“Who’s ready to make photo history?” Vanity Fair contributing photographer Mark Seliger cheerfully called out, as he positioned himself beside the camera to shoot a Spotlight portrait for the April issue. It was the kind of disarming comment a seasoned professional might make to loosen up his subjects, but in this case, Seliger and his subjects really were embarking on something unprecedented. For the first time, 26 African-American women, all founders of companies that raised $1 million or more in outside funding, gathered in New York to share their stories, exchange best practices, and participate in a photo shoot that quickly went from tentative to festive.
The women were identified by DigitalUndivided, an organization that helps lead black and Latina women founders through the start-up pipeline. (The founders in the photograph had raised their $1 million-plus in fund-raising before November15, 2017.) The founders were encouraged to showcase their personal styles. They wore their own outfits, which ranged from towering heels and suits, to laid-back jeans and dresses. “We tried to not change who they are and make it compelling,” Seliger said. “We want to bring out their spirit.”
In many ways, the founders assembled at the shoot had good reason to feel buoyant. In 2016, DigitalUndivided released a proprietary research study, dubbed #ProjectDiane, that showed only 11 African-American women founders had raised $1 million or more. But compared the overall picture of funding—in 2017, venture investors deployed $61.4 billion across 5,948 deals— black women founders are underrepresented.
Marah Lidey, co-founder and co-C.E.O. of Shine, a New York-based company that sends subscribers daily motivational text messages, was thrilled to be in a room with so many other black entrepreneurs. “It’s like seeing another unicorn,” she said looking around and tearing up. “It’s very emotional for me. . . . I feel like walking up to people here and being like, ‘oh, you have a horn, too!’”
Some of the women already had relationships with each other, and others knew of each other by reputation. Kellee James, founder and C.E.O. of Mercaris, an organic and non-G.M.O. market-data service headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, remarked: “This is a big sisterhood. If we don’t know each other personally, there’s like one degree of separation between us.” Still, Kristina Jones, co-founder of Court Buddy, a San Francisco-based legal tech company, remarked that she’d never been in a room with this many other successful black founders before.
Helen Adeosun, C.E.O. and founder of CareAcademy, a Boston-based company that provides online training for caregivers, immediately found Heather Hiles, founder of Pathbrite, an educational tech company she sold to Cengage Learning in 2015. Hiles, Adeosun says, inspired her when she considered starting her own business. “I messaged her cold, and she agreed to get coffee with me for an hour in New Orleans, and it was so valuable. I could never have started my business without her.”
The women also celebrated how the shoot could impact future generations of black women. “I wish I could have brought my daughter here,” said Sherisse Hawkins, co-founder and C.E.O. of Pagedip an e-book company based in Boulder, Colorado. “I wish she could experience this and see some role models who look like her.”
Etosha Cave, chief science officer and co-founder of Opus 12, a Bay Area company that has found a profitable solution to reducing carbon emissions, initially was hesitant to appear in the photo, “I loved the idea and was honored to be included with this group of women, but I’m a little shy,” she said. It was a mentor who convinced her to fly out to New York, “I talked with some friends about what I should do and a mentor of mine told me ‘whether you like it or not, you’re a role model now’ so I agreed to come.”
And while many of the founders remarked upon their relative anonymity in the start-up world, that may be about to change. Camille Hearst, co-founder and C.E.O. of New York-based Kit, a social network for product recommendations, is part of a robust digital community of black founders seeking to support each other. The group’s name is a play on Hidden Figures, the book and film about black women who worked as human computers at NASA. Says Hearst: “I’m actually on an e-mail list called ‘visible figures.’”