Meet The Founders Of Black Women Talk Tech — Where They’re Building The Next Billion-Dollar Business
When Esosa Ighodaro, Lauren Washington, and Regina Gwynn met, they were navigating the challenges of growing and scaling their own businesses, on top of the fact that they were often the only women of color in the room. So in 2017, they banded together to create Black Women Talk Tech — a platform for Black women founders to support one another and help grow each other's companies into the next billion-dollar businesses. The organization, which has 10 chapters in cities across the country and one in London, is holding its fourth annual conference February 27-29 in New York City, where Black women entrepreneurs — the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in America — will convene to empower and teach each other about scaling their businesses amidst the unique challenges they face in the predominantly white and male tech space.
Ahead, we chat with the Ighodaro, Washington, and Gwynn about the origin of this year's BWTT 2020 Roadmap To Billions conference, the speakers most inspiring to them, how to seek out mentorship, and their shared goal of helping Black women entrepreneurs succeed.
Esosa Ighodaro is the cofounder of Nexstar, a platform that helps automate influencer marketing campaigns at scale for Fortune 1000 companies primarily focused in food, beauty, and travel. Lauren Washington is the cofounder of Fundr, a platform that helps automate seed investing between angel investors and startups. Regina Gwynn is the co-founder and CEO of TresseNoire, a virtual beauty coach app that gives free expert advice about haircare, products, and services for women of color.
Why did you decide to create Black Women Talk Tech?
Esosa Ighodaro: I met these lovely ladies a few years back, when we were all just starting our companies and going to different conferences to learn more about how to better scale and build. The majority of the time, we were always the only Black women in the room, and we were so excited to see each other — I'd been in technology building my business for three years and I hadn't seen that many diverse founders. When we finally met, we were so excited to figure out what we were each working on and how we could better support each other's businesses and growth. We realized that we didn't quite see ourselves in these spaces and wanted to figure out how to overcome our unique challenges and have a safe space for us to talk and connect.
The first time we got together we partnered with Google in a small space with like 30 seats, and we thought we'd have a small group — and we got over 300 people interested in joining. So we ended up having to create an application process. It was meant to be a meetup where we learned from each other, but at the end of that day, everyone was like, 'When's the next one?' That next year, we ended up getting 550 people. I was so excited that people were so energetic and excited about building their businesses in a unique way. We realized that there was a truly underserved need for Black women to connect in these ways. So we started launching chapters as well as a virtual membership program. It's been a very feverish community who really wants to grow and succeed and expand.
Lauren Washington: As I've been moving through my businesses, I have seen such a huge disparity within funding and how difficult it is to break into this world of investment — everything from getting warm introductions to understanding even the lingo and how and when I should ask for money. It has been such a challenge because it's just something that we don't know or talk about within our community, and we don't have as much access to the type of people who have that sort of money, which is what prompted me to start Fundr.
Regina Gwynn: To echo Lauren and Esosa's points, navigating the majority of the tech ecosystem has not been easy or pretty, but we've found that being able to rely on each other and provide new ideas and hack each other's businesses has been so very valuable in unlocking more growth for our own businesses and just being able to still maintain a level of success within the industry. Building these conferences has influenced the way I've navigated TresseNoire, and hearing other people's stories has really helped me refine the way in which I think about my own product.
Who are the Black women founders inspiring you right now?
Lauren Washington: I think so many of our speakers are really inspiring to us because these are women who have done so much with so little. Last year we had Julia Collins, founder of Zume Pizza, which created a robotic arm that automatically builds pizza. What's exciting about Julia is that she was the first Black woman to have her company valued at over a billion dollars and become a unicorn in the tech industry. I mean, that is literally our mission — so we gave her the Tech Trailblazer Award last year. This year, one of the speakers that we're really excited about is Courtney Adeleye. She is someone who is self-made and created her company The Mane Choice, built it up to millions of dollars, and is now giving back. There's this trend of women who are creating incredible businesses and then reaching down and pulling people up with them. We come from a place of abundance — there's enough for all of us to win up here.
What advice would you give to someone who has a billion dollar idea and doesn't know where to start?
Regina Gwynn: Always try to pursue your ideas, because if you don't pursue them, someone else will. You'd be remiss not to bring your innovation and startup to life. Is that easy? Absolutely not. And is entrepreneurship for everyone? Absolutely not. But there is an amazing collection of resources and support systems across the country including incubators, investment funds, media companies, brands, sponsors, and corporations that all are very interested in seeing Black and brown founders win. That's our impetus as well — we want to see us win and to have more Black women get funding and access to capital and resources. I think the first step is to get out there and talk to as many people as possible. Don't be afraid to hide your idea for fear that someone is going to steal it. No one can do what you do how you do it. Period.
You also have to be comfortable asking questions. One of the most common things that came up in conversation last year at our conference was that our Black women founders felt safe enough to actually ask the things that they needed to ask and not feel that someone would criticize them or think they asked a dumb question. They actually felt that they were in a space that was supportive and positive and that they could get the information they needed. You don't know what you don't know when you're buiilding something. That's the whole idea of entrepreneurship — bringing something to life that doesn't exist.
Have you had a mentor throughout your career who has helped guide you? What advice would you give to someone seeking mentorship?
Lauren Washington: It's so important as you're building your business to have people you can ask questions to. For Black women, there just aren't a lot of women who are going where we'll all trying to go — we're all trying to create billion dollar businesses, and there are so few who are at that valuation. So what has worked for me as I've built my business is finding peers to be my mentors. Talking to people about what they're doing, filling holes in each other's skillsets, and sharing information to build each other up as we're moving. I think if you're looking for someone who has your experience, which is really important as a Black woman tech entrepreneur because our experience is very different from others, you may need to just find people who are on your level or a little bit above you to build each other up.
Esosa Ighodaro: A lot of times when you see someone who is a good mentor, the hard part is they're probably being asked by everybody for something, but it's probably pretty rare for you to offer something to them. So offering something and building that relationship first before asking for something is a route that I think more people should take.