If everybody has your attention, nobody does. That's a problem — but it also paves the way for 2020s new currency: meaning.
Join Paul Campillo, Typeform's Director of Brand, as he explores why becoming a meaningful brand is more critical than ever — not just for your business, but for society.
In this episode, Paul visits Kathryn Finney, entrepreneur and activist investor. Going over the life-changing moments that lead Kathryn to fight the lack of diversity in tech and venture capital, they find the importance of a meaningful mission. Here's a taste:
Paul Campillo (PC): We're in historic Atlanta, Georgia, in front of the birth home of Martin Luther King Jr. Today, we're talking to Kathryn Finney, a tech pioneer in creating diverse and inclusive ecosystems. Kathryn's been named a White House Champion of Change, and also one of America's Top 50 Women in Tech.
Kathryn Finney (KF): Oftentimes when you are a smart black person, you're reducing yourself for other people. And so I said to these incredible people, "You don't have to reduce yourself, come and be you."
PC: Today's topic, missions that matter. Enjoy the conversation.
The background of a builder
PC: Maybe we should start with the question, who is Kathryn Finney?
KF: Kathryn Finney is a builder. I like to build things. And you know, there's a story about two years ago, I was meeting with a very well-known investor and they asked me... This person asked me: who are you... That question.
KF: And I said, you know, "I'm a mother, I'm the CEO of this company," like all of these other things. And she said, "No, no, who are you? Like, Kathryn." And I didn't have an answer. And I realized at that point that I had allowed other people to define me. And it was such a turning point, 'cause I was like, "Oh my goodness, I have to figure out who I am."
PC: So when you were doing that sort of reflection, did you have to go back? Did you think about your childhood? Whether there were clues along the way that kinda told you like, "This is who I am?"
KF: I was just beginning to write a book. So I have a book coming out next year, called "Build the Damn Thing." And every time I would interview someone or talk to someone, it would always be in reference to building, like Kathryn and building. It was, "Remember in fourth grade when you built this friendship bracelet business?" Or "Remember when you built your irrigation system for your yard during the pandemic?". It was always around building.
KF: And I think that theme just kept coming up and coming up. And so taking those together and then really sitting with myself and asking myself that question, is what helped me come to the realization that I like to build. That's what I do every day, every day in my life I'm building. And it's what brings me joy, building.
PC: What or who influenced you when you were coming up? Like who are the most influential people?
KF: Wow, definitely, my grandmother whom I'm named after, we call her Doonie, she was a seamstress, a single mother for a while, until she married my grandfather and built this business. And she had the seamstress business and I spent my summers with her. I saw how she operated. How the community of black women was that kind of bought from each other, supported each other. I spent a lot of time in her church growing up, which was this large African-American church that also had a credit union, which was really interesting. And then would give loans to people and that had a big impact on me. And she had a big impact on me.
KF: My dad though, had this vision of himself that was larger than black men permitted to have, especially in the 1980s. He found himself at this workforce development center and took a course in C++, which is the basic foundation computing language. Why this dude from IBM thought, "I'm gonna come to the hood and teach this place's factory workers coding in 1981," I will never know. I'm hoping that someday I can find out. 'Cause I think it's really fascinating.
KF: He got an entry level position at Digital Equipment Corporation, which was one of the early sort of computing companies, rose up through the ranks, because he had this aptitude, just utter brilliance. And then became a senior engineer at Microsoft. And this is in the 90s. And I say people... This was when Microsoft was like working at Google. And then when he passed away, he was an executive at EMC, which was one of the early data storage companies.
KF: And so being a child and seeing that, seeing your parents, within a span of 10 years, going from very entry stage, position factory worker, to being an executive at a computing company, had a profound impact on what the possibilities were. How did you know you could do that? Like, what type of strength did it take for you to move 1,000 miles away to a place you've never been, and you only know one person and that's my mother and know that you could do that and succeed? And so I come from a long line of that, a long line of people who I know had troubles. I know it was hard. Like I know it was hard.
PC: And do you think that's something that anyone can just do? Or is it, I mean, if... 'Cause it sounds like it's a DNA...
KF: Yeah, you can. Anyone can do it. I think it's just fear though, that often limits our ability to do things like that. We're afraid of the unknown, there's comfort in what we know. There's confidence sort of sitting in that. And so a lot of us sit in fear and that's why we don't go towards that. I think sometimes as a person of color, particularly as a black young person, you don't always get exposed to people you know intimately, taking a risk and winning. And that's what my dad did. He took a risk and won very big. And so that had an impact on me and my ability to take risks, because I knew that you can win, I actually had seen it.
Inventing and reinventing yourself
PC: Okay. You've seen all this, you've been influenced. Now you decide to do what? Go to school, what happens next?
KF: So, you know, growing up in Minnesota, like at 16, went to Phillips Academy Andover, which is one of the prominent private schools in the United States. I went for free because my dad was working at Digital Equipment at that time. It was right before he left to go work for Microsoft. And the founder of Digital Equipment went to Phillips Academy Andover, and he said, "If any of the employees' kids get in", cause it's really hard to get in, "We'll pay." And again, my working class family was like, "Wait a minute, here's some free money. You're going to apply and you're going to go." And I was so... I mean, I was so salty about going into that, but it fundamentally changed my life.
PC: In what way?
KF: I realized I wasn't just Minnesota smart, I was the global smart, because I left Minnesota and I was smart and thrived in that environment. And it was a certain level of confidence in myself that helped me, because I had thrived at Andover. It showed me that I could thrive anywhere and I didn't have to be in this box and I didn't have to be in Minnesota. And then it was a choice between Williams and Rutgers. And so I ended up choosing Rutgers, and just really learned about people again, everyone who ever existed went to Rutgers.
PC: Are you saying class-wise, race-wise?
KF: Everything. I had a friend who would wear drag to class. This is in the 1990s. This is not now, like would wear full drag to class, every sexual orientation, every race, every class, every type of thought, right? You had conservative and you had liberal you... I mean every type of person was there and all of that came together and created this space where you could start to rethink who you are, and you could start to have the freedom to be who you are.
PC: You lived abroad for some time.
KF: Yeah. I lived abroad. I lived in Ghana, west Africa, and again, it was another situation that really changed my life, because while I was there, I became really ill with malaria. Anyone who's ever had any illness, it just changes your perspective, because you're faced with your mortality.
KF: And so when I came back from Ghana, I was there for a year and a half. I was like, "I'm going into public health." Came back, graduated from Rutgers, and then went to Yale for epidemiology. And I graduated, I went to work, had a fellowship at USAID back in Ghana and was there, planning to be there, for two years, when my father became ill. And that forced me to come back to the States and he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.
KF: I remember we were driving around one day and my father turned to me and he said, "I appreciate you coming, but your life is not here. I want you to go live your life, 'cause I've had a great life, I need for you to go live yours." And it makes me emotional, even thinking of that, 'cause again, it was such a gift. It was like, "Look, I'm good, like I lived my life. You still have a whole life ahead of you. And I want you to go live it."
PC: The emotional reaction when he told you that, it had to be a little bit bittersweet, I don't know like...
KF: It was.
PC: Mixed emotions, right?
KF: It was mixed because, you know, I knew how sick he was, but I also understood what he was saying and knowing my father, he really wanted me to go live my life.
PC: He meant it.
KF: He meant it, because I think it would have been hard for him, if he knew I was staying just for him. And so I was in Philly, I was working at this nonprofit for black women called the Philadelphia Black Women's Health Project. I had just met my husband. I was planning to get married and like all of this great stuff. And my father passed away and it was hard. And I ended up leaving my job as an epidemiologist because it was just a lot for me personally.
The birth of the Budget Fashionista
KF: I started this blog called the "Budget Fashionista." And I started because I was budget shopping. Actually, it wasn't so much budget shopping, let me rephrase that. I was shopping a lot as a form of therapy. And I think anybody who's been sort of a shopaholic knows that sometimes you turn to shopping and consumerism to mask whatever else is going on in your life.
KF: I was recently married and my husband had said to me, "You know what? Why don't you let me document: kind of go shopping, but not buy. And so you can do this thing called a blog where you can chronicle your shopping experiences, but you don't necessarily have to buy it. So it can be, you know, kind of this adventure." And I was like, okay: "What is a blog?" I've never heard of this before. And he explained to me what it was.
KF: Fast forward, six months, a reporter contacted me from the Associate Press. I remember her name was Natasha Gural. She was writing an article about people who traveled to budget shop. So she interviews me and she puts some link to the site. This article went everywhere, everywhere with that link to my site and the site crashed. And when I say it crashed, it was like offline. Now, fortunately for me, I had married my developer. So I had in-house help. And it was just amazing. My life changed from that moment.
KF: That one little article led to a bunch of stuff. It led to a book deal with Random House. And I got a call from the "Today Show," and they were like, "Hey, we're looking for somebody to do an offsite segment on budget shopping." And I was like, "Oh, okay, I can do that." And so my first TV gig for the "Budget Fashionista," was on the "Today Show" at a Marshalls, talking about budget shopping. From there, I became a correspondent on the "Today Show," once a month a segment about budget shopping and did that for a number of years, and had a 15 city book tour sponsored by Marshalls.
PC: You and Marshalls.
KF: Budget shopping is who I am. So to have, like Marshalls and TJ Maxx sponsor my book tour was like, "Oh my God, I love this." It was like heaven for me.
First encounters with tech
KF: And it was around that time that I was trying to figure out how to turn it into something bigger. And again, as a woman, we sometimes question ourselves, it was already big. Like I already had something, but for some reason I was defining the worth of what I was building in relation to other people. And that I need to turn this into a real company. Even though I had staff, even though I had seven figures of revenue, I need to turn it into a real company. That was like my thought pattern.
KF: So I entered into an early incubator program in New York City. And it was probably one of the worst experiences of my life. It was the first time that... People didn't just have low expectations, they had no expectations of me. I never had experienced it until I entered into the tech startup space and realized at the time, you know, "I don't think I wanna be the Budget Fashionista for the rest of my life." It is who I am, the dress I'm wearing right now, it's from Target. I will always budget shop. I don't care how much money I have, I just will. And I left. And I think people were really shocked, 'cause they were like, you have a good thing going here. You get to shop all day and get to be on TV. And so I sold the company.
KF: I remember watching the TV show, "Silicon Valley," remember that on HBO and in its first season, the only black woman they had with a speaking part was a stripper, in the entire season, she was one of the only black people that had a speaking part. So that tells you a lot about... This is a show that's supposed to be about startup community in tech. They couldn't have anybody. There were no employees that were black. There were no other startup founder characters in there that were black. The only idea they had as a black woman was a stripper.
KF: I remember when I was part of the incubator program and I met with the head of the program, who actually is a well-known person in venture capital now. And he said to me, you know, "Look, I think you're great, you obviously can execute the idea. However, I've never met a black woman who received venture funding. And I don't think you will be the first."
PC: He's not like, "You have a shitty idea and there's no way I'm gonna fund it."
PC: It's about you.
KF: It was like, "Look, no, one's gonna wanna fund you, because you're not worthy of funding."
KF: And so we did this project called Project Diane. It was named after Diane Nash. Who's one of the biggest civil rights icons that most people don't know of, right? Incredibly influential.
PC: Diane Nash from Nashville, right?
KF: Diane Nash from Nashville. And there's actually this video that's on YouTube of her confronting the mayor of, I think it was Memphis. She was 19. She's like 5' 4", 19 year old and shaming this 50 year old white male mayor of Memphis into admitting that segregation is bad and immoral. And so I think for her, you know, naming something after her, as someone who is incredibly powerful, incredibly important, but most people had no idea who she was, but she was the reason why all this stuff was happening, was really important in Project Diane.
KF: So we called all of the VCs that I knew and said, "Tell me all the black women you've invested in, just tell me, whether... And even if you don't know if they're black or not, just give them to us and we will call the founder and confirm and see if that's how they identify." We literally went through. And it was like anyone who you remotely might think is black. Like, you know, put a mark by. Anyone who you think may identify as a woman, put a mark by. And the result was shocking.
KF: In 2016, when we released it, there were only approximately 84 black women led startups in the entire United States. I mean, it was like, we couldn't believe that. Like I literally couldn't believe that as an epidemiologist and a scientist, I'm always concerned about the accuracy of data and was challenging people like, "Please, I don't want this to be true, because this is horrible." At that time, there were only about 11 black women who had raised over a million dollars. The average, mostly white, mostly male, failed startup raised 1.5 million.
PC: The average.
KF: They average failed, not successful.
PC: The average failed, raised 1.5 million.
KF: Yes, there were only about seven VCs who had actually invested in a black woman founder. At that time, there was only one black woman, GP, general partner of a firm, one. I think there were something like 1,800 venture capitalists.
PC: Someone could say, "Well, there were only so many because there wasn't enough supply. There weren't a lot of people who are trying," or, you know, whatever the case is. How would you respond to that? 'Cause it seems like there's a lot of, like, there's a lot of systemic effects that not just the fact that there was, you know, 84 people, you know, found a way to fight through everything.
KF: Well, actually that's not necessarily true, black women over-index in terms of entrepreneurship. It's something like over, you know, 50% of all entrepreneurs are women, of the 50% that are women's over 65% are black.
PC: Right, the ones that we're counting.
KF: I'm surprised that weren't even 84 to be perfectly honest. Now, in hindsight, because there was just no indication. There was this very, very little indication.
PC: Where are we at today as far as that number?
KF: The most recent Project Diane report came out this past year and it's over 94... I think over 94 black women have raised over a million dollars, which is amazing and...
Making a difference
KF: After this show, it's going to be even more. Part of that is fueled by the fact that there's more black women led GPs, like myself, general partners who can make investments and make sizable investments that help sort of spearhead. One of the things with a founder is getting your lead investor is always hard. That's the first investor, right? And for us, we just didn't have people who would take the risk and people who would bet on us. And so I'm in a position where I can do that and I can get...
PC: We can bet on ourselves.
KF: We can bet on ourselves. We had this pandemic, in which a large number of black people, people of color were dying. We had a whole bunch of social strife going on. So we were in this time, but really, we did not know what was going to happen. People of color, and particularly for black women, it was devastating. Like we could not do our business. And even if you have money saved for a rainy day, it was raining, it was pouring. It was like a hurricane at that point.
KF: And also many of us are so deeply under-banked, our communities, that we didn't have private bankers that we had relationships with, who could help us access the PPP loans. So I had authorized for us to give 1,000 dollars to founders in our program, as long as you were in business, as long as you were part of our program, you got the money. And the response to that, it wasn't just impactful. It shifted my perspective. We created this little fund called the Doonie Fund, named after my grandma Doonie. And so we ended up raising over $160,000, and gave it out over a six week time period, over 1,600 micro investments to black women entrepreneurs. And the act changed my life.
KF: Right when we were wrapping up the Doonie Fund, George Floyd was murdered and I'm from Minneapolis. Like, I know the place where he was murdered. And so it was kind of like, "What am I gonna do?" I saw what could be done with the Doonie Fund. I saw how we were in this space and I had an opportunity to do something big and bold.
The Genius Guild
KF: I had been thinking about the Genius Guild for many, many years. At the same time, I was talking to a partner who had invested quite heavily in Digital Undivided when I was there, who was really investing in me. And I said, you know, "Hey, I have this idea of something I wanna do, it's big and bold, it's like kinda combo venture capital, private equity, building companies that serve the black community," just like very sort of nebulous, all these different words.
KF: And he went like, "You know what? We wanna hear more." So I started telling them about what I was doing and what I was thinking of as I was building and sort of structuring it out. So we have the Greenhouse Fund, which is a $10 million venture fund and a lab that sort of builds, creates and supports companies.
PC: Like an incubator?
KF: Not really an incubator, because I think, it's like a really structured program, and we work with other incubators. More like an idea factory, is what I would call our labs. Idea factory, idea manufacturing plant. You know, like we have ideas and we develop them ourselves. And we work with our portfolio companies to help them develop their ideas.
KF: I thought that I was gonna need a certain amount of money to do this. And I went to the partner and I said, "This is what I need." And then I realized after talking with a number of founders and about two weeks later that I was gonna need much more. To be able to do what I wanted to do, like talking about restructuring venture capital in an anti-racist way and funding black founders to create community wealth in the black community as a solution to racism, right? That's a really big idea. And it was gonna take a lot of support to do. And so I did something that I've never done before.
KF: I went to the partner and they had already agreed to one amount and said, "You know what? I'm gonna need more." To ask for what it is that I needed and then the response to be, "Okay," was just something that... this didn't happen. And I remember getting off the Zoom with them and like coming upstairs, I went... I have a walk-in closet. And I went into my walk-in closet and shut the door and cried.
KF And they said, "You know what? If it doesn't work, that's okay." What do you mean? Like, 'cause you know, for me, it's like, I've gotta overachieve, because as a black woman, I don't own my failure. Meaning, when I fail, there's a lot of other people who fail around me because I failed, because I'm taking care of so many other people, emotionally, financially. So you're saying to me, "It's okay for me to fail." And that you're giving me that privilege. And if I fail, you're not gonna think any less of me." It was just like mind blowing, it was overwhelming.
Fighting racism through economics
PC: Well, I also don't wanna bury the lead either, because for you to make the announcement and say, "This is how we're going to tackle racism."
PC: Because a lot of people might think that racism is just, "Oh, this person hates me. This person thinks this way about me" or, you know, whatever. But ultimately it is about like... It comes down to economics, it comes down to what you're able to do and not do within a given society, which eventually affects your money, right?
KF: Racism impacts all of us.
PC: But when you're attracting all these people, all these incredible people to you, was that the thing that, "Hey, I'm gonna tackle it this way."?
KF: People are not comfortable with black people having money. It's the concept of whose work is valued.
PC: Yeah. That's a difficult concept to put out there though.
KF: It's a very difficult thing to admit.
PC: 'Cause it's saying that, "This whole race game is a zero sum game."
KF: But that's the way it's been set up, right? It comes from this deeply rooted legacy of slavery. Often, people think that just hurts black people or people whose ancestors were enslaved, it hurts everybody. Like, white people were hurt by slavery too. "Free labor" depressed the value of white people's labor. People couldn't charge as much as they wanted to charge. They couldn't get paid what they needed to get paid. And the only people who benefited from that were wealthy plantation owners. It wasn't black people, definitely. And it wasn't poor, middle-class white people, but yet we're afraid to have this conversation.
KF: And so a lot of it is, "Who do you think work is valued? Whose work do you think should be paid for?" One of the constant struggles as a black woman CEO is that, people are often aghast at how much I charge, even though it's the same amount as a white man who does not have nearly the background, pedigree, skillset that I have. But fundamentally in that is: "You shouldn't be charging, you should be happy with whatever I deem to give you."
PC: Yeah, kind of reminds me of the SNL skit with Eddie Murphy back in the 80s, when he became a white man.
KF: Yeah, they're like, "Here, I'll give you money." It is that way, like it's about value and who you value. And so one of the toughest jobs for me as a black woman leader is to always make sure I'm asserting my value and making sure that I always understand what my value is. Even if you don't, I know how much I'm worth. It takes a lot to get to that point. And it's a deep level of privilege that most other black people don't have. PC: But you're here.
Define your brand
PC: So on the way over here, we actually stopped in 4th Ward. We did some footage there, but it got me thinking about legacy. And then you brought up the idea, the concept of legacy. So with the final question, I do wanna ask you, Jeff Bezos said that, you know, "A brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room." What do you want people to say about you when you're not in the room?
KF: "She was a builder with a really amazing sense of style."
PC: I'll take it. Thanks Kathryn.
PC: Here's my takeaway from my conversation with Kathryn today. Besides hearing her amazing story, nobody can solve the problems that you care about, in quite the way that you can. As Kathryn progresses throughout her career, she continues to solve meaningful problems in a way that's very unique to her. Bring your full self to your work, you never know what can happen. Thanks for watching this episode of "Meaningful." And don't forget. Let's make every interaction count.