to create a day where Black women founders and well-tech founders can discuss resources, support each other over startup-related issues, and share essential information. The hope is that the next generation of Black women tech founders, including potentially her own two daughters, don’t have to go through the same negative experience that she went through.
However, a lot more needs to be done to ensure this change happens. According to Kearney, the first step is white men acknowledging that they fund based off of familiarity, backing a technology they understand or have seen before, and one where the founder looks like them. They have to come to an understanding that the playing field is unfair.
And while mentoring is a useful strategy, it has limited impact.
It takes more than mentorship to get a startup off the ground. If you're mentoring in circles and you're not providing avenues towards capital, you are part of the problem. No start-up can last without money.
We have all these accelerators, but no Black people or women are coming because you have not put any money into marketing or having partnerships with organizations that are geared towards Black folks.
Kearney’s own experience with mentors wasn’t always a positive one. During her time at NYU, she was told by a mentor that she would never get into New York City accelerator Techstars because she was a Black woman, and that no-one would be interested in a tech-enabled platform for Black women. She did get in, and it was a fantastic experience.
However, Techstars also opened her eyes to how much of the industry is still dominated by Tech Bro culture. Kearney compares Silicon Valley to a secret underworld:
There are things you're not supposed to do, there are things you're supposed to do. People know you need money, but you're not supposed to ask for it. You’re only supposed to ask an angel investor the third time you meet with them.
It's all of these rules that women or people of color would never know because we've never been given an opportunity to be part of this world. We didn't know what kind of pitch deck we should have because we've been told the pitch deck should look like this, but really VCs like a pitch deck like that. It's about information, accountability, and strategy around reaching people of color.
To guide Black women through this secret underworld of tech investment, Kearney has launched Lean While Black: Guide to Black Entrepreneurship. Following on from Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, the book details the lean startup methodology as it relates to Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) founders:
The Lean Startup doesn't really apply completely if you are a person of color. It doesn't take account for racism bias. I've had this conversation with Eric, there are pieces that are missing that only a person of color could understand.
As well as Black founders, the book is aimed at investors and accelerators, to help them understand what Black entrepreneurs go through when entering the startup journey and Silicon Valley culture:
It’s about having different conversations with BIPOC founders than you would with white founders.
Kearney is also taking aim at racism in the US healthcare system via the SheMatters platform she created for her thesis at NYU. SheMatters began as a mental health brunch in New Jersey for Black women to talk about what they were experiencing. It sold out in three days, and more than 10,000 Black women have since participated in the platform. Kearney now has plans to expand over the next five years into Canada and the UK.
Its origins stem from personal experience. When her daughter was born, Kearney had crippling postpartum anxiety and depression. This wasn’t helped by the paltry maternity leave offered in the US, which meant she had to return to work after six weeks:
I was not ready mentally or physically. I was breastfeeding on the bathroom floor where I was teaching and I just wasn't in the right head space.
Culturally for Black folks, especially in the United States, we do not talk about mental illness. When I did go to family and friends about what I was experiencing, it was like, ‘We suffer in silence, don't even try to bring this up because no-one has time for it. We're all experiencing some type of trauma as Black folks here, so you’ve just got to deal with it’.
The unfairness of this situation was partly the catalyst for SheMatters. However, Kearney is also taking aim at what she calls one of the most systemically racist healthcare systems in the world:
When you look at maternal morbidity, Black women are more likely to die in the US than any other group of women. That's largely based around race and bias and communication. I was communicating with healthcare professionals about what I was experiencing and they were not putting two and two together: that I was having a mental health crisis, and it was based on the physical trauma that I had been through during my delivery into my postpartum period.