Farah Allen, a former IT professional, is also a self-proclaimed “problem solver.” After a series of conversations with her husband, a music industry professional, she realized that many musicians had trouble keeping up with clerical tasks, such as paperwork and billing. The industry was losing billions of dollars a year as a result.
So she started brainstorming ideas. That’s how she came up with The Labz, a cloud-based blockchain platform that empowers artists to create music, collaborate and, yes, fill out their paperwork.
Like any good startup, Allen’s idea filled a market need with innovative technology. But the success of The Labz was not immediate; as a black woman in the predominantly white, male-led tech sector, Allen continually faced roadblocks¹. She found it difficult to connect with the right investors and mentors that could help her boost her business. As a result, the growth of The Labz stalled. “I felt like an outcast in the industry,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.”
Eventually, Allen found refuge in digitalundivided, a social enterprise founded in 2012 by Kathryn Finney, who also started the popular early-2000s style blog The Budget Fashionista. digitalundivided is devoted to empowering Black and Latinx women entrepreneurs to own their work, using innovation as a tool. Giving women equal access to mentorship and business-building resources was something close to Finney’s heart. Throughout her career, even in the face of wild success, she faced many hurdles trying to build her businesses, reaching barrier after barrier and struggling to find people who would help her. So Finney started digitalundivided to give entrepreneurs like herself a chance to thrive.
Soon after discovering digitalundivided, Allen was accepted into the program’s business incubator, a nine-month crash course that walked her through crucial steps in business growth—such as customer discovery and product development—and helped her sharpen the functionality of The Labz. It also taught Allen how to be a “confident founder,” an essential skill, she says, for entrepreneurs. And it finally gave her access to the guidance so many women like her in tech struggle to find.
Today, thanks to digitalundivided, The Labz has a strong customer base and a well-defined product. Allen also has buy-in and support from some of the nation’s largest businesses, including a computer technology corporation and a telecommunications company.
According to Finney, there are plenty of women of color who will succeed on a level playing field, and the time to give them that chance is now. After all, Black women are the fastest-growing segment of the entrepreneurship sector2.
Finney predicts that increased diversity will be a big part of the future of tech and supporting it is a shrewd investment. Businesses owned by women of color generate over $44 billion a year, and in 2017, minority women-owned businesses employed 2.1 million Americans nationwide³⁴.
“Companies that don’t get this will be outsmarted, outworked, and out-innovated in the future by companies and startups owned and led by women of color,” Finney said.
Accelerators and incubator programs like those led through digitalundivided aren’t the only ones filling the gap in resources. JPMorgan Chase, for instance, supports women entrepreneurs of color in tech— including digitalundivided program participants— as part of their $150 million Small Business Forward initiative, which is designed to support and grow women, minority and veteran entrepreneurs. Such programs can play a critical role in helping businesses take part in changing the tide, according to Ted Archer, Head of Small Business Forward at JPMorgan Chase . And they also help make sure that a variety of viewpoints are represented in the innovations created by startups. Cutting-edge tech can change the way we get information, interact with each other, and view the world, after all; if we want that technology to empower different kinds of people, diverse perspectives need to be included in their development from the start.
While the industry still has a long way to go, some of the earnest efforts to push for diversity in tech are paying off. Many of digitalundivided’s alumni go on to receive significant investments and see remarkable growth—including Allen, who plans to formally launch the newest edition of her program and grow its paying membership base to 2,000 users within the next year.
Success like this is rarely easy, but it would have been even harder to come by without the support of an accelerator program. digitalundivided “took me in,” Allen said. “I saw people that looked like me that were doing it, slaying it, and I knew that I could slay it too.”
Read more from JPMorgan Chase here.
³digitalundivided’s ProjectDiane 2016 study