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Malcolm X is quoted to have said “the media’s the most powerful entity on Earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent.” The media plays a pivotal role in shaping our perceptions of the world and of different groups of people. When analyzing media depictions of Black people, pervasive issues like the white savior narrative and anti-black stereotypes are common. In addition to media and Hollywood representation (or rather misrepresentation), when we think of experts, our minds are wired to imagine white men. This leads to biases not only in how stories are covered but also in who we deem as worthy of profiling. With an understanding of this issue in mind, The Plug was born. The Plug was created with this purpose in mind: “our stories move beyond popular deficit narratives to show the substantive ways that Black people are affected by and engaged with the innovation economy.” Launched in 2016, The Plug provides a daily tech newsletter that highlights news about Black tech trends and analyses that aren’t regularly examined in the media currently. Forbes sat down with The Plug founder, Sherrell Dorsey, to talk about the platform and catalyst to create it, as well as the impact it’s been having thus far.
Janice Gassam Asare: Could you share a little bit about you and your background for the Forbes readers who may not be familiar with you?
Sherrell Dorsey: Yeah. Sherrell Dorsey, I’m the founder, Editor in Chief and CEO of The Plug. We have been covering Black side ecosystems, and everything from startups, to founders, to how firms are performing, and doing this coverage in a data-driven way since 2016. When I first launched, The Plug [was] a daily tech newsletter that centered the rising class of Black tech ecosystems. I’m originally from Seattle…learned how to code in high school. Worked for Microsoft during high school, [as] an intern. And got to school in New York, worked for different fashion and beauty startups.
But part of my challenge, and what really led me to launch The Plug…working in tech for a great majority of my, I guess, early career. I was also at Uber, and was also at Google Fiber…on contract. But part of the challenge was reading tech and business literature and not seeing a lot of well examined, rigorous reporting on Black startups and Black business leaders. It just was such a dead space. And the articles we saw, talked about disparity, or they were like magical minority focused, versus why can’t we also talk about the growing sustainability green energy sector and be quoted as experts? That’s really the foundation of who I am, and the impetus behind The Plug.
Asare: And could you share a little bit more about The Plug and the impact that you’re seeing it have so far?
Dorsey: Yeah. For the last, I guess now, five years, we’ve really been the first to cover some critical stories that have been under-examined in the journalism and media space. From documenting and mapping out all of the existing Black-owned co-working spaces in the U.S., to, during the height of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, creating one of the first centralized databases of, not just tech company statements and what they’ve shared around their commitments to racial justice, but also mapping out what does Black tech worker representation look [like] across those countries.
Other impact really has been that we featured up-and-coming startups. And investors really look to us for deal flow. So, there’s a lot of companies that have gotten checks based on our reporting. There’s a lot of firms that have gotten checks based on our reporting. We’ve really been a conduit of catalysts to data-driven analysis that has helped big industry players…everyone from Google Ventures, to Amazon, to Facebook, to Stanford Business Graduate School, we’ve really been able to professionalize our reporting in a way, again, that is not focused on entertainment in general knowledge, but provides utility to some of these industries that are really shaping the future of business and the future of technology, which ultimately, of course, shapes society.
So that really has been, I think, our impact. We continue to be that leading business intelligence source, of what’s happening in Black tech ecosystems, and how it plays a very large role in the shaping of how business is done in this country.
Asare: Absolutely. What have you seen as far as the impacts of the pandemic, and how that has affected Black founders and innovators just in this last year, within the work that you’ve been doing?
Dorsey: I think we continue to see the resilience of Black founders. I think, of course, there has been some weakening across industries to support and pay attention to communities of color. But more important, I think, just as the same as the 2008 recession, which I actually graduated into, is you see this level of ingenuity. You see how new opportunities emerge to solve very critical problems.
And I think Black founders across the board are really at the forefront of that. I think that opportunity has expanded. There’s probably been more venture funds targeting Black founders than there have ever been in the last decade. You see more assets being managed by Black investors. There’s much more vocal outspeak on discrimination. The research has thickened. And so, we have much more data that’s been collected on where disparity is and still why.
And I think that being grounded in that research allows us to make business cases for why our presence is necessary. As tough as it has been, as tough as the losses have been both personally and professionally, monetarily, for those who did have to shutter their companies, there is still tremendous opportunity in the wake of the crises that we face and still face.
Asare: One thing that I loved that I had seen on The Plug website was this idea of the power and the importance of journalism. On the website, there was a quote that said, ‘Journalism is justice and knowledge work.’ Could you go into a little bit more detail about what you feel is the value of journalism when it comes particularly to Black entrepreneurs and underserved founders?
Dorsey: Yeah. I think that journalism is critical in terms of holding industry, and society, and the powers that be accountable for their behaviors, their actions, and their recognition of our contributions, and our presence. I think, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this, going to conferences and seeing all white male panels, or seeing all white women panels, and seeing…there’s so many other voices and perspectives. Why do we keep pretending as though we live in this homogenized world? Journalism helps to unlock that, especially when we’re talking about journalism covering distinctive communities like communities of color as a whole. But particularly when we look at the business media landscape, it’s still very homogenized, down from who we interview, who we quote, who we feature, who we ask for opinions, and then who we platform.
Again, I think that we, in the blogosphere that shaped much of early 2000s, we kind of stepped away from that hard news, well-trained journalistic thought and analysis and skepticism. And in our reporting as journalists, our journalism industry has taken such a hit monetarily, and then also the challenge of diversity in the newsroom…in terms of documenting who we are. I was just talking to my boyfriend last week, and I was just thinking about how I did not know who Katherine Johnson was before I saw the movie Hidden Figures. And imagine if reporters during that time had mentioned her name in the newspapers, and had featured her. We would be honoring her…this woman recently away, and may she rest in peace. But we would have been honoring her in her elderly age. We would have been honoring her during the time of the moon landing. I think about that level of documentation and visibility that helps to contribute to our understanding of ourselves, and our understanding of society, versus the media landscape that says, the only people that get to be called genius are white guys.
Like I said, I grew up in Seattle. And of course, we knew of the Bill Gateses, but every time we refer to a startup founder that has promise, we’re like, ‘oh, they could be the next Mark Zuckerberg’. And it’s like, why? Why can’t they be the next Jewel Burks?
Asare: I love that. And I echo that 100,000%…it reminds me of the comment that was made to Viola Davis that she’s like the Meryl Streep [of Hollywood]…And it’s like, why can’t she just be the Viola Davis of Hollywood?
Dorsey: Yeah, absolutely. And get paid. And then also, and I think the thing she goes on to go, ‘well, if I’ve done all this, and we have the exact same resume, why also am I not getting paid like Meryl Streep?’ Which is also the bigger question. And obviously we can speak to the economic implications of our lack of visibility. But I think overall, quite honestly, Janice, we have to continue to remind people that we’re here and that we’re doing incredible things. And I saw the landscape change, as I’m sure you did, with all of a sudden people who care about Black folks again…and there were more features, more visibility, more conversations. But it was just like, why are all of the stories and all of the moments rooted in trauma? Why are you only asking and featuring Black and brown founders in your publication when you want to talk about disparity? Because if I’m an investor or a CEO, and I’m just reading and only seeing Black and brown images and female images in one context, my mind is only going to think about this as a charity case, versus this is a company I need to get invested in because they’ve got the drop on the new polymers that are going to change the way the Earth breaks down plastic.
I just think there’s a level of intellectual laziness and dishonesty that we have to mitigate. All of that to say, The Plug is really trying to transform that, it’s really trying to transform who we call genius, and help to identify the power players that have always been here, and many who are up and coming, but who largely don’t get the kind of prowess and recognition they deserve.
Asare: Absolutely. The last question that I had for you is about rest and self-care. And I think that, I’m sure, we as Black entrepreneurs and as Black women don’t get enough rest and don’t give ourselves enough time to rest…I think part of that is because we feel the weight of the world on our shoulders and society’s expectations that we have to win, we have to be successful…many don’t have the luxury of just having moments of pause, being able to rest. I would love to hear more about what you do personally…to really give yourself a moment of pause, and to just rest and recoup? And what do you recommend for other Black founders who find themselves in a position where they just feel overwhelmed and stressed, given everything going on?
Dorsey: I think it’s just that—give yourself rest and pause when you need it. I no longer feel obligated to work all hours of the day. I try to have a stopping point, or when I can, I try to take a half a day or a day off, when I can. I’ve really invested in things like Calm, for meditation. I try to ensure I move my body every day, through formal gym, or doing something from the Peloton app. I try to surround myself with flowers. I try to make my space as soft and comforting as much as possible. And also, just reading…reading more about the goal of rest for Black women, reading bell hooks Sisters of the Yam, right now, talks about that sense of we have to do so much to feel validated in this country. And so, she offers that sense of, look, not only do we have to be focused on our self-care, but we also have to enable opportunities for other Black women to focus on their self-care. And just little things, honestly, if it’s just having a cup of tea at night, and just lighting a candle and chilling. I try to do that. And definitely being an entrepreneur, you have to just keep moving forward. But I think during this time I’m also learning to give myself grace.
To learn more about what’s happening across Black tech ecosystems, sign up for The Plug’s weekly briefing by clicking here.
This interview has been lighted edited for clarity and brevity.
As we move on to the next post, may I add that geoFence is easy to use, easy to maintain and that’s no joke!