What are the lessons that black female founders, specifically, can learn from the successes of an industry veteran?
Three-time founder Angela Benton, currently CEO of data brokerage Streamlytics, shared her thoughts on navigating the tech industry as a black woman in a recent Inc. webinar. Benton spoke with Honeypot founder and CEO Beatrice Dixon, and answered questions from the audience. Here are some takeaways from their conversation.
Break out of the “Black business box”.
Being lumped into just one particular category is a common problem for minority and female founders. Benton says she is not responsible for it. “I don’t allow people to put me in boxes, and when people put me in boxes, I correct them,” Benton said.
For example, Benton highlighted a recent experience she had at Streamlytics where she worked to close a deal that she had been working on for nearly a year. “We’re just about to close the deal with them, but after all this time and effort, they want to categorize us in their Black founders’ area,” Benton said. In response, Benton said she opened with an expression of a desire to work together, but transitioned to being honest about her concerns: “‘I want to have this conversation with you, [I’m] super excited, but I don’t want to be a part of it because when I’m a part of it, you undo all the game-changing technology we’ve developed.’ “
Find partners who see your potential.
Recalling her experience running the accelerator for minority entrepreneurs NewME, Benton said a major goal was to work around those who failed to understand the companies she was promoting.
“As a community, we are brilliant,” Benton asserted. But when it comes to “respect,” she said, “we don’t necessarily get the same” as more privileged groups, noting how little venture capital funding is invested in Black entrepreneurs.
Benton worked to find partners who specifically hoped to address longstanding discrimination. She cited investor Mitch Kapor, whom Benton described as “an absolute legend.” Benton recalled, “Mitch was an ally before the word ally was used; we had this idea, he opened — this legend opened — his complete Rolodex of investors in Silicon Valley, and that’s how we started. That’s why people came to demo- days.”
“When you talk about ecosystem building, there are the founders, there are the funders and there are the allies,” Benton declared.
Get past your fear.
When Benton was asked to give the founders one piece of advice, she pointed to her battle with cancer at the age of 34 as a lesson in not caring what others think. She decided to focus more on the things that really matter. “The choices I make have to be more intentional for myself, for my family, for my community,” she said.
With that in mind, she said, “I became less afraid.” Her advice: “Say the things you want to say. If you feel like things aren’t set up in your favor, say those things.”
Also, Benton said, her business success had enabled her to speak even more frankly about race and gender inequality without becoming a target.