In an op-ed for Fortune last month, Sarah Kunst, founder of Proday, referenced a report published by Digital Undivided called Project Diane. The report found that just 4% of female-led startups are run by black women, and that those companies pull in about .01% (an average of 36K) of funding typically raised by a successful startup. She wasn't surprised by the findings, but she wasn't impressed either.
And while Project Diane calls that 4% "the real unicorns of tech," Sarah is no mythical creature. She's astute and purposeful in her own efforts and her leading work to bridge the digital divide.
We checked in with Sarah pre-SXSW where she will be joining us on panel: How to Launch Your Business, Create Community, and Stay Relevant in the Modern Marketplace.
The stories we hear about women in tech, and WOC in tech are usually upsetting due to the lack of diversity and frustration of fundraising. But let’s talk about the positive to start. What are some surprising conversations you’ve had about Proday?
The best thing about building Proday.co into an app that connects pro athletes with their fans for workouts has been the support from the sports community. The doors that have been opened and the help I've gotten from top athletes and agents has been beyond my wildest dreams. I'm so grateful for it.
What’s the most surprising backlash you’ve experienced?
Many tech investors have gotten jaded or burnt and they are afraid to believe that someone can finally break through in a crowded market that's seen a lot of failure. Much like many investors weren't hot on Facebook a decade ago because Myspace seemed unstoppable and Friendster had failed, I sometimes talk to investors who think that fitness and apps are hard markets and that because no one has won the entire thing yet, no one will. It's fun to prove them wrong.
Where do you see your work changing what you’ve called the “broken dynamic” of venture funding? Can you talk a little bit about the stats in the Project Diane report?
My work is building a billion dollar company in the sports, fitness and content space. That I do that as a black female founder may make me an outlier in an overwhelmingly white male tech world, but it doesn't change my mission or discourage me. It's kind of cool to beat the odds and know that my success will only help pave the way for more like me.
Businesses with diverse leadership teams are proven to do better in the marketplace, and yet parity is still rare at high-level jobs. Why do you think it is so hard to break this mold?
People who run the most successful funds and countries in the world aren't dumb and they aren't incapable of changing things when they put their minds to it. They are though, not incentivized to make these much needed changes. When you see top execs fired for not having diversity in their teams you will see a change. Releasing diversity data from top companies in tech is a start, but there needs to be accountability and action for these execs to take the truth to heart and start building diverse companies that will deliver better returns.
Why is it important for you to invest in other women?
I invest my time, money and expertise into things that will make me money. When I was a venture capital investor that meant focusing on founders who I knew would be successful. Clearly, female and minority founders will be successful so I've invested in a diverse group of founders as an investor and advisor and I know that I will see huge returns on those bets.
Piggybacking on that, you’re female and black in an industry known for blatant sexism. How does the idea of intersectionality influence your work?
Well, if I tried to split the parts of me that are black from the parts of me that are female, I'd literally die because humans aren't capable of separating their race from their gender any more than you can put ingredients in a smoothie back into their separate, pre-blended form. Intersectionality doesn't 'influence' my life, it is my life. It's all of our lives. We all are the sum of our experiences and bringing that whole self, all our parts, into our work is vital to innovation.
In what ways do you think it is a key component of building a strong movement?
If we ask people to silo themselves - to not like a certain kind of music or dress a certain way or be a certain thing because we assume that their resume or race precludes them from certain interests or traits, we're being close-minded and shallow. Close-minded and shallow people rarely change the world for the better. Be open minded and don't be afraid to go deep. Don't assume to know where someone else 'intersects' and what drives them. Ask. If we remind ourselves that everyone we meet has intersects that we'd never expect, it's a lot easier to remain open to the new ideas and innovation they bring. To think that we're a sum of our demographic qualifiers devalues all of us.
Be sure to check out Sarah on panel at #CreateCultivateSXSW.
Arianna Schioldager is Create & Cultivate's editorial director. You can find her on IG @ariannawrotethis and more about her at www.ariannawrotethis.com