By Emma Sapong
The Buffalo News, N.Y.
For Angel Davis and Lauren Washington, the road to Silicon Valley success may be through Buffalo. The tech entrepreneurs have not only found seed money here, but also support and potential investors to back the full release this fall of KeepUp, their social media management mobile app.
Davis and Washington are among the 2014 winners of the $5 million 43North business-idea competition that doles out the largest prize money in the country as a carrot to attract entrepreneurs from around the world to build their fledgling businesses in Buffalo, requiring them to stay for a year.
It lured Davis and Washington here. The two upbeat women, who have been friends for more than 10 years, share a downtown apartment. Along with their $250,000 prize, came cubicles in 43North’s incubator, access to area business resources, like University at Buffalo’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, and mentors to develop and nurture their venture.
They were able to hire Andrew Rennie, who has 13 years of computer programming and coding experience, as a co-founder and chief technology officer to oversee development. They also brought on two developers and two interns — one who supports data analytics and the other who supports marketing.
So while many other black women tech entrepreneurs nationwide are either stalled in the idea phase due to no financial backing or spend years bootstrapping their startups, Davis and Washington launched the beta version of KeepUp in May — five months after winning 43North. And they even demonstrated it on News One, a national cable program on TV One.
“43North was a game-changer for us,” said Washington, CEO of the company and a Staten Island native. “It allowed us to quit our jobs, hire staff and get the company off the ground very quickly.”
It also allowed them to bypass the initial financial hindrances that bar many minorities from the industry. And it gave the pair visibility and credibility, which then attracted local venture capitalists and angel investors to back the company’s next stage of growth.
“Winning the competition lets investors know that we’ve been vetted, our business plan and credentials are sound,” said Davis, the company’s chief marketing officer who hails from Atlanta. “43North gave us a leg up on the competition.”
Beating the odds
Being a 43North winner also could help them overcome long odds in the innovation sector.
Landing that much startup capital “is really an amazing feat, considering that black women founders only receive $36,000 in funding on average,” said Kathyrn Finney, a tech entrepreneur and a 2013 recipient of the Champion of Change Award from the White House for her efforts to make the tech sector inclusive of black women.
The accomplishment of Davis and Washington could also reverberate nationally, said Finney, the founder and manager of digitalundivided, a social enterprise that has helped 4 million founders through various programs.
“I wish these brilliant women success,” Finney said in an email, “and hope that they can be one of the factors that can fix the skewed ratio for black female tech entrepreneurs.”
Their win is encouraging because it brings awareness to 43North and other business-idea contests as viable funding options, said Monique Woodard, the owner of a Silicon Valley venture and co-founder of Black Founders, a national nonprofit that works to increase the number of successful black tech companies in the country.
“It was a brilliant move to go after funding outside of Silicon Valley; it’s a great alternative,” Woodard said, “because Silicon Valley hasn’t paid attention to us in any sort of meaningful way.”
While venture capitalists sunk a record $37.1 billion into American tech startups last year, according a MoneyTree study, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all venture capital funding went to black female founders between 2010 to 2014, reports ProjectDiane, Finney’s data-collection initiative. Furthermore, only 18 black women-owned ventures raised as much as $100,000 in outside investments, and only five received $2 million in the past five years.
Building on it
John T. Gavigan, executive director of 43North, is aware of the important role the contest can play. To capitalize on that, 43North involved Davis and Washington — its only all-black and all-women team — in an effort this year to boost the diversity in the contest’s second year, and it yielded twice the number of women and minority applicants than last year.
“Our belief is you can’t fully optimize a community without driving and promoting productivity from all of its participants,” Gavigan said. “If we invest time and effort into outreach and extend support to all demographics, I believe those great ideas will surface.”
The national significance of Davis and Washington’s win isn’t lost on Gavigan, either.
“Women and minorities are woefully underrepresented in tech,” he said. “There are few black-women owned tech companies in the country. We’re glad Angel and Lauren found us. We are really proud of their success and potential.”
Raised to lead
Washington, 32, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned an MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She was reared in entrepreneurship — her father, a real estate agent with his own firm, and her mother, proprietor of a spa and medical office.
“Growing up, I got to see my mom and dad go through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship and I got to see them make it work,” Washington said. “It really shaped me and what I wanted to do.”
Davis, 31, completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford University and her MBA at Stern School of Business at New York University. Her mother, a trailblazer in the U.S. Army, reached the rank of lieutenant colonel.
“She had to overcome so many hurdles and was a great role model for me,” Davis said. “And my father took it all in stride and was able to adapt, as we moved to different cities … It laid the foundation that has enabled me to adapt in various situations.”
Davis was a management consultant at Accenture in Atlanta, advising some of the nation’s Fortune 100 companies in marketing. Washington was a social media consultant and head of data research at Attention Agency in New York, building the firm’s first advertising research and strategy department.
What the app does
KeepUp, currently available on the iTunes App Store, is a productivity tool that helps users filter out non-essential posts from six major social media feeds, like Twitter and Facebook, and limit incoming messages to as many as a dozen milestone-type events. So if you’re more interested in a Facebook friend’s new job announcement than their uneventful trip to the convenience store, KeepUp lets you set your preferences. The idea for the app was borne out of the women’s frustration trying to glean major events from various, cluttered social media feeds, Washington said. They started tossing around the idea of the app last year.
“By simplifying your interaction with social media on a daily basis and notifying you of the most important announcements in your friends’ and family’s lives, we are making social media social again,” Davis said.
While there are other apps that curate or cull social media posts based on users preferences, they are aimed at small businesses, Washington said.
“KeepUp is automated for the average user; there’s nothing out there that is doing that,” she said.
Gavigan agrees. He said the app identifies and addresses a major pain point for many social media users, including himself.
Paying it forward
Washington and Davis understand their roles as mold breakers.
“It’s a hard road to be a woman tech entrepreneur, even harder as a black woman but it’s something we knew about going in,” Washington said. “If we’re successful, we can open doors for other people just by being visible — showing it can be done.”
That can have a strong impact. Finney said stereotypes are strong barriers to entering the tech business.
“The biggest challenge is overcoming this prevailing notion in the industry that black women don’t do tech,” she said. “And I think this stems from the fact that tech is structured as an insular community — there aren’t too many black people out there, which then some equate to our disinterest or worse, plain lack of competency.”
Davis and Washington are often the only blacks and the only women at tech events around the country, and they are often tossed softball questions that require basic knowledge.
“I think we have a higher threshold to jump over when we walk into meetings or when we meet people,” Washington said. “Sometimes they don’t take our backgrounds at face value and the fact that we built this company and there’s a reason why we did it. We have to sort of prove ourselves — we have to talk about our degrees, we have to talk about the work we’ve done in our careers.”
But as they prepare for the full launch of their app, funded largely by local investors, the women are optimistic because of the supportive community they’ve found here — from the business leaders to the their fellow 43North winners to the residents who downloaded the app.
“If we were in Silicon Valley, we would just be founders in a large pool, and never would have made the quick progress we’ve made here in Buffalo,” Davis said.