Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Sherrell Dorsey provides visibility for other black innovators in Charlotte

By Shannon Cuthrell

Sherrell Dorsey
[/media-credit] Sherrell Dorsey

Experiments are a recurring theme in the life of Sherrell Dorsey, a Charlotte entrepreneur who started two businesses to provide visibility for other black innovators in the region. In spring 2016, two years after moving to the Queen City from Bridgeport, Conn., Dorsey launched The Plug, a daily newsletter covering entrepreneurs, communities and economic trends involving people of color. The publication is run by a team of six freelance journalists and one managing editor. It also produces data-journalism projects, including a database of black-owned coworking spaces in the U.S.

Later that year, Dorsey’s idea expanded into a physical undertaking: BLKTECHCLT, a local event space and network of more than 2,000 tech professionals and entrepreneurs. Dorsey and a team of six independent contractors help connect tech talent to jobs with local partners and offer weekly workshops teaching coding and business development and connecting tech workers to jobs with local partners. Annual membership costs $149, and nonmembers can pay a small fee to attend individual workshops.

Last summer, BLKTECHCLT partnered with the city of Charlotte to run a coding bootcamp for 24 high-school students who ultimately landed internships at local companies.

Dorsey says her goal is to provide the visibility that black innovators have earned but haven’t received. Mainstream media often overlooks stories of thriving black entrepreneurs and technologists, she says.

Often signing her newsletters, “Yours in hustle,” Dorsey is a self-defined hustle junkie. Growing up in Seattle, she learned to code as a teenager and spent summers interning at Microsoft Corp. She earned an undergraduate degree from New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology and later worked in the beauty industry, doing freelance writing and web development on the side — all while also pursuing tap dancing.

Last year, she commuted to New York while completing a master’s degree in data journalism at Columbia University.

Business North Carolina spoke with Dorsey about her startup journey, mission, fundraising experience and future plans. Comments were edited for brevity.

Why did you decide to start The Plug?
Being a tech news junkie and staying on top of innovation news and business trends, I was frustrated that all the tech newsletters I subscribed to where covering the same five to six tech billionaires, mostly white guys — this is fine, because their businesses are the ones running the U.S. economy, but I kept being confused that there was no greater representation from women. For me, this wasn’t representative of my experience meeting and interacting with people of color building incredible things. But these people rarely made the headlines; you would think they didn’t even exist.

If you’re digesting a certain sort of narrative, you start to believe that’s the only narrative that exists. So, I started an experiment where I would aggregate five online news stories covering the work of people of color and women. Everyday I would do it at 5 a.m., right before work. It really started to really catch on. After about a year, I started getting approached by advertisers who wanted to support what I was doing. That that allowed me to bring on my managing editor, Tyler Young.

Where did the idea for BLKTECHCLT come from?
Throughout this process of building The Plug, I wanted to meet other people in Charlotte and share my work because no one really knew about it. At tech events, I was always one of the few women and people of color. This didn’t make sense to me because Charlotte is a city that has a majority population of people of color — especially when you start to look at stats on STEM degrees, you’ll see there’s at least 20% representation.

I thought: Where the hell is everyone? How was I the only woman or person of color, or one of few, at these events?

So in 2016, I started a meetup group to bring together other black techies and people thinking about the future to talk about what we’re working on. We put the event together in three weeks and held it at Google Fiber. We figured only 30 people would show up because they had nothing else to do on a Thursday night. But we ended up with over 125 people that RSVP’d, and even more on the waiting list. We had an incredible turnout of entrepreneurs, private-equity investors and students from all over the region.

We had people write on a board answering the question, “What would you like to see in Charlotte in the future?” They wrote about mentorship, access to capital, training on how to raise money. … We thought: We really have something here, let’s start building these conversations on how to support black tech entrepreneurs locally.

It was an experiment that turned into an accidental business. Out of an observation, we ended up developing a community that other people could benefit from.

What drew you to North Carolina? And how long have you been operating here?
I’d been working in beauty and fashion in New York City. A skincare line I was working for brought me here to represent them at a conference. I stayed at Aloft Charlotte at the Epicentre. I had some time to kill, so I hopped on a bus and thought, “Wow, this place is so clean and pretty and shiny, everyone’s so nice, it’s so laid back.”

At that time, I was finishing up a fellowship in Connecticut in 2014 and started looking at other cities in the Southeast to move to. I knew I wanted to be close to New York, but I also wanted better weather and lower cost of living. For me, it was important to find a city that’s investing in startup culture. I also needed a city with diversity. For me, Charlotte had that demographic.

When I moved, I had no job, but I stayed with a close family friend in Ballantyne while I figured out my next steps.

Again, my life is series of experiments.

Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
I grew up as a Microsoft kid in south Seattle.

My mom was a single parent working in the child welfare space. She ran the governor’s office of child abuse and neglect. My life was a lot of political campaigns, community work and service.

It was a very eclectic village that I grew up in. My family was very oriented toward social justice, service and action. This was a huge part of my life.

I got chance to attend a coding program started in 1996 by a retired software engineer, Trish Millines Dziko. She’d started the Technology Access Foundation and converted a storefront to train kids of color in Seattle how to code. I joined in 2001 in high school and learned computer networking and C++ and other concepts. In four years of the program, I got to spend four summers in Microsoft internships.

From there, I went to New York and started pursuing my dream in tap dancing while building basic websites for nonprofits as a side hustle. When I wasn’t coding, I was working with a tap-dancing company. This gave me the opportunity to combine my creative side with technology. I’d always wanted to live in New York.

I also enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology and went on to a career in the beauty industry.

How did this spin into journalism? Where did that interest come from?
In 2007, right before the market crash, there was a big world of blogging — everyone had a blog, especially in the fashion world where I was working. I was writing a blog and freelancing for different publications and building up a writing portfolio at places like Organic Spa Magazine, covering beauty and technology. I remember doing a cool piece for Organic Spa about the emerging design of air purifiers.

It was an easy way for me to make extra cash, and I just really enjoyed writing. I’d worked as an intern at PR companies, and marketing and business were big passions of mine. Going back to the social-justice roots of my family, I loved working with brands that had a social mission tied to them.

That all started to bleed into writing. I started paying a lot more attention to what was happening in the economy after 2008. This fueled my curiosity around innovators.

Over the years, I would write about tech that I was curious about and pitch them to larger publications like Fast Company and The Root. It took me awhile to call myself a journalist, until after I launched The Plug and started to really understand the craft of journalism.

You put 24 high school students in paid internships through your Teach Charlotte program last year. What did those students say about the experience? What was that like for you?
The experience brought me back to being a student at the Technology Access Foundation, going to Microsoft everyday at 15 years old. It baffled me that 15-16 years later, this was not a universal norm to train the future of tech talent. We’re talking about a lack and gap of students being prepared for tech careers.

The City of Charlotte had reached out to us and asked if we’d be interested in running their TechCharlotte program.

We had about six weeks to pull that entire program together. It was a lot of hard work. My partners and I all had connections coming from tech backgrounds, so we used our connections and had leaders come in and teach front-end and back-end development over four to five weeks. We got companies to come by during sessions, including Digi-Bridge, Oracle and Cisco. And we got local companies to set up internships for kids in the program.

The students had a great experience. The program ended in a demo day where the kids got to show their work. It was incredible to see what they did — one group made a music app with one of our developers, another group came up with an app to help take notes while studying. Many of the students kept saying that they either wanted to work for a startup or study tech in school, but they needed a way to figure out how to get there.

We’re hoping to gear up something similar next year.

What’s your strategy for raising money? Are you seeking angel, VC, grants or other funding sources?
All of the above — wherever we can find dollars. That also requires me leaving Charlotte and North Carolina to look for investors, just because the pipelines here are very conservative. It’s challenging to raise money here. In North Carolina specifically, we know there’s disparity; it’s documented, and our entrepreneurs talk to us about it. I’d rather go get money elsewhere from people that are more open to these conversations we’re having.

I can imagine another roadblock is that North Carolina is not a hub for the media industry.
Media is hard. You really have to have passion for what journalism means and be willing to play the long game because a media company is just not going to grow super quick overnight.

But the media model and landscape is changing so drastically. With The Plug, we’re not looking to be the next Buzzfeed, but we want to be focused on quality and commitment to telling dynamic stories and adding value through our market research and reporting. We’re looking to go deeper, and we want to find folks who believe in that philosophy.

You’ve been very open about the some of the roadblocks BLKTECH has faced with funding. What lessons have you learned along the way? And do you have any different strategies for the future?
For us, it’s especially difficult raising money when you’re a person of color, even a woman. People want you to work twice as hard for half the price. That’s not new in this country, but after a while it comes a bit ridiculous. With BLKTECHCLT, everyone wanted to be adjacent to our work with support. But for me, support and investment are two very different things.

What we’re doing is dynamic. We’re not a nonprofit, we’re not an organization. We’re a company with a consulting arm. This didn’t exist before we developed it. We’re reaching the demographic you haven’t been able to reach.

So, my lessons learned are to continue to ask for our worth and only spend time with people who value our work as investment. I’d like to shoutout AvidXchange, who came to us in the early stages — they were the first major tech company to write a check to support us. Even now, they continue to prioritize our work as a pipeline of recruitment. I’ll always be grateful for them.

You’ve called out the mainstream media for ignoring or overlooking the stories of black entrepreneurs, innovators and technologists. Has there been any progress in the media narrative since you started The Plug?
I would say we see more of the uptick of people of color or a spectrum different minority groups — not just black — take ownership of their stories. There are tons of new platforms, blogs, video channels and social-media accounts that are specifically focused on pushing this narrative outside of traditional gatekeepers.

There are new ecosystems developing across the country, too. Atlanta, Miami and other cities outside of the main cast of characters are growing great black tech ecosystems.

Also, look at what’s happening in organizations like the Cognizant Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which are fostering opportunity in the tech landscape.

The news is moving forward because folks are taking ownership of their own stories and there are more foundations putting their money where their mouth is to support ecosystem leaders.

Tell me about the data journalism program at Columbia.
I had worked for Uber before moving to Charlotte. Part of my job there that I loved was the social-service space aspect. I got to work with the data-science teams on heat maps and the main points around transportation. I enjoyed using data as a way to drive practical real-time narratives about the way humans are behaving.

I enjoyed it so much that I started looking at grad programs. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think I would get in. The Columbia program was relatively new and kind of experimental. I believe that the data side of the J school program fed both sides of my brain — one storyteller, one technologist. We got to meet with the New York Times’ R&D department building the Alexa skills project, then we would meet on the campuses of Cornell Tech, Queens College and the New York City School of Engineering to discuss the future of journalism and democracy. This really got my brain thinking about possibilities, applications and experimentations in data.

It was an accelerated master’s degree program, so as you can imagine, it was nonstop work. And at the same time I was running two companies, flying to Charlotte on the weekends. It was a lot.

You mentioned in a VICE interview last February that you were planning to hand your degree to your grandfather to hang up on his wall, in honor of his commitment to making sure you and your family were exposed to tech at an early age. What was that moment like?
He was so proud of me for completing the Columbia journalism program. I gave him my degree. It’s hanging on the wall in his living room.

My grandfather was the one who gave me and my cousins our first computers. He encouraged us to play with CD-ROMs and games. He was always giving us math tricks and having us [take] Mavis Beacon typing lessons when we would go to his house.

I think he always wanted me to be a doctor. One time, he got me a CD-ROM to learn the parts and systems of the body. I played with it two or three times, but that was it. I’d always told him I wanted to be a writer.

Sherrell Dorsey's grandfather
[/media-credit] Sherrell Dorsey’s grandfather with her Columbia University master’s degree

What was the last inspiring/interesting story you read?
I’m currently reading Michelle Obama’s book. I’m sure half the world is, too. I love her storytelling and how she talks about her family and how close they were.

What was the last troubling/concerning story you read?
I’ve been reading a lot about the future of workforce lately. There was a report McKinsey put out around automation affecting jobs for people of color, who mostly hold service-based jobs. I find a disconnect between what policy is trying to push forward from a workforce development standpoint when most of those jobs for us are going to be eliminated.

Where’s your favorite place to wine and/or dine in Charlotte?
That’s a good question. … I’m a Whisky Warehouse girl. I really like the rooftop bar of Merchant and Trade. I think they actually have the best rooftop view for spring and summer.

Who is someone who has mentored you?
I would say Jennifer Daniels. She’s moved back to Detroit now, but when I first moved to Charlotte, she was one of the first people I could bounce ideas off of to navigate the Charlotte landscape. Another mentor is Angela Woods, CEO of Girl Scouts Hornets’ Nest Council. We meet up once a quarter for coffee; she drops jewels and gems, and connects me with others in the city.

There’s also Patrick Rivenbark of Carolina Fintech Hub. He’s such a great connector in the community.

Who is someone you’ve mentored?
Oh gosh, I have so many little mentees!

Khalia Barswell, the executive director of INTech Camp for Girls. We’re really peers, but I also get to push her a lot.

There are also a couple of teens I keep in touch with from our TechCharlotte program. One stayed on as intern for a while — it’s his senior year, so we wanted to have him back at BLKTECHCLT making helping us with websites and marketing. He’s super diligent, a really great kid.

What’s on tap for the future of The Plug and BLKTECHCLT?
BLKTECHCLT for me is really about advancing black tech talent in the city. We’re really trying to change the narrative. Whenever you hear conversations about the black tech community, it’s always about lack of disparity, especially about STEM careers. These studies are cited ad nauseum. No one really considers what the black tech ecosystem looks like from standpoint of talent — that’s what we’re doing.

We also want to continue to be a consultant for some of the tech companies facing the challenge around hiring diverse candidates for the job. We recently launched a careers website, connecting jobs for people in tech. There’s still steady growth, but this quarter we really need to amplify what the service is, marketing to other tech companies in the area.

At The Plug, we’ve been adding more journalists to work on more original stories. We’ll be raising some money in the next six months so we can bring in people to cover beat areas that have gone unexplored and bring some rigor to tech reporting and research in academia.

A version of this story appeared in the March 2019 issue of Business North Carolina magazine.

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