Shanae Ullman, a WTF community member and the Founder & CEO of Nerdy Diva, authored the the following blog post and shares 3 key insights she gleaned from her journey as a founder of a tech-based business. Shanae’s company, Nerdy Diva, offers branding, web development and training for growing online business.
Shanae brings over a decade of experience from corporate Fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurship to her clients. Her background is in User Experience, Web Design, Web Development and Cloud apps. She is a proud graduate of Saint Louis University and Northeastern University and also holds certifications from Webster University and MIT. A passion for entrepreneurship and the direct need for an agency focused on the success of women-owned businesses drove Shanae to build Nerdy Diva. She envisioned Nerdy Diva to be a place where the clients and staff alike would feel connected, supported, and encouraged to explore creative solutions to grow successful online businesses.
Like many of you, I took on what may be my greatest challenge and creative project yet: becoming a founder of a tech-based business. Nerdy Diva, is a design, development, and training agency with a fully distributed team who are experts in branding, UX/UI Design, and Development for websites and SaaS apps.
My journey as a Black woman tech founder has had both highs (such as being selected for a Diverse Business Accelerator) and lows (like submitting tons of applications for funding and being denied by them all). There have been so many lessons learned, and some lessons I am still learning. Here are my 3 Affirmations that steady me on this path:
You are enough. Also, this world is unfair, so be ready to prove yourself (over and over again).
Before I became a tech founder, I worked at some of the biggest tech companies in the world, but it was hard being often the first and only of black woman in the room. African Americans are underrepresented in the tech and design industry in large numbers. And although many people know the statistics, it is still a challenge to experience day in and day out.
The same is true for black tech founders. In these spaces I am a pioneer. Like the movie “Hidden Figures,” I have been asked to prove (despite years of experience, formal degrees, and informal training) that I belong in the startup community. So, have your data and artifacts and receipts available in advance. Keep records of your research, document your product decisions, process, and tools. Gather testimonials from your network and even better, offer to share your knowledge for the world to see in multimedia outlets from blogs, to YouTube, to podcasts, and more. It’s ok to cry, but also pray, dust yourself off, and use creativity to overcome this insidious cycle of viewing Black women as unworthy and unqualified in the tech industry.
Use creativity to overcome this insidious cycle of viewing Black women as unworthy and unqualified in the tech industry.
When my expertise is questioned, it motivates me to work even harder to innovate and create the best digital products and services for emerging technologies. I study my craft religiously, taking care to understand the core problems to address and notice small details that bring delight and joy. I memorize and constantly research cognitive psychology mental models, design patterns, color theory, icons and menu structures, and work on deconstructing it, taking it apart and reimagining it with my own style and unique attributes. And that’s when the magic happens.
You are not alone. You have a community of supporters and stand on the shoulders of giants. Be intentional and find your people.
I yearn to connect with other founders, especially other women interested in technology and entrepreneurship. The need for creativity and exploration outside of the confines of corporate mindset and hierarchy led me to create a tech consulting agency focused on the needs of women founders. A passion for entrepreneurship and the direct need for an agency focused on the success of women owned businesses drove me to build Nerdy Diva. I envisioned Nerdy Diva to be a place where the clients and staff alike would feel connected, supported, and encouraged to explore creative solutions to grow successful online businesses.
Being a founder is often a solitary act in the beginning. Making a point to connect with other founders, especially other women founders, like the women of WTF, and also being intentional to build relationships with other Black women founders, who can offer support from a shared understanding of the challenges I face has been a saving grace. To leave out the experience of connecting with other founders is a disservice to the joy of the journey and would stunt the growth of my business. The response to building relationships with other women founders is powerful. I have developed partnerships and new ways of solving problems to get things done more efficiently and produce better, more beautiful final products. Together, my partners and clients, use creative strategies, exploration, and discovery to find solutions.
To leave out the experience of connecting with other founders is a disservice to the joy of the journey and would stunt the growth of my business.
Together is a keyword. Making the effort to share knowledge and opportunities with others leads to reciprocity, and many will do the same for you. Connecting with founders of various ages, ethnicities and genders who value diversity has been a game changer in helping me make progress on my goals. When opportunities come up I make sure to share it to folks who would be a good fit in my network directly and indirectly via social media as a way to help others meet their business goals as well. In this way, building community, sharing opportunities and encouraging one another, leads to more wins all around.
Your faith in yourself and your mission will take you far. Take the faith and courage of the ancestors with you. Do it scared; courage is feeling fear and taking action anyway.
Like the creative process, entrepreneurship is a combination of fear and excitement, dread and want. Seeing the hurdle and like a track star, picking up speed and bracing to jump to the next level. Sometimes, doubt starts ringing in my ear: What if I fail? What if people think I’m crazy? What if I lose my job, friends, standing, etc. for speaking up? What if I embarrass myself? What if I really can’t do something new? What if everyone who ever doubted me was right? What will I do if they laugh and say ‘I told you so?
It took me many years of planning, self-doubt, and creating, but eventually, I knew I had to go for it. Likewise, I cannot sit by silently while the Black Lives Matter protests are happening. My network of White friends and partners have reached out in numerous ways to express their concern and desire for action. I have been courageous and sharing with authenticity how challenging it really is as a Black woman surviving discrimination on a daily basis and how this discrimination translates to less funding, referrals, and resources available for Black women founders. These are tough conversations to have, but I am hoping the dialogue spurs growth and action. Companies committed to social justice can contact me about my Anti-Racism Design Thinking Workshop to learn more about how to create more inclusive workplaces, products, and services. For more information view the webpage here.
Overall, this journey as a Black woman tech founder is my most rewarding creative challenge yet; and also my most challenging endeavor as I advocate for myself, feeling like a fish swimming upstream against barriers including a lack of access to networks and funding opportunities. I am aware of the impact and the responsibility of often being the first and only Black woman in the room, doing what I’m doing–owning my space. There is creativity in navigating new situations and charting a new path in history, and I am excited to be a part of the progress.
I am aware of the impact and the responsibility of often being the first and only Black woman in the room, doing what I’m doing–owning my space.
I am grateful to the community of founders for encouraging me to keep going; to the naysayers who taught me to use those creative skills in new ways; and to my clients for believing in my talent to help them build solutions for their businesses. I also know that the startup ecosystem can do better in welcoming Black women into the fold, by supporting our businesses, connecting us to people and resources, and frankly by hiring us and investing in our talents.