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5 black business leaders who are changing the face of Silicon Valley

Stacy Brown-Philpot, COO TaskRabbit

Yahoo Finance
Yahoo Finance

Growing up in Detroit, Brown-Philpot, 40, says every day she encountered hard working people with tangible skills who couldn’t find jobs. It’s not hard to see why she took on the role of COO at job outsourcing site TaskRabbit in 2013. “TaskRabbit is revolutionizing everyday work, and for me, that means helping the company create work opportunities for people who might not otherwise have them,” she told Yahoo Finance.

Career highlights: Recently named to Forbes 40 under 40 list; spent 9 years at Google leading global operations for flagship products like search and Chrome (she counts Sheryl Sandberg among her mentors); holds a seat on the board of HP (HPQ).; founded the Black Google Network to encourage diversity; earned her M.B.A from Stanford University.

On making the decision to move to India to run Google’s sales operations without her husband and family: “Imagine living your entire life on a balance beam -- stressful, right? Instead, I like to think about life in cycles where at any one point in time, you’re prioritizing one thing over another (family, friends, career, etc,) which gives you the power to make a conscious choice on when to change priorities and what happens within each cycle. When I moved to India, I knew I was choosing my career, but it was only for a finite period of time, and my husband and I agreed on that decision. The key takeaway is, don't be afraid to ask for what you need both at home and at work.”

Favorite quote:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Her advice for young minorities who feel unwelcome in the tech industry:

“We are the generation that those who came before us, have been waiting for. The playing field is more level than you think, so don't hold yourself back.”

Morgan DeBaun, Founder, Blavity.com

Yahoo Finance
Yahoo Finance

Morgan DeBaun, 26, noticed something about the cafeteria at her alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. Each day at lunch, a steady stream of black students at the predominantly white university would gravitate toward one large circular table in the middle of the room, eager to talk about issues important to them. DeBaun and her friends started calling the phenomenon “Blavity,” a mash-up of "black" plus "gravity." In 2014, DeBaun and co-founder Aaron Samuels launched Blavity.com, a tech and media company aimed at highlighting news about, and written by, black millennials. They bootstrapped the company themselves, working full-time by day and working on Blavity during the wee morning hours and into the night.

Where she got her business chops: DeBaun’s first business was literally sweet. With no candy vending machines at her middle school, she mixed together packets of Kool-aid and sugar and sold them for 25 cents to kids at lunch. She also credits her father for getting her interested in investing at age 14. “It’s always been a part of who I am, trying to figure out how to turn $1 into $1.25,” she says.

How Blavity merges technology with media: “Most of what people see right now is a media company,” DeBaun told Yahoo Finance. ”Content is great for building community and growing a large audience quickly but it's not scalable without technology. Behind the scenes we've scaled up our engineering team and are working day and night to launch the MVP of our first platform play.”

What it’s like being a “double minority” in Silicon Valley: “In general, I think VCs tend to steer away from companies that are difficult to understand and don't match patterns. I talk to a lot of investors who are excited about the huge potential of such a large untapped space but are waiting on the sidelines because we don't fit their typical portfolio company. Ultimately these investors will be missing out on getting in early on a once in a lifetime opportunity to monopolize a media play for this demographic.”

Kortney Ryan Ziegler, founder of Trans*H4CK

Yahoo Finance
Yahoo Finance

An Oakland, Calif.-based artist and writer, Kortney Ryan Ziegler has been a longtime advocate within the transgender/nonconforming community. But he saw a disconnect in Silicon Valley, where he felt the community needed a place to support one another and connect. In 2013, he launched Trans*H4CK, a nonprofit organization that hosts hackathons and meetups across the country. So far, over 600 transgender developers, designers, and aspiring coders have presented at Trans*H4CK hackathons.

Why does Silicon Valley need an organization like Trans*H4CK? “Mission driven technology can save lives and I believe that the trans community can benefit greatly from tech creation that centers our experiences,” Ziegler told Yahoo Finance. “Trans people represent an important demographic already in tech—so I thought it important to provide visibility for the amazing work already being produced.”

What are some of the cool apps or products that members have created through Trans*H4CK?

“We've organized dozens of hackathons and meetups across the country. Apps that help to find comprehensive healthcare to apps that rate trans-friendly employers have emerged out of Trans*H4CK spaces. What's most impressive are the life changing connections that are made where people have secured jobs at startups or have come together to launch their own trans-led and founded startups--it's quite amazing.”

Career highlights: Ziegler was the first person to hold the Ph.D. of African American Studies from Northwestern University; he directed the award-winning documentary, STILL BLACK: a portrait of black transmen; runs the GLAAD Media Award nominated blog, blac (k) ademic, and was recently named one of the Top 40 Under 40 LGBT activists by The Advocate Magazine and #29 of the most influential African Americans of 2013 by TheRoot100.

His advice on improving acceptance of trans/nonconforming communities in tech:

“Be mindful. Difference is good.”

Shauntel Poulson, co-founder of education venture capital firm Reach Capital

Yahoo Finance
Yahoo Finance

After graduating from MIT, Shauntel Poulson, 31, went on to develop products for Procter & Gamble. But it was volunteering at an afterschool program that kindled a desire to pursue education. She earned her MBA/MA of Education at Stanford but her next stop wasn’t in a classroom -- it was a gig at venture capital firm NewSchools Venture Fund, where she helped back early stage education technology startups. The firm spun out into Reach Capital to focus solely on edtech investing, putting Poulson at the helm. "The focus is on ensuring all students, no matter their backgrounds, have access to high-quality education to be successful in their lives," she told CNN Money.

What’s exciting about Poulson and Reach: She is one of three female partners out of four at the firm. This is extraordinary for a venture capital firm, especially in Silicon Valley. Only 6% of VC firms have women partners on staff, according to a study by the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson College.

Poulson’s advice for young people interested in a career in tech or venture capital: When asked by The SearchLight Project, Poulson said learning how to code, staying current on technology trends and building a strong foundation in STEM courses is paramount to building a successful career in tech. She also cites the importance of working at a startup to get operational experience. “This will help you when you are on the other side of the table advising entrepreneurs."

Exciting technology Poulson’s firm backs: Nearpod, where teachers can create lessons and share them with educators across the country, and SchoolMint, a platform that helps thousands of k-12 schools streamline admissions and communication with families.

Maxine Williams, Global Head of Diversity, Facebook

Yahoo Finance
Yahoo Finance

Maxine Williams is driving Facebook’s (FB) efforts to not only improve diversity but decrease the role that unconscious biases play in the company’s hiring process. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Williams studied at Yale and went on to earn her law degree as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England.

How improv has helped her thrive in her new role: (as told to Forbes.com) “What it teaches you in life is this tremendous concept of arriving somewhere, like I did here, where you know nothing, you have no connections, you have no script, but you have to make things work. And, yes, you will fail publicly many times, but you’ll know how to get up gracefully and try again the next day.”

Her biggest pet peeve? Tiptoeing around tough discussions about diversity in the workplace.I think sensitivity was holding [Facebook] back from being bold on diversity...They were well intentioned because they didn’t want to offend, but in not offending, we’re not doing what we say we do, which is moving fast, breaking things, failing harder, done is better than perfect — all of this,” she told Forbes. “Just do it, engage it. But to do that, you have to be at the same time creating an atmosphere where people are willing to forgive.”

Career highlights: She once ran a Caribbean human rights organization in Barbados; practiced law for six years in Trinidad; launched a successful media career in New York, hosting and producing shows for BET cultural programs and becoming an expert guest on Court TV; she was the director of diversity programs for New York law firm White & Case LLP for six years before joining Facebook; headlined Facebook’s “Be Bold. Move Fast” college campus tour in 2014, visiting schools with high numbers of women and minority students.


Mandi Woodruff is a reporter for Yahoo Finance and host of Brown Ambition, a weekly podcast about life, love and money.

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