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Tech Founders Breaking Barriers

By Heidi Hackford

Entrepreneurship is tough. And the legacy of bias in the tech industry can make the path to success even harder for underrepresented entrepreneurs. Those that do make it have stories to share about their personal journeys and advice for aspiring founders who hope to follow in their footsteps.

On October 26, 2022, CHM hosted a night of discussion and networking with diverse tech founders, investors, and startup leaders across generations. Here are some of the highlights.

Founder + VC

First up: Ruben Harris, cohost of the podcast Breaking Into Startups and cofounder and CEO of job training startup Career Karma spoke with venture capitalist Eric McCarthy.

For Harris and his cofounders, Career Karma is the product they wish they had had when they were breaking into tech. Today, they serve about 2.5 million people a month-mostly women and people of color-who are looking for career advice and support. Primarily focused on skills-first training programs like bootcamps, Career Karma helps prepare people for jobs in tech that may not even exist yet.

Over their lifetimes, people will change careers five to ten times, and between now and 2030, 375 million people will switch careers. Harris explains that they use job training programs to find their next jobs rather than going back to college. Employers are launching their own courses, paying for education, and investing in employees for upskilling and reskilling, and colleges are launching short-form programs. There are also online courses and non-degree programs and many other options for learners. Harris is confident that Career Karma will help a billion people in the next ten years.

That confidence is what helped Harris find funding for Career Karma’s growth-to the tune of a $40 million Series B this year. He shares his secret: focusing on human beings.

Harris finds inspiration from biographies, which give him “the same feeling as watching superhero movies.” He considers biographies to be his mentors, and his advice for new entrepreneurs is to master communication-and that means written, audio, and video communication on every channel and platform where people are spending their time. Clearly, he’s a master at it himself.

A Founder Story

Next up, Shanea Leven, cofounder and CEO of startup CodeSee, which helps software developers visualize their code, shared her entrepreneurial journey. She described milestones in her life and career as questions she posed to herself: Why not me? What would I do if I had no constraints? How would I solve this problem?

After stints at Google, eBay, and other tech companies, Leven moved on to Docker as a senior director of products. There, a catastrophic failure inspired her to found her company.

Leven realized that the only way to understand code is to read it, and for that programmers need spatial reasoning skills. But those skills may be hard to develop for people who have disabilities or do not have the advantages of learning other languages or music when they’re young. And the tech tools available were failing those people.

If you build better tools, Leven says, you benefit everyone. She began to imagine how she could solve the problem of helping people to visualize code. CodeSee was born, and she hasn’t looked back.

Founder + VC

Stephanie VanPutten, founder of Blendoor, a diversity analytics and hiring software, and founder of Visible Figures, the largest network of venture-backed Black women in the world, was interviewed by Joe Hurd from venture capital firm SOSV.

Hurd quoted VanPutten, who has said that “America is less the land of opportunity and more the lottery of birth.” Upward mobility has declined significantly since the 1930s, and the zip code where you’re born determines your future. She’s devoted her career to disrupting that paradigm “because that’s how we all win.”

A descendant of slaves raised by a single mother, VanPutten has broken barriers her whole life. Following in the footsteps of an aunt who was a computer scientist, she took AP coding in high school and then went on to Stanford and MIT. But she hit a wall at Google, inspiring her to start Blendoor.

Fundraising for her startup was by far the hardest thing VanPutten had ever done in her life. At the time, only 12 Black women in the world had raised a million dollars. She became aware of the unconscious bias that she and other women were experiencing with investors, at accelerators, and even with employees, so she founded Visible Figures in 2017 to bring people with similar backgrounds together to support each other.

VanPutten would like to see rigorous regulation comparable to financial metrics around how companies are measuring, reporting, and improving on their ability to attract and retain talent across different communities. Until that day comes, she cautions new entrepreneurs that “it’s not a meritocracy.”

But, like VanPutten, aspiring founders can work to develop a “superpower” to mitigate bias when they meet someone new, and that can be a huge advantage. In the meantime, let’s remember that many of us possess gifts and talents that are not always in accordance with the way we look or where we’re from.

This event was made possible by the generous support of the Kapor Center.

Watch the Full Conversation

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About the Author

Heidi Hackford is the content and curriculum director for the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum. She is responsible for leading the development of educational materials focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Heidi previously worked at Monticello, where she edited Thomas Jefferson’s family letters. At the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, she established a digital archive and conducted teacher workshops on incorporating digital history resources in the classroom. After moving to Silicon Valley, Heidi directed the start-up of a new foundation promoting wilderness conservation through art.

Originally published at https://computerhistory.org on November 9, 2022.

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