I started my first app company as a senior at the University of Southern Mississippi. As a women in a male-dominated field and knowing little about the tech field, the first two years of running Sheena Allen Apps was by trial and error. This is one of many reasons I admire and appreciate veteran women in the tech industry, such as Kimberly Bryant (Black Girls Code), and my peers, like Morgan DeBaun (Blavity).
I bootstrapped my first venture, began to learn to handle the stresses of entrepreneurship and eventually moved to Austin, TX., a city where I knew no one except my mentor Josh Kerr. From the beginning, building a tech company has been an interesting journey.
As I prepare for 2016, I find myself reflecting on the past 12 months. Three different conversations that added fuel to my journey immediately came to mind.
In December 2014 I was asked to speak at the Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco. In addition to speaking, I also volunteered to be a mentor. While waiting for the mentor sessions to begin, another mentor in the room caught my eye. It was none other than Wayne Sutton. As an African-American in tech, Wayne is a household name. While I was there to mentor, I found I had become more interested in being mentored by Wayne. I made my way over to his table and asked to speak with him briefly, which he welcomed me to sit and talk. There was one question that I wanted to ask him. "With all your years of being in the tech field, I know you've seen some amazing African-American women in this space, but no one really knows who they are. In your opinion, how can that change? How can an African- American female tech geek become a household name?" In short, he told me to be different from the other minorities in tech. He said I had an option of interning at various large tech companies and growing my network that way or I could take an entirely different route. I walked away from that table feeling like a new person with new challenges, in a positive way. Even though I am actually a pretty shy person, that conversation convinced to step outside of my comfort zone. After that conversation and over the next few months, I found myself shooting for a documentary (She Started It), doing interviews, and speaking at numerous conferences and universities.
In June 2015 I was part of the panel at the Tech808 Conference in Washington, D.C. The keynote speaker that day was none other than Paul Brunson. I was happy he stayed for my panel discussion because I really wanted a chance to speak with him. After all, he has worked for two billionaires (Oprah Winfrey and Enver Yucel) and built a very successful career as a matchmaker. We ended up having a conversation in the hallway as he was leaving. He told me to take everything that I felt would be against me as a tech entrepreneur, including my Southern accent, and embrace it. After we took our selfie and before he really had to leave (I’m sure I was holding him up), he looked at me and said, "You have the opportunity to be a pioneer, but the choice is yours.” He was right. (Paul later invited to be featured on #MentorMondays)
In August 2015, I got a call from Anthony Frasier to discuss my talk at the second stop of the Tech808 Conference in Oakland. The conversation soon turned to Anthony questioning and challenging me. We discussed everything from writing a book to speaking engagements to being broke and everyone doubting your vision to tech empires to changing lives. In most cases, people do not see or understand your vision, but to have a conversation with someone who not only understands the journey, but challenges you to be even better, it's always a major plus.
I'm guilty of being very critical of myself and not celebrating the small victories. I have been on this journey for four years with a lot of sleepless nights, but I have found that I must appreciate timing. Wayne Sutton, Paul Brunson, nor Anthony Frasier did not have to talk to me, but I am forever grateful for their time and their words. Each conversation was life-changing. My thoughts have solidified amazing ideas and I look forward to continuing this journey.