by Michelle Y. Talbert, Esq.
A little over a year ago, I took a deep breath, entered the building on 15th street that houses the 1776 accelerator, and took a seat to hear from Paul Allen (or, as he refers to himself, “the other Paul Allen.”
I was in a room of at least 200 other startup founders, and wannabes, hungry to hear how he’d started Ancestry.com (ohhhhhh, that Paul Allen). He was honest as he took us through concepts like data mining back in the day (aka the library), affiliate relationships, member retention, and many other tidbits that I frantically jotted into my journal that evening. Paul was amazing and I was hooked. I knew I was in the right crowd, sort of.
Afterward, I mingled a bit… and bounced.
When I hit the street, I exhaled and thought, “OK, I can do this.” See, my trepidation came because – in addition to being a “non techie” who is striving to found my first startup – I am also an African-American woman. In fact, that night I was one of three (yes, I counted) brown women faces in attendance. Don’t get me wrong, I attended mainstream universities for undergrad and law school and I am comfortable in pretty much any environment, but something about big bad Silicon Valley intimidated me.
For anyone new to the world of tech startups, the sheer amount of information, opportunities, and pace of how quickly things move can be overwhelming. I now walk confidently into the many events and functions that I attend, (and even blog about them), and I’m able to do so because two things happened:
First, I realized that people are people. There were no gargoyles guarding the gates of information about tech and access to capital and the myriad other details of starting a startup. (I need to make a quick note here, I am in no way saying that the tech industry is reflective of society as a whole with respective to diversity and inclusion. I am speaking about the tech community in DC and I have not conducted research on the amount of funds invested in companies headed by people of color and women in DC as compared with those headed by white males.)
Second, I connected with an amazing tribe of women of color who are, and have been, (for decades in some instances), doing everything that the DC tech and startup community has to offer.
From organizations like Code for Progress to DC Web Women to the new R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center in the Southeast neighborhood of the District, in addition to the rich blogger community of which I was already a part, there are amazing resources and people with whom to connect. Hack-a-thons and startup competitions are just exploding all around town. The one I most recently attended was at Howard University, a historically black college or university, here in DC.
The DC government is on board with incentives and programs to attract startup founders to start their businesses here – or in garages here, if you prefer a Steve Jobs-ian startup mystique.
In addition to great organizations, the fact is that the people who run the organizations and who come out to the events are generous with their knowledge and information and access. What I also learned is that there are these beautiful, overlapping communities of business and tech and venture capital that have been incredibly welcoming to me.
I’ve gotten to know women in DC Tech like Ananda Leeke of Digital Sisterhood; Zuhairah Washington, General Manager at Uber; Sybil Edwards, President of DC Web Women; Frederique Irwin, founder of HerCorner; and Uber VC and founder of Handpressions, Carla Valdes. Oh yeah, and that Paul Allen guy too, who has been generous with his time and knowledge as well. Thanks to these people, what once felt like an unnavigable old boys’ (well, actually the mythical young boys’) club, is where I now call home.
Of course there is still much work to be done in the area of inclusion, yet it is quite comforting to know we have a strong community of women of color in tech already here in the trenches together.
As I’ve taken this journey, I’ve made missteps in my business, and I have faltered with the tech for our in-development site. But thanks to a solid community of DC Women in Tech, I feel like I’m attending a Homecoming game whenever I enter events now. And because of them, I, and others who look like me, can stand assured that our businesses, and by extension the communities we serve with our businesses, will have access to the tools for tech startup success. And, dare I say, our businesses may even become “killer startups” someday soon. Too easy.
Michelle Y. Talbert, a DC-based, NY-bred, relationship strategist, produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, They Met Online…, in addition to writing on relationship strategies in business and love. She’s a passionate startup-founder-in-progress and member of the 2014 Lean Startup DC contest winning team. Michelle received her B.S. from Cornell and JD from Penn Law, with a certificate in Business Policy & Management from the Wharton School. Connect with her on Twitter @MichelleTalbert and LinkedIn.
U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv | Courtesy of Michelle Y. Talbert