Fly Female Entrepreneurs
Sherrell Dorsey Creates Space for Black Techpreneurs to Call Home
What’s better than kicking off the new year in a space you’ve created with the sole purpose of supporting, empowering, and inspiring Black tech entrepreneurs? Not one single thing according to Sherrell Dorsey, today’s special guest on In Her Shoes. I caught up with the Charlotte-based fly female entrepreneur to get the inside scoop on BLKTECHCLT and let’s make it abundantly clear, it’s every tech entrepreneur’s dream:
In Her Shoes: Congrats on the opening of BLKTECHCLT! After hosting events around Charlotte over the past year, tell us what inspired you to open up a brick and mortar HQ?
Sherrell: Thank you for the kudos! It is still surreal that we have gone from a small concept that launched in December 2016 to galvanize support for black tech entrepreneurs to now serving our members and community with 1,200 square feet of office space in Charlotte’s most unique innovation district at Camp North End.
My team and I have spent the last 13 months growing our brand and wrapping our support around the needs of entrepreneurs of color, which include 800+ investors, technologists, founders, and ecosystem leaders that have supported our work. When Camp North End reached out to me about potentially having office space in the former warehouse where Model-Ts were built by Henry Ford and missiles were developed during WWII, it was a no-brainer to bring a space dedicated to black and brown entrepreneurs into what is a growing district for innovation. It was our chance for a seat at the table as the city continues to invest in industries like FinTech and health care technology. I’m excited to bring even more to the table with a space to call home.
In Her Shoes: What was one of the biggest hurdles you faced in the process and how did you overcome it?
Sherrell: Going from working remotely and hosting four events per year to now sponsoring regular programming, a membership model, and seeking to provide data and insights to key leaders in the city and across the region comes with the territory of expanding the BLKTECHCLT brand as we grow out this space.
The biggest hurdle in opening a space, to actually realizing it, was pulling all of the pieces together remotely. I wanted BLKTECHCLT to be a reflection of the creative and technical talent in our city, and I had to do it while wrapping up my semester in grad school and also walking into a holiday season.
We would have only four days to prepare for the grand opening. So I relied a lot on recommendations and friends that I trusted and believed in the mission of BLKTECHCLT. Every inch of our head quarters was designed or built by a person of color doing incredible work in Charlotte. From Quintel Gwinn, our interior designer who also happens to have developed the curriculum for West Elm consultants, to Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. who has been our photographer and who’s work covering protests against police shootings of black men have won awards and shown at local museums, these people showed up to pull off the impossible to make our space feel like home.
In Her Shoes: What is a day like in your shoes?
Sherrell: I’m usually on campus at Columbia University where I’m pursuing my degree in data journalism. Between classes and reporting assignments, I’m filling up on green tea and trying to track down lunch, taking calls with prospective corporate partners, and video conferencing with my team in Charlotte who manage BLKTECHCLT HQ’s day to day operations. I rely a lot on my team to keep me on track and also challenge our work so that each event, report, and partnership raises the standard of the work we make public.
I know that you have big plans up your sleeves for the organization now that it has a home. Can you tell us a little about the once monthly learning lab series you’re launching?
BLKTECHCLT is very much a data-driven initiative focused on surveying our current core audience and using demographic and labor data from academic and government institutions to better understand what’s missing in our city and our region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem when it comes to serving people of color.
One area where we felt we could offer value to our audience was by developing a monthly learning lab series designed as topical workshops to help entrepreneurs and founders grow high-quality businesses. From business strategy to developing growth projections to managing a high-performing team to raising capital without a VC, these workshops are meant to be small, hands-on, and granular enough so that attendees can walk away with a skill set they can apply directly to their business when they walk away.
We’ve partnered with several subject-matter experts and tech companies to develop the monthly series and look forward to the feedback we’ll get from attendees on what works and what we can add to the curriculum.
In Her Shoes: Many people look at the shortage of Black women in tech as a handicap. How have you used the disparities to your advantage?
Sherrell: I think the numbers on representation are skewed and don’t tell a complete picture of the many of black women who have modeled consistent leadership and excellence in their respective fields. I was fortunate to start my career in tech under the auspices of a very talented software engineer Trish Millines Dziko who founded the Technology Access Foundation in Seattle and where I learned to code in early 2001.
Early on she identified a knowledge gap, looked around her at the lack of diversity in her space, and decided to train up students of color to enter tech. Like an engineer, she saw a problem and went to solve it. And now runs a full award-winning STEM academy.
I’m not an engineer per say, but I find that engineering resources, teams, and opportunities as imperative to the work of challenging the status quo, particularly for women of color in tech. That is what BLKTECHCLT is attempting to do in Charlotte. It is also what I have attempted to do through my daily tech newsletter, ThePLUG, where we cover innovators and founders of color to help drive the data on who is doing what, where, and how it contributes to the larger technology conversation.
I believe the opportunity to tell the stories of people of color in tech is a narrative we’re just beginning to see go mainstream. And now we’re at a moment in time where platforms, both online and within physical spaces, are driving inquiry into the types of data (on women, women of color, communities of color, etc) available to us to better document our contributions to this space.
In Her Shoes: I’m noticing more and more women taking the “collaboration over competition” approach to building their brands and I love it! At what point in your journey did you realize that creating a community-based organization could be the “secret sauce” to your success?
Sherrell: I like to believe that the body of work I’ve created over the years has embodied the notion of cooperation and collaboration. In my reporting, I’ve covered communities and entrepreneurs building companies that are transforming their communities. I’ve worked with ecosystem leaders and investors who have helped me to understand the unique challenges communities of color face when city-wide policies don’t reflect the new ideas of entrepreneurship and investment. My work has been a reflection of sitting in those rooms and having conversations with people who
More important, after Keith Scott was killed in Charlotte in September of 2016, I knew there had to be a symbol of opportunity where people kept asking “what can we do?” My response: create spaces for people of color to thrive. So this particular office is a subset of that idea.
I wasn’t aware how impactful the physical space of BLKTECHCLT would be in our community—not just Charlotte, but for the ecosystem of black technologists and entrepreneurs as a whole. Physical space and placemaking, especially within communities of color where many of our neighborhoods have been or will be developed beyond affordability, is significant in our cities right now. So there’s a responsibility that comes with occupying 1,200 square feet of space. I’m looking forward to the challenge of truly making it a successful transition that best serves in the work of supporting and resourcing entrepreneurs of color.
In Her Shoes: What else is in the horizon in 2018 for BLKTECHCLT that we should know about?
Sherrell: We’re presently working on a spring recruitment event in partnership with several technology companies aimed to attract black technologists throughout the southeast region. We’re also working on a creative research project to help write the narrative on the history of black technologists in Charlotte and across the region. We’ll release information about all of our upcoming events and projects via our newsletter at blktechinteractive.com.