This episode's guest on #MWL is Sherrell Dorsey. We discuss data, and transparency, as well as her Black tech news publication, The Plug.

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this

is marcus whitney's audio universe well

you got to do the work you got to show

up and just

do the work

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what's good happy friday hope

everybody's doing well out there

final episode of nashville of marcus

wendy live for the week

uh i'm really excited this is a

conversation that's been

a long time in the making we've been

trying to get the calendars worked out

but uh

uh this woman is busy y'all she is on

fire as of the last you know couple of

months uh

there's been some some fantastic

traction going her way and i was

introduced to her by the very first

guest on this show my man q

terry so thank you q for the connection

uh i'm excited this topic is

uh something i am personally passionate

about as somebody who's made their

career

in technology over the last 20 years um

and has always sort of looked for more

data more information more transparency

around you know really the importance of

the technology industry

and how it and how it impacts our

country how it impacts populations and

how it can be

um you know something that that better

reflects

uh this this country and so uh we're

really really uh

grateful to have shirelle dorsey uh who

is the founder

of the plug and long time sort of

technologist

and journalist covering this space

cherelle thank you so much for being

here

thank you so much for having me marcus

really excited to be on with you

yeah great to have you so uh we always

sort of start with a bit of a

a bit of a sort of origin story just to

sort of understand how somebody actually

got into this

the space they are so if you don't mind

yeah honestly i feel like i started kind

of early

uh maybe compared to most and maybe like

compared to most as well i'm from

seattle

originally so grew up in the land of

microsoft and amazon

got an opportunity to be part of a

program with the technology access

foundation

which in 96 essentially took a store

front in the inner city

transformed it into a computer learning

center and taught kids of color

how to code how to set up servers um

all kinds of different programming

languages you know trained us and

you know everything from how to

interview

to uh to to how to like select a college

major

so uh very grateful for that kind of

start and um from that

got an opportunity to work at microsoft

every summer in high school as an intern

so went away to college with kind of a

standard

around what my experience was was

supposed to look like

and then also my connection my deep

connection to technology

and technology specifically at the hands

of folks of color

you know leading the way so that really

shaped my entire life experience and the

experience that i draw on from today

um you know went to school in new york

city when undergrad fit

uh grad school at columbia and um you

know just the last few years have been

really navigating a

space around startups and tech and sort

of this idea that

genius only looks like one thing

um and so in my work and in my

my writing which i started off more

freelance while i was working at places

like uber and uncontracted at google

fiber

my writing and journalism has always

sort of centered

uh the voices spaces places uh

communities of

of of people of color um and

specifically some of the questions that

we don't ask in mainstream media about

uh who gets to be called genius and who

gets to be called innovator

and so um so that really defines what i

do today which is i am the founder and

ceo

of the plug and we're you know a digital

insights platform covering the black

innovation economy

um you know just rigorous data-driven

reporting um that helps us to better

understand the world around us and sort

of the black contribution to

the society that's moving forward in an

era in age of technology

so uh thank you so much that's

incredible background and

uh i needed to just you know point out

that

you you have a grad degree from an ivy

league uh

school you've been in some of the

biggest brands in technology companies

like uber

google fiber so you've been in these

spaces right you know these spaces where

the geniuses live

right where the geniuses are born or

created are held up and so i

found it uh interesting that you you

sort of focused on who gets to be called

a genius who gets to be called an

innovator um you know that's something

that

not not the genius moniker but certainly

the innovator moniker is something i've

always

prided myself on and always wanted to

you know base

my career on when people say you know

who are you

you know i'll say i'm an entrepreneur or

creative but really innovator is what i

what i care most about you know can you

talk about what

made that uh what what at what point

in that journey did it really sort of

stand out to you you know you you're

growing up in in seattle you're

you're having access to these programs

and learning how to code and things like

that at what point did it really dawn on

you oh wow

like i i'm in all these spaces

consistently

and it is really clear that people that

look like me are not

um in the conversation or included in a

significant way

that's such a great question i you know

i have

uh kind of cousins especially if you're

coming from a city like seattle that has

such a low representation of

of a black population and like believe

me my family was very black originally

from detroit so

um you know they were very intentional

about creating a community in an

environment

where we knew who it is that we that we

were um

but you know the thing was like you you

know you did jack and jill

you were part of all the black cultural

things within the city and then you went

to an hbcu

so that hbcu tour was pretty drastic

only reason why i

deviated and didn't go to spelman was

because i really wanted to be in new

york

um otherwise that's where i would have

been but my cousins

that went away you know to school where

they would come home

they would talk about their classes they

would talk about the things that they

were creating and

i mean they were you know early

engineers and managers at

you know at places like gm you know they

were coming from clark atlanta from

spelman and from morehouse

and i just remember the sense of pride

in the sense of like

you know creating and and and developing

and building was just kind of a natural

subset of their experience

and they would come home and they

subscribed they got subscriptions for me

to black enterprise magazine

you know there was a lot of like

investment on their end and i don't even

think they realized it at such a young

age

of them saying like there's another

alternative

than just sort of going the traditional

linear path towards

getting a job and sort of just living

living this life that

you know is is is very much a tried and

true

um and more so like going after what

other people have always had access

to and so you know i think for me

knowing that seeing that being raised in

it and then going into an environment

in microsoft where i had mentors that

were black um

you know who were lead engineers you

know at the time so for me it was like

it was never something that was abnormal

right

because i had always been trained by

these individuals

and so it was such a stark contrast to

kind of get into the working world and

to

see that lack of representation and then

within media

to not see ample representation

of black and brown genius when i'm like

i grew up with these folks

literally was raised by black innovators

you know and i won't even just say that

the folks who have the technical skills

and backgrounds you know it's like i

always talk about working at auntie

monica's hair salon

you know like that's where i learned

customer service that's where i learned

you know what it means to manage

clientele and inventory

you know in market services and products

so

you know for me it was just like how is

the rest of the world not seeing this

but then when you started to look at the

literature it was not indicative of

other people's voices or communities

being

you know the heroes of their own stories

or the innovators that have built

dynamic things i mean we're just the

last couple of years finding out about

black inventors even jack daniels and

you know uh uncle ernest uncle miros

yeah

uncle nearest yeah yes and so like all

of these stories and these these these

lines that like journalists either

missed or intentionally weren't looking

for

that was problematic for me because

especially working in tech

you constantly have to know what's going

on you have to know what's going on with

your competitor

you have to know which companies are

doing what who's raised what

and so as i'm reading on a daily basis

all of the top publications it was like

well

where's you know all these other folks

that i've met at

conferences that are building

significant work as well

um you know that that was missing from

the narrative and then when you saw

the narrative it was like the folks who

they clearly that that

that media had clearly kind of deemed as

like the magical mystical

black person that was somewhat featured

everywhere

and it was like they're so like like

like alone north carolina a

t graduate some of the top you know

numbers in terms of black engineers

and you couldn't find one other person

interviewed for a story

right so i think it was the the

frustration of the laziness um and like

i said i had started just writing on the

side for folks like fast company black

enterprise

i wanted to see rigorous stories and

pieces i literally had flown to like

south by southwest this was probably

like

circa i don't know 2014 2015

and i like flew on my own dime i pitched

the route and was like

there are literally no black

publications at south by southwest one

of the most meaningful

conferences in the world for technology

and we're not here

we're talking about consumer technology

we're talking about

what you know what we're playing with in

purchasing but we're not talking about

what we're creating and i think this is

a miss

and so that's kind of how i just started

like wedging my way

into publications and whomever would

accept me and so

you know through the years i just wanted

to get smarter

around how i report um how do i document

trends and

editors were very gracious with me

because you know i didn't have a

journalism background at the time

so they kind of had to show me and

demonstrate to me like how to report a

story

and then eventually it was like you know

working for top tech companies like

data is essential to everything and

every decision that's made

and so that sharpened me into

understanding like there's a

storytelling component to this

how do i sharpen this and develop

databases and data sets

that specifically talk about the trends

that are shaping the black innovation

economy

and how that fits into where we're

moving forward as a society

because i was tired of the poverty

stories tired of the disparity stories

you know like that to me was just like

we can't talk about anything else

you know we can't we've not done

anything else and this and for me it was

just like you know what i'm gonna keep

writing and covering it and at some

point

you know it was like i was tired of

pitching editors who either didn't get

it or

wouldn't let me have my own vertical or

column you know i was like at this point

like y'all should just give me my own

column

um and then like as you know as i was

having conversations with people they're

just like you always know who's doing

what and where like you're totally the

plug

and i was like maybe i'll just do my own

daily newsletter and then i don't have

to harass the rest of y'all

so so that's kind of how it was born

like you know

2016 i'm waking up at like four or five

in the morning

and just like you know curating news

you know talking about who i'm meeting

and just like

trying to see you know monday through

friday like is there enough to be said

about what's going on

in order for this to like be a potential

thing and it was definitely a labor of

love and

after about a year or so in um you know

i got like

um an email from capital one and they're

like we want to sponsor this is pretty

incredible and i was like i can make

some money from this and so it was very

accidental in that light but you know

coming just out of the frustration of

like

if we're not ensuring that our stories

are being told in a way that is

dignifying and

intelligent and i'm not saying they have

to be like great fluff aspirational

stories but

like any kind of representation that

digs into our businesses and not just

that we're black in public

um i think that i think that you know it

was it was worth

um it was worth the labor um and also

asking

the journalism industry to um

to be much more open because as much as

it has critiqued

the tech industry it's like y'all have

done the same thing throughout time

right right yeah so i i mean i

i uh i mean i feel like this is the

point in the conversation where i'll

thank you so that i can move on

but just say as a you know as a black

innovator and a black

entrepreneur um you know one of the one

of the big challenges

is uh that

the the media really understands me

from one perspective right and and i

think it's the narrative that you've

been

saying right is this single person

where you know there's no other other

people out there who are innovators i

mean it's like

you know for me my the origin story for

me is my uncle who

was an engineer at ibm that's how that's

how i got started that's what i wrote my

book

you know i talked about how he gave me

an ibm pc junior when i was i don't know

eight or nine years old

and that's the beginning you know what i

mean and it's like

there are there are so many stories out

there

and um constantly being sort of framed

in one narrative is just not it's not

real

it's not helpful um especially when it

is absent of the data

right especially when it's absent of the

data and uh and so i want to thank you

for

doing the labor of love long enough for

someone to start paying you for it

uh you know yeah thank you for doing it

so so let's let's let's jump into uh

venture capital quickly uh i don't want

to stay here too long

but you know this is an area where i

think the data is

uh very uh very damning it's very very

serious indictment

where you know we may have we may have

plenty of capable

black innovators black engineers but

they certainly are not participating in

the venture capital economy

um how have you gone about looking at

that from a data and an insights uh

perspective it's the obvious story

but it also isn't that well documented

quite frankly

so i'm i'm interested in what has been

your approach you know from the plug

perspective

yeah i think it's it's such a broad like

space right i think there's so many

angles and i think that there's been a

lot of interesting studies

and discoveries that we've had through

the years and so

um where where i try in all of our

stories is to find like what's not being

asked

because we can kind of keep talking

about oh like less than

you know point zero zero six right black

women

yeah like all these stats that you know

you know are kind of hit or miss you

gotta really be careful with numbers

because sometimes we

we overly uh use them in spaces where

they're not necessarily appropriate

um but i think that for us it really has

been around

this new push towards funding black

founders and latinx founders and sort of

all of these major initiatives was very

similar to the black hair care industry

where

we'd kind of privately always been

creating products and services for

ourselves because we weren't being

served by

mass market and then as soon as like

there

there was um a study around or some

research around our spending

in our buying power particularly in the

area of beauty is when you saw

uh traditional brands that ignored us on

the shelves and relegated us to like the

two products you know like on the side

of the corner

that were pretty questionable um outside

of the relaxers like you know

then all of a sudden everyone started to

like be about black women's empowerment

with our hair and i think that's kind of

the same to be true here with

the vc uh space and i think that

where there's kind of this this these

national imperatives around

elevating black and brown people um

they're quickly

uh being you know being uh being

co-opted

um around like oh like you know we we

fund we've we funded a black you know

black woman founder like all the emails

that i get around like oh and you know

we've done this we've done that and

people like want a trophy or a cookie

right we're doing the the things that

that should already be inherent

and innate but you know again these

systems um

you know are are not designed to let

others in

you know we've we've seen that through

throughout time uh particularly in the

founding of this country it's designed

to not allow for economic mobility for

everyone

but a select few so when we do our

research and our work

we're asking very simple questions if

you are telling me that

you are supporting and

recruiting and and funding

black and brown people in these spaces i

want to understand

who when where why how

and i also want to understand how does

that compare to who you've already been

funding

because if you have billions of dollars

under assets

and you say here's two million dollars

what you're still essentially saying is

you aren't good enough we're not

willing to do the work to find and

recruit the right people in the right

companies we're not willing to go the

distance

for these founders now there are some

some exceptions um to the rules there

are some some pretty

uh well-funded uh black startups as well

um but that's very far and few between

when we compare the stats against

uh black uh excuse me white and men and

asian

male led startups uh we just that's just

this just the reality

i do not believe that uh that we aren't

creating

the kinds of products and services that

could be funded

i think that we're not all hanging

around in silicon valley

um i believe some of us are in st louis

i believe some of us are definitely in

atlanta

um and so i i think that

like the journalism industry of not

really recognizing black innovation

it just comes down to laziness and you

know what

what racism really is um you know which

is the most insidious

disease that that our country has so

um so yeah so we we try to ask a

different question we try to ask is this

real

when you make bold statements when

there's a lot of pr and publicity but

very little meat

um and what's funny too marcus is that

it doesn't take a ton of effort to to

see when people are lying

to you right and i liken it and i tell

my team this i'm like

the reality is like a lot of people are

playing in our faces and

we need to make sure that we are um

diligent and dogged about holding them

to account

so uh so so yeah that's that's really

how we approach and try to ask these

questions about

funding um that who what when where and

why

uh covering this space in this moment um

can you can you just quickly talk about

uh

some of the recent grants that that

you've uh you've been awarded i know it

was public information so i hope i'm not

like uh

no no that's fine um yeah i mean so

what's interesting is that like

the timing was just so interesting

because it looked like oh like sherrell

because of x y and z she's gotten this

this and this

and the reality is like we're applying

for grants all the time so some of them

i've i've certainly been rejected for

more than i've actually received

um but obviously like this year there

were some really major ones so

um i am you know one of the first

fellows for uh

northwestern university uh medals uh

school of journalism

and um the garage which is their uh

their co-working

innovation center um i'm the first

fellow as part of this program

initiative that they are pushing towards

supporting uh black folks in media so

that's

like an eighty thousand dollar

fellowship plus um

access to i can take classes across the

university and then

also be hosting office hours for

students so super excited about

that opportunity which is pretty major

um and then you know we got some some

funding from the knight foundation to

build out

a dashboard focus on racial equity and

inclusion based off some reporting that

we did

on on tech company ceos making

statements denouncing racial injustice

and police brutality

following the murder of george floyd in

minneapolis this past may

and that kind of really i think

catapulted us in our work

uh into the stratosphere in a way that

in which that

um you know has brought some some really

interesting attention

um not just i think this the story that

we told in the way in which we did our

work because

it's not the first time that we've

pushed out infographics or our

spreadsheets right but it is

definitely one of it was definitely a

timely matter um that also helped to

bring out radical transparency around

the difference between what tech

companies are saying versus what they're

doing internally and representation

across the board of who they're hiring

how they're hiring um what kind of

dollars are they committing

long term to social justice movements or

what have you

um and you know and and you know we got

some some resources

uh from a lynn fest night initiative in

philadelphia to launch a

philly kind of newsletter project over

the next year

so it has been a busy um time

but i will tell you this marcus you know

being able to have resources to do the

work that you're passionate about

uh makes a big difference um especially

during a time in covid where

you know the journalism industry has

lost over 40 000 jobs

um across the board you know i mean just

tons and tons of layoffs

um so it feels really good to be able to

keep

money in people's pockets um you know

about

98 of my team um are our

black folks or folks of color and

it feels really good you know to to be

able to have the resources

to uh to have my team members paid and

you know the vendors i try to make sure

that i find and source some of the best

uh you know services by black and brown

folks um

as possible so that i can continue to

keep their businesses floating as well

um with these resources that i've been

graciously given so

yeah i think i think those are all the

grants most recently so in total

it's a little over four hundred thousand

dollars

um collectively i've i've uh i've earned

about 500k

in just grants so some equity free

funding

um that has obviously been tremendous

and i'm not sure how much you know about

like

media industry but it's really hard from

a vc standpoint

um i know enough i know enough

yeah yeah so so whereas you know i think

that i kind of

stayed away from vc dollars just because

i was trying to make sure i i figured

out our business model which is

subscription based

advertising content licensing what have

you um

you know i i stayed away from bc dollars

number one because i knew i needed to

figure out how am i building a

strong journalism platform uh without

the influence of just like build fast

and break things yeah

um you know and now it's like at least

with the grants they help to

to supplement and get us to the next

step um while we're still kind of

figuring out like how do we grow and

that's that's kind of where the business

comes from is like

i've been a one-woman shop for for for a

while

you know and i had some resources to

bring on you know managing editor

you know in the past and you know being

able to do little things here and there

and now it's like i have so many things

i want to

i want to grow and build out and tools

that i want to use in reporting that i

just want to fund that is like

i mean if i could show you what i'm

sitting on right now like it would be

absurd um but i'm like we we need i need

to build

i need to build more capacity and so um

that's kind of the the conundrum right

of entrepreneurship and figuring out

like

yes you know how do you move the money

around how do you

you know how do you kind of do the most

with the least um and then also like how

do you grow in a way

that is um sustainable for you you know

because i never wanted to be an

entrepreneur that

didn't have a life or didn't didn't have

time for my nieces and my nephews and my

family and

um you know so so also figuring out the

best route

towards towards a a kind of

a prosperous business that also grants

me the freedom

to do the work that i love without it uh

eating me alive

so uh i'm hoping we can we can wrap this

conversation up on a on a hopeful note

and everything that that you've been

talking about is really helpful

especially like you know all the

resources that have been coming in

i am really really interested

to hear about the demand side um you

know

the genuine demand for this information

that you're that you're

you're curating and figuring out the

right way to present

and the stories that you're telling uh

talk about the demand that's out there

in the market and what is behind

this demand you know at the at the end

of the day

i i have to think that the reason for

you doing this

is to help build a case

for people in power to make substantial

moves to cr to balance the scales

right at the at the end of the day what

are you seeing

beyond the grains from these

institutions which is really great but

the actual demand to consume this

information

uh to subscribe you know what can you

talk about that at all

yeah it's interesting because you really

hit the nail on the head i think when i

started

this off i was like what would the world

look like if it had

rigorous and dogged information insight

on what's happening in the black tech

ecosystem yes i think that there is kind

of a general knowledge a very cursory

knowledge i think

you know black folks in our own

subcultures and sub-communities kind of

know what the deal is

but bringing it out to the mainstream

and putting

putting a data in a science and art to

it

um it's kind of a it's it's a very

different task because

you have to be sound enough that the

researchers respect you and then you

also have to be rigorous enough that the

journalists

believe that you belong there um and i

think you know just kind of that

that consciousness around um you know

some people believing you know

especially in my early days and also

like trying to raise money

you know folks were just like this is

too niche or you know could another

organization already do this i'm like

but they're not um

or we've already funded blavity so we

don't need another black owned

millennial site and i'm like that's not

what this is like

i just it just the idiocy like like like

like again you know going back to this

idea around racism like it is it's

stupid

and so you're just like well no because

you actually don't have enough

information to make educated choices and

decisions

around around what's going on in

like black tech ecosystems and so how

that trickles out is

if if you're not hearing about this in

the financial times or the wall street

journal

in a meaningful way that resonates with

the way in which you speak and you learn

about companies when those black and

brown people get to the board table

you think automatically that like all

they're doing is creating for black and

brown people

um you have all of these negative

assumptions because your literature

because you weren't forced to read the

literature in school

we weren't even right but like you don't

have the right literature

and so either you treat you treat us and

send us to

the black fund as kind of a charity case

right

or you do not have enough context to

understand

the weight in in the weight of the

identity

and that trickles down in like u.s

bankers and this is like an actual staff

from like i think deloitte

where they were like they they they

thought that you know

black owned businesses were well funded

they thought that you know there wasn't

an issue with

getting loans right and that's why like

the data and the insight is very

important and the conversations have to

be had in public

across the board so one thing i'm

grateful for is to see like a lot of

these tech reporters who are following

me and editors who are following me who

are

who have you know obviously been

reaching out and like building uh

studies and in cases like

there's much more prowess around getting

two stories that that that matter

you see wall street journal journal

launching like a a diversity newsletter

you see

all of these other mainstream

publications who are like oh i get it

and like honestly that's been my america

you know that's kind of what i've wanted

to see is like

our activities

are so significant you need to talk to

talk about them in tandem with all of

the news that you are reporting on a

daily basis

absolutely it has to be a priority and

not just of course for black for black

folks right like it's for everybody

it's for everybody and it can't be

patronizing it can't be like the magical

you know mythical black person female

you know transgender

what hat or you know a differently abled

person it has to be across the board

yeah

and that that is kind of the imperative

that i'm i'm you know i'm working toward

amazing uh this show goes quick thank

you so much

uh this was really really insightful for

me these are things that i

i think about and i and i wonder about a

lot

uh and i'm just on the the side of the

entrepreneur and

and you know to a degree the investor

and i look i've got massive massive

blind spots around this data as well

so um you know what you're doing is is

super important

i i will out myself i don't think i've

like i think i'm still on the free

subscription

i'm going to pay for subscription i'm

going to come on over to this show

for the for the actual subscription i'm

paying uh and you know just thank you

for putting in the legwork for years

um so that when the moment was right you

were ready

and uh and the resources are with you

now and

i just wish you absolute success

and uh and more and more support in the

days to come

thank you so much for having me this was

very meaningful looking forward to

reading your book and reading more about

your story as well marcus really

appreciate it thank you everybody out

there you gotta follow shirelle

you can find her she's she's uh she's

super funny on twitter uh so

[Laughter]

you should you should definitely

subscribe on twitter but tpinsights.com

that's the website

go check them out go subscribe to the

newsletter today

uh it is great it's been a great read to

add to everything else that i'm picking

up on

uh you'll immediately become smarter

about the black tech economy

uh as she mentioned my book create and

orchestrate uh in stores right now

uh you know i wrote this for many many

reasons but one of them is because

you know quite frankly so many of the

business books uh you know sort of are

are only written by white men and i love

those business books i have no problem

with them

but you know we should have business

books written by everybody and we should

have everybody contributing to this form

of literature that shapes the way that

we think about business and so

uh i hope if you haven't already gotten

it you'll consider getting creatine

orchestrate

the podcast marcus whitney's audio

universe everywhere that you get

podcasts and

follow me online at marcus whitney

everywhere on social

and that's it i hope you all have a

wonderful blessed weekend

uh stay safe take care of each other and

let's build a new normal y'all peace

[Music]

thank you for tuning in to marcus

whitney's audio universe

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