Jul 16, 2021
In this episode of Build the Damn Thing, Kathryn Finney shares how a series of unfortunate events led her to create Genius Guild, which is supported by one of the most powerful women in the world -- Melinda Gates. Kathryn also highlights how her failed trip to Alaska in 2020 led her to donate more than $160,000 to 15,000 black women-led entrepreneurs within six weeks. And this action showed her that it was possible to help such startups in a new way.
Kathryn Finney is a venture capitalist, tech visionary, and startup champion who is the Founder and CEO of Genius Guild and General Partner of The Greenhouse Fund. She is former CEO of digitalundivided, a groundbreaking social enterprise focused on creating a world where Black women own their work. She is also the founder of The Budget Fashionista (TBF) and became one of the first Black women to have a successful seven-figure startup exit when she sold TBF.
A Yale-trained Epidemiologist, she has been recognized for her groundbreaking work by the Aspen Institute, Entrepreneur Magazine, Marie Claire, Ebony, Inc. Magazine, Black Enterprise, and more.
Insights from the Podcast
- Understanding that sometimes things will not work and that’s okay
- Strategies on building a community around black-women entrepreneurs
- How her life in building led her to create Genius Guild
- Understanding that black-owned businesses are undercapitalized and under resourced, and the structures needed to enable them to succeed does not exist
- How to create a space where everyone can win, especially Black folks
- How to move capital to Black communities without asking for permission
Quotes from the show:
“It took me twenty years to build relationships to be able to do Genius Guild.” -Kathryn Finney, Genius Guild Ep #1
“I knew that I could build Genius Guild because I had spent a lifetime building staff.” -Kathryn Finney, Genius Guild Ep #1
“Genius Guild is a culmination of all the experience that she (Kathryn Finney) has gained over more than a decade of working on related problems.” -Brian Laung Aoaeh, Genius Guild Ep #1
“I cannot tell you how scary it is to be a Black woman and to ask for what it is you need because we rarely get it” -Kathryn Finney, Genius Guild Ep #1
“If this doesn’t work, we are okay because we believe in you and we know you will figure it out” -Kathryn Finney, Genius Guild Ep #1
“When Black people win, everyone wins. We want to help humanity win” -Saidah Nash Carter, Genius Guild Ep #1
Facebook: Kathryn Finney
Website: Genius Guild
Subscribe to our podcast + download each episode on Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.
Produced by Genius Guild Content Studios
Executive Producers: Kathryn Finney and Darlene Gillard Jones
Post-Production Company: Prosper Digital TV
Post-Production Manager: Joanes Prosper
Post-Production Supervisor: Jason Pierre
Post-Production Sound Editor: Evan Joseph
Co-Music Supervisor: Jason Pierre and Darlene Gillard Jones
Show Music: Provided by Prosper Digital TV
Main Show Theme Music: "Self Motivated" Written & Performed by Tamara Bubble
Season 1 Episode 1
July 16, 2021
18 mins, 14 secs (18.1MB, Audio)
#BlackExcellence #Entrepreneurship #Startups #BlackWomen #KathrynFinney #BlackOwned
I’m just always amazed and inspired by what Kathy has been able to build. And I say, it's not just she's built, but she’s built and built and built and that's what's really been inspiring for me. And it has helped me, take those risks, help me be more brave seeing her do it, for sure.
Hi. I'm Kathryn Finney, founder of many startups and a habitual rule breaker, who’s now the CEO of yet another future forward idea, that will disrupt not just the startup world, and the world in general.
In this first episode of Build the Damn thing I’ll share how a lifetime of building and a series of unusual events led me to the Genius Guild.
I always remember this story about Pablo Picasso and how one day he met someone who asked him if he would draw something on the napkin. And so he took the napkin and took about 10 seconds and drew a picture. And before he gave it to the person, he said, "That will be $50,000."
The person replied, "Well, $50,000 It only took you 10 seconds to do it." He said, "Yes, but it took me 30 years to learn how to do those 10 seconds." And that's very much the way it is with me and Genius Guild. It took me 20 years to build the relationships to be able to do Genius Guild. so when I was able to raise $5 million without anybody really knowing without being public it was because I had did the work. I had did the work over 20 years. I knew I could build Genius Guild because I spent a lifetime building stuff.
In 2020, in March, right after the pandemic hit, we were seeing that there were a lot of black women-led companies that were really struggling and weren't able to get the PPP loans that were given out to distressed companies at that time. And so I authorized to give out $1,000 grants to our portfolio companies, like no questions asked, we're going to just give this to you because we know you're really struggling and we know how hard it is. And the response from our portfolio companies was astounding.
I was so inspired and moved by that, that at the same time I was scheduled to go on a trip. I usually go on a big trip around my birthday and we were going to Alaska on a cruise. That was never, ever gonna happen. I had this extra money, about $10,000, that was refunded as a result of not going on that cruise. And I was like, "I need to do something because I can't go on a cruise. I'm feeling really bad. I'm not going to be able to go to Minneapolis and see my grandmother who's in her nineties, and who's an inspiration for me in terms of building the business." And I was like, "I don't know what to do."
So I took the money and gave it away. I started the Donnie Fund. There was a lot of people that were like, "Oh, it's your birthday, Kathryn. What do you want? At that time, they weren't even delivering flowers. I said, "You know what? Donate to this fund. And so that one ask turned into more asks, and one donation became many donations. We gave out over $160,000 to over 1,500 black women-led entrepreneurs within the six week time period. And that just showed me that it could be done.
At the same time, I was transitioning from Digitalundivided and was just kind of like, This nonprofit, really restrictive, lack of innovation, lack of vision sort of space, really, isn't a good fit for me. I'm not an administrator. I am a builder and I'm an innovator and I know that about myself. And so I left DID and maybe a day before I left DID George Floyd happened.
So I spent really June and July thinking. I gave myself time to breathe. I didn't put myself on a schedule to think. I was also writing my book at that time, Build the Damn Thing, so it's really reflective on sort of what was going on, what was happening. And I just was like, the universe kept telling me to do this. I started talking with a dear friend, who is really known as a big thinker in the venture capital space. And I was like, "Hey Brian, I have this idea I've been noodling around. I don't know. It's right at concept stage. Let's talk about it."
So I met Kathryn at a Christmas party in December 2013. And I now don't recall who suggested that I go over and say hi, but once we started talking, I found out that she had traveled to Ghana and had spent some time in Ghana. I found out that while she was at Yale, I think she dated a guy who was a DJ and who I have a fond memory of crushing when he came to DJ at my alma mater, Connecticut College. So we laughed about that. And then we got to discussing work, what she was working on
My name is Brian Laung Aoaeh, I am a co-founder and general partner of REFASHIOND Ventures, and I am the co-founder of the Worldwide Supply Chain Federation.
It was an interesting coincidence because around that time, I was writing for a tech blog based in Nigeria, and I was spending a lot of time thinking about the problems that African startups have. And when she described to me what she was trying to do, which was build a community to support black women startup founders and also get them more capital, I said, "The problems they face are very similar to the problems that African startups face. They're, under-resourced, under-capitalized, and the structures to enable them to succeed don't exist. And that's exactly what you're building." And so I said to her, "If there's any way that I can help, just let me know, and I'd be happy to do so."
When she called me in July of 2020 to tell me about Genius Guild, two thoughts went through my mind. One is that Genius Guild is the culmination of all of the experience that she has gained over definitely more than a decade of working on related problems. And this starts with The Budget Fashionista. And then the second thought was “I'm incredibly busy right now trying to get my own fund off the ground. But of course I have to do this. This is really important. I have to help Kathryn.” And so my role now with Genius Guild is as a VC in residence. Essentially, I'm helping Kathryn with everything that's related to getting, the FUND part of Genius Guild off the ground.
I spent the summer of 2020 really thinking. Post George Floyd's murder, I had a lot to think about.
And so I started to think more about how do we create the space where everyone can win, especially black people, there's this dichotomy that's been created that somehow if black people win, that means white people lose, which is so not true. Maybe when black people win, maybe the powers that be lose because it has to be more equitable distribution, but the average white person wins quite a bit. There's a whole big thing about the extractive nature of slavery and the impact that slavery had, but not just on black people, but on middle and poor white people as well.
Because labor was "free," it depressed the wages of white workers. White people could not charge what they would normally charge in the competitive, true capitalistic market. So white people's labor was devalued quite significantly as well. Who benefited from the devaluation of white labor and the free labor that enslaved people provided? It wasn't black people. it wasn't even poor, middle-class white people. It was wealthy plantation planter-class white people who have benefited.
And so that really, stuck with me and I spent the summer reading about restorative capitalism and stakeholder capitalism. Stakeholder capitalism is capitalism where all the people who are involved, from the community, from employees to investors are all, sort of, aligned. And so you try to find returns and value, not just for your shareholders, but for your stakeholders too. For everybody.
So I started the Genius Guild really after years of trying to figure out how to create a space where everyone wins. I like to think of Digitalundivided as really the MVP for the Genius Guild. It was a first sort of way in which I was kind of implementing and thinking about this concept of everybody wins, and how do you create a world. And how do we move capital to black communities without having to ask for permission? I always felt I was asking for permission, and I learned that in particular when running Digitalundivided, because it was a nonprofit and there was so many restrictions on what you could do, that I was just really frustrated because you couldn't really be innovative.
I was kind of walking around this idea for black founders and the language was very nebulous; ya know people of color, all these sorts of words. And I was talking to a really good friend, a real big thinker named Mia Henry. Mia and I had been friends since college. She was always kind of my big sister and always somebody I looked up to because she's brilliant in the way she thinks about things and particularly, the way she thinks about language and her clarity around language was always so helpful for me, because my instinct is to go back to Minnesota and be a nice little Minnesotan girl. And she would always say to me, "Say what you mean. If that's what you want to say, say it."
It's so funny, I remember having a lot of fun with Kathy. I'm not sure if it was always at parties, but we were both... I mean, we went to our parties, but one of my strongest memories of Kathy in groups was when we were sitting around and we were talking about politics and politicians. And I think maybe I was actually interning for one or had just finished interning for one because the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I had an internship with a state senator, and he had aspirations of being governor and he eventually did become governor of New Jersey. And so I think I was talking about that and how I was writing all his letters and signing his name to things, and he may have been a good person before, but now he's doing some questionable things.
My name is Mia Henry and I'm the founder and principal of Freedom Lifted, and I met Kathy in college at Rutgers University.
And This one night, we had this really intense conversation about whether or not a person can keep their values and remain who they are and even just remain good if they go into politics. And I'm a cynic and I still am, and I said no. And I think Kathy was pushing back and saying, "No, you can. You can still be principled no matter where you are." And so we had this really intense conversation. There were other people around and we loved those conversations. And I remember that even if we, disagreed, it was just like we loved the tension, because we knew we were getting to new ideas and getting to new places with that. And then afterwards, I'm pretty sure we went to a party
So I was talking to her and getting all flowery with language and asking her advice on some frameworks. And she'd given me some really strong feedback, and even some frameworks to look at and ways of thinking. And she was like, “You don't want to just fund black founders. You don't want to just invest in people of color. You want to end racism." That's bold, that's big. And she said, "Kathryn, your whole entire life has led up to this moment. Your whole entire life has led to Genius Guild, so live in the moment. Say what you mean.
What time in world history, would I be okay able to be this bold and people be able to hear? We were in the middle of the global pandemic in which black people were dying at a rate that was significantly higher than everyone else. We had a number of brutal killings and murders of black people, black women included. We had a president that didn't care about o ther human beings, especially human beings who look like me.
I can't tell you how scary it is to be a black woman and to ask for what it is you need, because we rarely get it. I said, "I'm actually going to need more, because I'm going to have to convince the most talented people to leave whatever cushy job they have to come work with me, and I'm going to have to pay them real money.
Money has never been the motivation in my life. I realized that it needed to be, that I didn't need to be a martyr anymore, and that also, I didn't want to ask other people to be that either. And so I said, "This is what I need."
One of the most amazing things in my life happened. I asked this partner for what I needed and they gave it to me. I cried because there are rarely times-
Oh, okay. Yeah, we got to stop. I'm in the middle of teariness.
And it was really a changing point for me, in my life, because I realize that you can live from a point of abundance. I saw how all the years of work that I did trying to really live my life from abundance, and at this moment, abundance was being returned back to me. And the partner said something else that was a privilege they gave me that black women also don't get, which is, "It is fine if this doesn't work."
Kathryn Finney (03:16):
Even as a successful very public black woman, I had never had anyone ever tell me that before, that if this doesn't work, we're okay, because we believe in you and we know you'll figure it out. it gave me space. It allowed me to breathe, and it allowed me to create
Saidah Nash Carter
So why Genius Guild, and why now
My name is Saidah Nash Carter, and I am the Head of Labs at Genius Guild.
We are in a state of emergency. I feel like there is a real sense of urgency for Black empowerment, and empowerment that translates into power, for economic freedom and prosperity in communities. I think overall it is time for the evil genius that is white supremacy to end and to create a world where all people can flourish, and that is what is really at the core, at the center of the Genius Guild mission. And as we know, and as history has taught us, when Black people win, everyone wins, and we want to help humanity win.