Despite being identified as the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States, Black women still lack representation in one of the fastest growing and influential sectors of society - technology. One 2018 Kapor Center study reports that Black women account for less than 0.5% of Silicon Valley tech leadership positions and less than 4% of female-led tech startups. How can Black women confidently hold positions in the technology world, use their power as a catalyst to empower communities and fuel the next generation of innovation?
Chicago-based marketing consultant and app entrepreneur Amanda Spann is on a mission to change that narrative.
She's a fierce advocate for helping people of color make their mark in the tech industry - a space that we often count ourselves out of. Through her work, she helps build and brand startups while also helping aspiring and emerging founders bring their technology-focused ideas to life. Her company, Happii, currently consists of three different business verticals: apps, entrepreneurship-focused digital products and ebooks, and consulting services for startups and enterprises. Her new podcast, The Minimal Viable Podcast, provides Blacks founders a platform to talk candidly about their experiences in tech. She also hopes it will be a safe space for listeners to learn about the intersection of technology and entrepreneurship.
xoNecole spoke with Amanda about her journey, challenges many tech entrepreneurs face, tips for thriving as a new entrepreneur, why we need more Black women in tech, and the bigger impact funding technological innovation will have on our communities.
Check out the interview below!
How did you become interested in technology?
I've been in the space for about ten years now. I've always been interested in technology since I was a teenager, but I think there was some apprehension about being involved in the space because I felt like I couldn't be a part of it unless I was coding. As someone who has a nontechnical background, that was an initial barrier of entry for me. I could have gotten into the space a little earlier if I didn't have those insecurities about my skill-set and impostor syndrome looming over my head. The more I learned and researched about the space, I realized there were capacities and opportunities for everyone. There are opportunities to create your own role within the tech space or fill a lot of necessary roles at existing companies.
How did working in public relations help you as an entrepreneur?
Publicists organically are great founders. You tend to have to wear a lot of hats. You become your client's manager, therapist and confidant, in addition to becoming their friend. Likewise when you're running a tech startup or a company, there is always something to do. You can't be hands off with any part of the company even if that is not your sole responsibility. You have to be agile and fluid about your roles and capacity. You have to be able to move in a lot of directions. Being able to learn how to be flexible and malleable to learn from every mistake really set me up to be a startup entrepreneur in the future.
"When you're running a tech startup or a company, there is always something to do. You can't be hands off with any part of the company even if that is not your sole responsibility. You have to be agile and fluid about your roles and capacity."
Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I always had side hustles. At some point, it became faith versus fear for me. I realized as I kept entering back into the corporate space, I wasn't as happy or fulfilled. I felt like I was never going to be able to give as much to these companies as I would my own. It had been tugging on my heart strings and mind for a really long time. It started to feel debilitating that I was haunted by my ideas. At some point, I had to make a choice whether I was going to stink or swim. A big part of that was taking the leap and not looking back. I felt like I was never going to get my products to where I wanted to be if I didn't dedicate myself to it full-time. It's been one of the most difficult yet rewarding experiences of my life.
What's the biggest challenge most entrepreneurs face when starting?
Money. Between running the company and business development, you're getting pulled in a lot of directions. It's hard to work on your business when you're working in it. You have to learn the discipline to balance and allocate time for both.
One thing that I encourage entrepreneurs to do is to start small and scale up. I just had a friend who wanted to open a restaurant. I suggested to start with selling just sauces. That might provide you with the capital to open a brick and mortar business. You don't want to assume too much risk so soon. There's not that much risk associated with buying the time you need at an open kitchen and buying the supplies you need to make the sauce. The returns are good. You can build up the capital as opposed to taking out a loan.
I don't want to discourage people from dreaming big. Keep your long-term dream in mind, but there are a lot of different paths to get there. It doesn't always start with the biggest iteration. You never know where it might take you. You may find yourself on another path.
What are the critical keys to successfully scaling a business?
What we try to encourage most founders in tech when they are building their product is to build a minimal viable product (MVP). This is the leanest, simplest version of your product possible. How do I build the simplest version of this product, get it out to the world and learn as much as I can about my consumers so I can make it better and make more money in the process? You're not going to know everything. You do yourself a disservice if you give all the bells and whistles upfront. What's in your head isn't necessarily a guarantee that people might like it. You eat up a lot of your money by adding features that [are not] always critical at the time of launch.
If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, then you did too much or you did it wrong. You're not going to catch everything. You are going to make mistakes and be embarrassed. That's part of the process. You can always improve the product. Take the leap and start. Don't be embarrassed to admit what you don't know. You have to learn to be patient with yourself and know that everything will come in time. Don't beat yourself up every step of the way about getting it perfect because it never will be. It's more important to start, keep going, build, and iterate as you go.
Courtesy of Amanda Spann
What are some of your favorite business resources for tech entrepreneurs?
Use Google! Everything that you're looking for is figure-out-able. You'll be surprised at how many people ask questions and don't take the time to plug it in and search. If you're going to go into tech, Building A Startup is a really helpful book about the process of building a MVP.
User acquisition is a big challenge for tech entrepreneurs. What's your go-to marketing tip for getting customers to know about one's product?
The biggest thing is understanding who your target audience is and narrowing that down. There are a lot of people who build a product and say it's for Black people. Which Black people? Elderly? Millennial moms? Generation Z? Define and hone in on the demographics and psychographics of your target audience, what motivates them to purchase further, where they are living online (and offline), what they are reading and how they get their information. Not enough entrepreneurs are doing the due diligence to figure out who they are really targeting.
How do you get into the tech industry as a non-technical founder?
You have to swallow your fears. Know that you're going to have to operate through fear. Broaden your idea of what it means to be a tech entrepreneur or someone who works in the tech space.There are plenty of opportunities in several roles. Tech companies are businesses just like any other company. They need operations, business management, accounting, etc. A lot of us have those skill-sets. We just need to figure out how to transfer them over to the space.
Open yourself up to networking. A lot of times people are getting these roles because they know the right people or the right people know them. It's easy for us to pull ourselves off solely into Black spaces - which I encourage to some degree. In order to step into this new space, you're going to have to step into new territories you've never gone before. That may make you uncomfortable but you are more confident and capable of being there than you know. People need your skills, ideas, and perspective. They'll never get it if you never take that leap into entering the space.
"You have to swallow your fears. Know that you're going to have to operate through fear... That may make you uncomfortable but you are more confident and capable of being there than you know. People need your skills, ideas, and perspective."
What tech industries are in desperate need of Black voices?
All of them! The cannabis industry needs a lot of ancillary professionals - people who aren't necessarily growing or distributing the products. They need people who are helping them streamline their operational practices...there's a huge opportunity there. Gaming and e-sports is wide open for Black women. Artificial intelligence, augmented reality...there's a great opportunity to learn more about that. Any tech industry overlaps with everything we already do. Use the skills you have currently and figure out how you can apply those and add value to existing tech companies and where they are going. Your expertise is valued and wanted but we have to figure out better ways of making a bridge for ourselves.
People always ask me about how racist the tech industry is. It's definitely racist but it's not always a willful racism. [Tech folks] are consumed with themselves and what they are building. When they need someone to fill a role, they reach out to their network. If you are only in the tech space and don't step outside to other industries and spaces, you will only get people who are like-minded or like you - even if what you ultimately need is outside of that. That cycle happens again and again. Because they have so much money and resources, it isn't always second nature to step outside. As the landscape of this country changes and we become more involved in the tech space, there will be an even greater demand and it will require white entrepreneurs and executives to look outside their spaces and be proactive and thoughtful about seeking out Black and Brown talent.
What are the biggest challenges that women of color in tech encounter?
We often pursue ideas that we believe should exist, but we don't necessarily think of them in terms of businesses. I see a lot of Black women creating service-oriented businesses or a product that is difficult to scale. We have to think about our ideas in terms of how we can monetize them and not just in terms of bringing them to life. We need to think of a business in terms of "How can I build or provide something that is so valuable and solves such a big problem that they will actually pay for it?"
[The reason] why you don't see as any Black women tech entrepreneurs is not because we're not entrepreneurs, it's because we're entrepreneurs in other spaces. So many women are starting skincare, haircare, cleaning, or event planning services. I think it's cultural to some degree. We're passionate and generous givers and tend to be more service-oriented. We've oftentimes put ourselves in position to be the mules of our family and community. We need to be mindful of that in terms of our own self-care and well-being.
This is not to say these can't be tech businesses. We don't think about how we can infuse tech to scale our business, get it to more people and make it more affordable and accessible to people so they can buy and we can make money while we sleep.
More Black women need to be afforded educational opportunities and information on what they can do with technology. It's not even about thinking of yourself as a tech founder, it's about leveraging what is out there to make your business better. A lot of people call me a techie - but I don't call myself one. I solve problems out in the world by way of technology.
What are "innovation deserts" and how do they impact our communities?
If you go into a lot of Black neighborhoods around the country, you will notice a lack of (or limited) type of commerce. I live on the south side of Chicago. We have coffee shops, but when you go across town, you're seeing wi-fi cafes and places where people can build and create - places where people have access to computers and information. As a result of lack of access to information, technology, and innovation - we are falling behind in a lot of industries and falling behind financially. The lack of information is costing us money. There is a Black tax for a lack of information, financial resources and access. Poverty costs.
When people don't have access to information or innovation, our communities stay behind. Other communities are being built up, progressing and attracting new residents, commerce, and jobs. In our communities, all you have is chicken shacks and liquor stores on every corner. [We] deserve more than that. It's important that we support entrepreneurs who want to bring businesses into our communities. Advocate amongst our Congress people and representatives to bring innovation centers to our schools and buildings in our community so that our youth and adult population are better educated on how they can create new jobs and further communities for themselves.
"As a result of lack of access to information, technology, and innovation - we are falling behind in a lot of industries and falling behind financially. The lack of information is costing us money. There is a Black tax for a lack of information, financial resources and access. Poverty costs."
Will creating more innovation centers change the landscape for Black entrepreneurs?
There will be a dynamic shift in our economic and mental empowerment. We are already an amazingly resilient and dynamic people. We have survived and created so much with nothing. Imagine what we could do if we were provided access. Imagine how the landscape of our communities might change if the three most savvy entrepreneurs you know are now afforded money and access to capital. Now those people are economically empowered, secured, can pour into their kids and relatives and create new opportunities for the next generation.
Who are some of your favorite Black woman tech crushes?
I have a soft spot for Myleik Teele being that she was a publicist and is now running a tech-enabled business. I see a lot of parallels in my life with hers. As far as women in the tech space, [I admire] Felicia Hatcher who does so much to ensure that we are included in the conversation and are disrupting innovation deserts around the country. My former business partner Sheena Allen is the youngest Black woman in the country who owns an online bank.
Megan Holston- Alexander is a Black woman venture capitalist who is making sure we have representation out there in Silicon Valley. There are a lot of dynamic woman in the startup scene who are rising quietly and building. It's an exciting time for all of us. Over the next five years, you will see an increase in women taking the reins of their financial and economic future and as tech entrepreneurs.
To learn more about Amanda, her products, consultations, and podcast, visit www.amandaspann.com.
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Rana Campbell is a Princeton University graduate, storyteller, content marketing strategist, and the founder and host of Dreams In Drive - a weekly podcast that teaches you how to take your dreams from PARK to DRIVE. She loves teaching others how to use their life stories to inspire action within oneself and others. Connect with her on Instagram @rainshineluv or @dreamsindrive.
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Here's Why Very Few Relationships Can Actually Be 'Platonic'
Recently, while in an interview, someone asked me if I think that men and women can be just friends. I didn’t even hesitate to answer; my response was immediate, “Absolutely.” What I followed that up with is what intrigued them — “Life has taught me that not a lot of male/female dynamics are ‘platonic,’ though.” When they asked me to expound, the interview ended up taking a whole ‘nother turn.
As a writer who really pays attention to word meanings, something that can be a bit frustrating about our culture is the fact that based on whatever is popular at the time, folks will just up and change the original definitions of words to suit a particular agenda or whim — and the word “platonic” 1000 percent fits into this category. And perhaps that’s why we seem to continue to go in circles about whether or not people of the opposite sex can (and should) be friends and what that even can (and should) look like.
Let’s talk about it for a bit. Because as a word-literal type of individual, while again, I absolutely believe that men and women can be friends, at the same time, I think it’s about as rare as a red diamond to truly find yourself in a friendship that is…platonic.
It’s Time (More) Folks Knew What ‘Platonic’ LITERALLY MeansGiphy
So, let's do first things first — let's define what it literally means for something to be platonic. If you go to your favorite search engine and put something along the lines of "What does platonic mean?", the first thing that you're (probably) going to see is a ton of dictionary definitions that say something along the lines of "of, relating to, or being a relationship marked by the absence of romance or sex" (Merriam-Webster), "designating or of a relationship, or love, between a man and a woman that is purely spiritual or intellectual and without sexual activity" (Your Dictionary) and, my personal favorite, "purely spiritual; free from sensual desire, especially in a relationship between two persons of different sexes" (Dictionary). Yeah, bookmark that last one; I'll be circling back.
Keeping this in mind (and please do), where does the word "platonic" actually come from? From what I've researched, the philosopher Plato once penned something entitled "Symposium." In it, he addressed the topic of two people sharing the kind of love that is free of any type of sensual desire, one that is based on divine love alone. An author from the 1800s broke it down this way: "Platonic love meant ideal sympathy; it now means the love of a sentimental young gentleman for a woman he cannot or will not marry." A write-up on Merriam-Webster's site stated that "The term platonic was initially used to mock non-sexual relationships, as it was considered ridiculous to separate love and sex, but eventually this connotation faded away leaving us with today's notion of close friendships." Yeah, we used to live in a culture where love and sex were not separated. Hmph, that's another article for another time, though (check out "We Should Really Rethink The Term' Casual Sex'").
Anyway, as with many things (especially in our culture), the word "platonic" is kind of used in "broad strokes" these days (bromances, female friendships, etc.). However, because there continues to be this forever discussion — and oftentimes debate — about whether or not men and women can be "just friends," I'm going to tackle this topic strictly from that angle — from the place where platonic actually originated.
Yes, Men and Women Can Be Just Friends. But…Giphy
At this stage in my life, I'm pretty sure that I have more male friends than female ones. There are layers of reasons why, yet I think a huge one is because I like the balance that masculinity brings to my femininity (especially as I'm learning to embrace different aspects of my femininity, intentionally even more). And while every single one of my male friends is respectful and is a super safe space in my world on every single level that I can imagine (and have been for years now), there are probably only a couple who I would say 100 percent qualify as being…trulyplatonic.
Why would I say that? Well, I'll illustrate this point with something that one of my male friends once said to me. He's super cute. He can sing his ass off (and definitely has one of my favorite speaking voices). People see us out together often, and some have told us that they assume that we've had something going on at some point. Anyway, after hearing someone share their theory about us, I told it to him.
Me: "I told him, 'He's my brother. We would never mess around.'"
My Friend: "Correction, you are like a sister. You are not my sister, though. Under the right conditions, you could still get it."
When I shared that exchange with another male friend of mine, he basically cosigned on the sentiment: "Shellie, I have never approached you like that because I really respect you. I want to be good for you for the rest of our lives." (That reminds me: check out "Question: Is The Man In Your Life Good 'TO' You? Good 'FOR' You? Or...Both?" when you get a chance.)
Then I went to one more guy homie and ran both statements by him: "Girl, yeah. If I didn't want to keep you in my life long-term, I would've tried to holla a long time ago!" And he and I have been friends for almost 20 years at this point. When did he get around to telling me this? Eh, maybe two years ago. LOL.
So, my takeaway from all of these "for real?!" exchanges is even though men and women can be just friends, there is a certain level of intention, self-control, and ability to see into the future (on some level) that must go into account — because, just because something more-than-friends-like may not have gone down, that doesn't mean there isn't a "dormant seed" lying around somewhere…whether it's one-sided or on both sides of the friendship dynamic.
As you can see, I just provided you with three instances where the male friends in my life; we've had nothing sexual or even physically intimate beyond a hug when we greet each other in nature — although things aren't exactly platonic if there is some sort of attraction or sexual/romantic curiosity that simply never got explored. Because again, according to Plato, a platonic relationship is free from all of that kind of…tension — or possibilities. Zero. Nada. Zilch.
And now you probably get why I entitled this article in the way that I did…right? I mean, just think about it — out of your male friendships, where is there NO sensual desire or dormant romantic interest…on your side and/or on his? If you're not sure about "his"…have you ever asked him? Or them? Because again, once I really let the definition of platonic sink in, I think maybe two guys in my life totally fit the bill.
This brings me to my next point.
Are You Platonic? Or Are You Friend-Zoning?Giphy
Now that you know that probably 70 percent of the people you know (both online and off) have been using the true meaning of platonic all the way wrong, let’s go about deeper: when it comes to your friendships with men, are they genuinely platonic or…is it more like you’re friend-zoning them?
A few years ago, I penned an article on the topic entitled, “Before You 'Friend Zone' Someone, Read This.” If you’re skimming this on your lunch break, I’ll summarize friend-zoning as knowing that a guy has so-much-more-than-platonic feelings for you, yet because you basically want to keep the benefits of the friendship or even his emotions around, you will string him along on some level.
Personally, I can’t stand friend-zoning. I think it’s selfish, with some sprinkles of manipulation and wasting someone’s time. Don’t agree? How would you feel if a guy was friend-zoning you? (Yeah…exactly.)
This all needs to go on record because, knowing that a guy wants to “take it there” with you (whether sexually or romantically), you not full-on addressing it and/or giving him just enough hope to take you out, listen to all of your stories about other men and give you the attention that you need knowing that he doesn’t have a shot in hell — that is NOT a platonic friendship and honestly, you’re not being a good friend at all. Friends protect each other’s hearts, not abuse them.
A platonic friendship means that you both have no interest in each other, and, as Plato put it, while you may have a strong and solid bond, it’s spiritual love that connects you. And what exactly does that mean? Spiritual love also deserves its own article, yet the gist would be that you recognize there is a purpose in your friendship, yet it’s about wanting what’s best for one another and even helping each other to get there.
For instance, a platonic friend of yours may know that you desire to be married one day, so he has no problem setting you up with a good guy in his life. And if things go well, he would have no problem standing up as your own best man (without feeling like he’s dying inside) because he never saw you beyond anything but a friend. A guy in the friend zone doesn’t move like this; he likes you too much to help you move on with someone else. See the difference?
Why Relationships Should Start Off As NON-PLATONIC FriendshipsGiphy
Before I end this with some tips on how to properly care for the few platonic friendships you may actually have, since the use of the word may require a bit of mental reprogramming, I do think we should also address that if you've got a good guy in your life, who right now is a friend and either you've never thought of him in that way or the topic has never come up — he's someone that you may not want to brush off.
What I mean by that is, it's one thing for there to be absolutely no interest in someone vs. never considering it before — and the reason why you might want to give it some thought is because, ask any healthy married couple who's been together for more than five years and I'll bet you my next rent check that they will say that the best relationships are birthed out of friendship (check out "Are You Sure You're Actually FRIENDS With Your Spouse?").
Yeah, just because you've filed someone in the "I see him as a good guy" category, that doesn't automatically mean that y'all's friendship is platonic. For instance, I have a male friend who is fine and I adore on many levels, yet the reason why it would never work on my end is because there are certain relational standards that I have that he does not meet. However, don't get it twisted — I've considered him because, on so many levels, we "fit." So, the mere fact that I ever seriously thought about him on that level means that we are "good friends," yet it's not exactly platonic.
I'm not free of potential sensual desire…I just choose not to act on it. Yet because I get the value of having friendship as the foundation for my own future marriage (should life play out that way), I am wise enough to know that I would've been a fool to not at least…ponder him and the possibilities.
So yeah, if there is a male friend in your life that the thought of dating or having sex with him doesn't make you want to throw up in your mouth, there's a pretty good chance that it's not a classic platonic dynamic — and you might want to consider if it could/should go to the next level — if not immediately, eventually. Because there's a pretty good chance that if you are thinking that way, he probably is as well.
Protect Your Genuine Platonic Friendship(s) At All CostsGiphy
Let me end this with how one of my platonic friendships rolls. We both think that the other is attractive, yet neither of us is attracted. We both give each other opposite-sex insights. We both have said that the mere thought of dating each other makes our noses turn up like there’s an odor in the air. And even when I try to imagine us together, my mind goes blank. I love, love, LOVE this man — oh, but it is absolutely nothing more than platonic — and he feels the same way. It’s as close to familial love without being blood relationships. It’s a rare dynamic, and that is what makes it so special. There is definitely a spiritual type of love there; no more, no less.
If you’ve got someone in your life who you feel the same way about (again, it’s got to be mutual; he must feel that way, too), you’ve got a gem of a situation going on because there is nothing like having the kind of friendship where you and a guy can hang out, exchange perspectives and thoroughly enjoy each other’s company, knowing that’s all it is and will ever be. Things will never get weird. No one’s feelings are gonna get hurt (from the whole friend-zoning thing). You don’t have to walk on eggshells. You can just be.
And that’s why I’m all for platonic friendships. And listen, if you’re blessed enough to have even one in your lifetime, be fiercely protective of it. Don’t take it for granted. Nurture it in a way that your male friend needs (because it probably won’t be the exact same as your female friendships). Y’all, platonic friendships are so bomb because, if it’s honored and protected correctly, it’s the one male friend that you can probably keep for life because even your romantic partner will not find it to be a (true) threat — hell, they honestly could probably end up becoming (some level of) friends with your platonic homie as well.
I hope that I broke this all down enough to where, when you decide to use a word to describe your opposite-sex friendships, perhaps you will pause and ask yourself, “Wait, is this a platonic friend or a good or close friend?” Because the clearer you are on the differences, the easier it will be to know how to maintain your friendship — and feel about your friend. Feel me? Cool.
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