Correction on Apr 25, 2018
An earlier version of this story misstated the nationality of two of Cocoon Cam's co-founders. They are Indian.
More advocacy for them on the job, more funding for their ideas and more focus on their successes.
That’s the advice of eight women of color in technology who earlier this year contributed their insights to Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting’s coverage of ways the industry is leaving them behind.
In October, Reveal published diversity data from 23 of the largest technology companies in California’s Silicon Valley, which showed poor representation of women of color at almost every level. As part of that project, Reveal in January convened a Women of Color in Tech conversation at the San Francisco Public Library.
The women who participated represented many rungs of the tech ladder: founders, product managers, engineers and designers at leading Silicon Valley companies.
You can hear excerpts from that conversation in this week’s episode of Reveal. Here are some more highlights from the discussion:
Sponsorship, not just mentorship
Mentorship and sponsorship are two distinct things – and they are not equal.
The women defined mentorship as “a lot of talking” and “giving tips.” Mentors get you through the door. They want sponsorship instead, which to them means people who can help their work get noticed and advocate for them in the workplace. Sponsors, they said, help you move up in your field.
Chia-Lin Simmons, co-founder of startup LookyLoo and a former Google employee, defined a sponsor as someone actively “spreading the word about you and ensuring that they’re paving the way for your success.”
“It’s literally bringing you up by the hand and ensuring that you’re getting that next promotion and that they’re fighting for those dollars behind closed doors, “ she said. “Because just talking about helping you and giving you tips isn’t going to do it.”
More funding for female entrepreneurs of color
The lack of diversity in the tech industry isn’t just about the people companies are hiring – it’s also about who is getting money to start their own ventures.
According to a study conducted by Fortune, female founders received 2 percent of all venture capital funding in 2017. The women we spoke with noted that a lack of gender and racial diversity at the founder level affects diversity numbers throughout the industry.
Rubi Sanchez, a product manager at AdRoll and co-founder of baby monitor startup Cocoon Cam, said that in the early stages of a startup, the need to build a product quickly leads company founders to hire people they already know – and often those who resemble them, too.
Sanchez acknowledges she hired in a similar fashion when she started expanding her startup. Because she is a woman of color, she hired more women and people of color.
Then, Sanchez said she hit barriers she did not expect when she sought seed funding.
“When I was fundraising, I had a white man say, ‘Hey, I think the technology and the product that you guys are building sounds really cool. I think in order be a successful company, you really should find someone that looks and dresses like me,’ ” she recalled. “I just said, ‘Well, that’s not going to happen.’ ”
Despite feeling discouraged at times, Sanchez said she kept going to inspire others.
“I went to all these conferences, and the only people that looked like me were the janitors cleaning up,” she said. “I then pushed myself to speak at these conferences and to talk to folks, so that people that look like me could see someone like them.”
Sanchez and her fellow co-founders, two Indian men, eventually received funding for Cocoon Cam and brought the product to market.
Other women also noted the need for opportunities to connect with funders. Frustrated by the lack of female entrepreneurs of color getting investment, Simmons created a funder pipeline.
She started and manages the Binders Project, which, according to Simmons, connects people “interested in accelerating women-funded technology startups” with female founders.
“I find that women are amazing founders,” Simmons said. “They don’t need any education from me or anybody else, but I need to connect them directly to the path of money, which is what’s actually needed.”
Efforts such as the Binders Project go hand in hand with new developments at the investor level, with women-led funders such as The Helm and Aspect Ventures, backed by Melinda Gates, seeking to spark change from the top.
Making it work
Despite the challenges, women of color are navigating the male-dominated tech industry and creating their own opportunities. The majority of the women we spoke with have faced discrimination and the everyday repercussions of unconscious bias, but they remain determined to succeed.
“We all love tech. We all love building things … and it’s just finding a way that works for us,” said Angie Chang, former vice president of strategic partnerships at Hackbright Academy, a coding school focused on getting more women into the tech industry.
Chang started Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners in 2008. She wanted to bring together women in tech so they could share their collective achievements in the field. Today, Chang oversees the newly rebranded Girl Geek X dinner series full time.
“I started Girl Geek dinners 10 years ago because I was the only female engineer in a startup of about 20 engineers, and I wanted to meet other women across companies,” Chang said. “And over time, I found that other women were joining me by the hundreds because they all felt similarly. They were lonely, they wanted to make connections, and they wanted to figure out how to be successful and how to keep going at this field.”
The women who gathered for the discussion said media outlets often focus on how women of color are on the short end of the diversity stick, which spreads awareness of industry inequities, but also paints them as victims.
“Looking at the numbers every single day is super depressing. We’re in it every day, and the only messages that we’re getting (are) how hard it is and how hard it is and how hard it is,” said Shanea King-Roberson, a senior technical product manager at eBay. “The number of women in tech isn’t zero.”
They’d like to read stories that acknowledge that women in the field are changing the industry and how they did it.
“I want to listen to subversive stories of women who are on the inside and flipping it,” said Eun-Joung Lee, an independent design consultant.
More to come
Reveal is continuing to report about racial and gender inequities in the tech industry by analyzing new data and talking to companies, employees and experts about diversity.
If you work in tech and have dealt with issues related to race and gender disparities, tell us about it here.