How These Black Women With A Startup Became 'Unhidden Figures'

Within moments of arriving at the Collision tech conference, I met two women with t-shirts that read,

Black
Female
Founder
Fund Me

The duo in question is a mother-daughter team, Ashlee Ammons and Kerry Schrader. Together they founded Mixtroz, an app designed to help people connect at conferences. They are currently in the process of seeking angel investors.

Schrader explained that the shirts helped overcome a common challenge they’ve found at conferences. “People don’t recognize us as people in tech. They either think we’re billionaires or staffing the venue.”

The pattern of women – particularly women of color – being underrepresented in an industry often means that the women who are in the industry end up being overlooked. This affects women in many male dominated fields.

A Latina attorney recently told me she regularly gets asked if she’s a “booth babe”, hired to sell products to law firms when she attends conferences. The conference attendees have an unconscious bias about what a lawyer should look like, and it doesn’t include Latina women. In the same way, it doesn’t occur to attendees at a tech conference that black women can be tech startup founders.

This bias goes hand in hand with other challenges black women face in the startup world and has significant implications. In a major study of venture funding, the organization digitalundivided found that, while they generate over $44 billion in yearly revenue, only 0.2% of venture funding in the last 3 years went to black women startup founders.

For them to overcome the bias they face, Ammons says that she and Schrader have “learned to be forward almost to a fault.” Hence, the t-shirts and their proactive approach to meeting people.

Unhidden Figures

Since the movie Hidden Figures, based on the true story of black female scientists at NASA during the space race, Ammons and Schrader have been including the hashtag #unhiddenfigures in their marketing. They don’t want a venture capitalist to be able to say, “I was gonna drop a million dollars at this conference, but I couldn’t find any black women to fund.” Schrader says, “We’re not hiding; we’re right here.”  Their straightforwardness is working.

Two white men in the robotics field stopped them to talk because of the t-shirts, and by the end of the conversation the men were connecting Ammons and Schrader with an angel investor and sharing their strategies for boosting audience engagement.

Some people respond negatively to the shirts, but Ammons and Schrader use those responses to further discuss issues of race and gender in tech. A white man who they described as a “tech bro” walked by and muttered “Jesus” after reading the shirts. Ammons laughed at how ridiculous his version of the shirt would seem – “White/Male/Founder/Fund Me” – because it would be so unnecessary. “His invitation is implied here; ours has to be extended.”

Branding that’s mission-aligned

The approach Ammons and Schrader are using to promote Mixtroz aligns with the goals of the product itself.

Ammons describes Mixtroz with an analogy. Imagine you get on an elevator with someone who looks scary to you, someone who is the opposite of who you think you are. You push the button for your floor and hold your breath.

Now imagine it’s the same elevator and the same person, but they’re wearing a shirt with your favorite sports team’s logo. Suddenly, there can be a comfort and ease that comes with a shared interest.

With Mixtroz, the goal is for conference planners to facilitate those conversation starters and valuable moments of connection between diverse groups, or among groups that have something in common based on the app’s real-time survey.

Back at their booth, there’s a large sign that reads, “Need a conversation starter? We have vaginas. We’re black. We’re mother-daughter. We’re tech founders. We need angel funding.”

In an industry that’s known for its bro culture and for being hostile to both women and people of color, Ammons and Schrader are looking for visibility, common ground, and ways to start the conversation.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.