The year 2009 was very, very good for me. Six years earlier, I had turned my love of discount shopping into one of the first lifestyle blogs, called The Budget Fashionista. The site had grown into a seven-figure media empire. Along the way I’d become an online influencer before Instagram and TikTok even existed. My first book had been picked up by a major publisher and became a hit, I had a monthly spot on NBC’s The Today Show, and my blog was landing six-figure endorsement deals from T.J. Maxx, Tide and other brands. I was even living in a deluxe apartment in the sky in New York City.
Life was good. That is, until I decided to join an incubator program in New York. As a Black woman building her second business before the word “startup” had an entry in Urban Dictionary, joining an incubator was supposed to offer me the ability to connect with other startup founders, to be in a space where entrepreneurship was celebrated, and to get mentorship from people who have built successful companies. An incubator was supposed to have curriculums that walk entrepreneurs through the phases of building a company and connect founders with experienced mentors.
I had a killer idea. I wanted to leverage the 1.1 million weekly unique visitors to my blog to create and market a beauty subscription brand for Black women. There I was, a Yale-educated scientist running one of the most popular lifestyle sites in the blogosphere. I thought that with those credentials the startup world would welcome me with open arms.
I was wrong.
I didn’t know it then, but the startup world wasn’t created for someone like me. In fact, it wasn’t created for the 233-million-plus Americans — and the billions in the world — who aren’t white men. This was especially true for the early 2000s New York startup community. I was met with the harsh reality of pattern matching. This is why it’s easier for some groups (tech bros) to get the funding and support they need to grow their companies than it is for others (everyone else).
The theory behind pattern matching is this: since many of the “successful founders” in the startup space have been white guys from Stanford University, MIT, and Harvard University, it’s assumed that all future successful founders will likely be white guys from Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. As Paul Graham, founder of powerhouse incubator Y Combinator says, “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.”
Never mind that the obvious, but often overlooked, fallacy of pattern matching means the majority of failed founders have also been white guys from Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. Anyone whose identity falls outside of the pattern would be seen as a “risky” investment because we’re “unknown.”
“ The world of startups is super lazy when it comes to dealing with actual humans. ”
If you scratch the thin surface of this veneer, you’ll find the world of startups is super lazy when it comes to dealing with actual humans. The majority of the investors deciding who receives opportunities have graduated from elite institutions and have a very sheltered worldview. Instead of challenging themselves to expand their networks, they stay put and operate in this closed system. As a result they tend to give the opportunities to people like themselves. They can’t see people who are different, because everyone, and everything, around them is the same.
I volunteered to give my elevator pitch at the incubator’s weekly investor pitch session.* I walked to the front of the large gray conference room where we had our weekly sessions. I glanced at my husband, the only other person of color in the room, and he gave a smirk that said, “Show them exactly who you are.”
I know how to talk. I know how to get people on my side. So I put on my Minnesota smile and gave my pitch for a beauty subscription company targeting Black women. I outlined the size of the market and discussed how I would market my products using my existing audience of over 1 million visitors each month. I explained that while Black women are about 6% of the U.S. population, we purchase close to 50% of all the hair care products in this country, a market worth $2.5 billion. And that’s just for shampoo and style aids. When you include styling tools like flat irons, weaves, hair accessories, etc., the market grows to an estimated half a trillion dollars.
I brought this group of mostly white dudes into the wonderful world of ethnic hair care, the world of weaves and sister locks and edge gel. And I got it done with 10 seconds to spare in my three minutes of allotted time.
Silence. Which didn’t make sense, especially in this group of super overachievers who never passed up a chance to demonstrate their intelligence. The first person to break the silence said, “That was one of the best elevator pitches I’ve ever heard.” Others then chimed in with praise and questions about the idea and next steps. I was told that I received the best feedback out of anyone in the group.
Being an overachieving Black woman, I knew I was the best, mostly because when you’re a smart Black woman and you find yourself in a room where you are the only one who fits that criterion, you have no choice but to be the best. It’s a burden that every smart Black person, smart Indigenous person, smart Latinx* person, smart Asian person, and every smart woman carries with them from the first time they unveil their full brilliance to a group of people prepared to dismiss them instantly.
You learn, quickly, how to calibrate your reactions to idiocy in an effort to protect your humanity. You quickly do a few mental calculations, thinking, “Is today the today I totally pop off? Or do I put my humanity in my ‘sunken place’ because popping off would mean that I, and consequently other Black people, would never be allowed into the room again?”
“ A famous tech god told me my business model was excellent but he ‘doesn’t do Black women.’”
Here’s what happened next. The cohort leader, a progressive white dude who desperately needed to make sure I knew he was here to “help me” before he, too, dismissed me, turned to get feedback from the audience as a whole. A famous tech god told me my business model was excellent but he “doesn’t do Black women.” To this day, I have no idea what that means. The brother of the head of the incubator, the most earnest of the earnest white tech dudes, told me that he didn’t think I could “relate to other Black women” because I had an accountant. One person asked me if I actually knew any fashion bloggers and another questioned whether women online were a “real” customer base.
The “feedback” continued, as one tech bro after another made narrow-minded excuses for why I wouldn’t succeed. And I found myself — like many of us who have been marginalized — feeling angry.
I was angry that I was being asked dumb questions by people who had a hard time reconciling who they thought I was (somehow inferior) with who I actually am (100% “that bitch”). Angry that the very industry that prided itself on being able to “see around corners” couldn’t see how their own biases limited success for 75% of the world. These are the same people who defy the laws of physics by landing a rocket upright, but they can’t see women online as customers? They lead companies that make billions of dollars off memes created by Black people but can’t see how Black women can build businesses?
I scheduled a time to chat with the founder of the incubator, the Voldemort of Venture Capital (VVC), during his office hours. His “office” was really a small room in the middle of the larger office space of a failing startup.
I relaunched into a pitch for my company. Afterwards, VVC sat back in his chair that cost more than my rent and said, “Great idea, and obviously you can do this.” Then he leaned forward and said, “However, I’m going to be honest. I don’t know of any investor who’s invested in a Black woman. I’m not saying that you won’t get investment, it’s just highly unlikely that you will.” Then he got up and walked to the door, signaling that my time was up, saying, “Keep me posted,” which is like saying, “Don’t call me; I’ll call you” in startup speak.
I was eventually forced out of the incubator for reasons that remain unclear to me to this day. I didn’t pursue the idea of revolutionizing the Black beauty industry. Not because of my experiences in the incubator, but because The Budget Fashionista — which I 100 percent owned — was growing by leaps and bounds. So I continued to build my own damn thing, The Budget Fashionista, and eventually sold it in 2012 for a substantial sum.
I’ve since built several damn things, including digitalundivided, a groundbreaking social enterprise that forced the exclusive world of venture capital to have a come-to–Jesus moment regarding its institutionalized racism and sexism. And now, Genius Guild, a visionary venture studio, where I invest in Black-led startups. In a full-circle moment, I’m a lead investor in Health in Her Hue, a startup led by a Black woman public health professional.
For builders like myself, the ability to create a life we control is worth the risk of possible failure. The possibility of creating a legacy is so great that we choose to leave the pull of a traditional career and become entrepreneurs. Imagine creating something you truly believe in, watching it succeed beyond your wildest dreams, and then getting paid for the value you’ve created. That’s the promise of building your own damn thing.
This article is excerpted from “Build the Damn Thing: How to Start a Successful Business if You’re not a Rich White Guy,” (Portfolio, 2022), by Kathryn Finney. Finney is the founder and CEO of Genius Guild and general partner of The Greenhouse Fund. Finney is the former CEO of digitalundivided, a groundbreaking social enterprise focused on creating a world where Black women own their work. She is also the founder of The Budget Fashionista (TBF) and became one of the first Black women to have a seven-figure startup exit when she sold TBF.