Venture capital is a type of investment fund that uses money from wealthy individuals, firms and funds to financially back a variety of smaller businesses and startups. One would think that this kind of finance strategy would be the perfect fit for businesses run by women and minorities; groups that are often denied bank loans. Sadly, this is not the case, according to the National Venture Capital Association, women make up only 11% of venture capital investment partners, despite being 45% of its workforce. The numbers are even bleaker for African-Americans and Latinos. African-Americans make up 3% of employees, while Latinos are 4%, and these firms have little to no minority investment partners. It not surprising that the 1.56 billion dollars that women-led companies received in funding last year pale in comparison to the 58.2 billion dollars that companies led by men received.
That is why Intel Capital started a 125 million dollar diversity fund to invest in startups run by women and underrepresented minorities. These disparities are also what drives their passionate interns and college students, Josiane Ishimwe and Allison Murdock, to continue studying in the STEM field so they can change the way we view venture capital. Ishimwe is studying chemical engineering and computer science at Howard University, while Murdock is a finance major with minors in French and computer science at Morgan State University. I spoke with the young women about the importance of financial literacy, what diversifying venture capital means to them and their communities, and how to remain confident in a field that is dominated by rich white men.
THAHABU: What attracted you to finance and economics?
JOSIANE ISHIMWE: With chemical engineering, I always wanted to be the female Iron Man! Like Ms. Iron Man, but my mom is also a big component of my life. She’s a chemistry aficionado and eventually went into global health. She did physical, analytical and organic chemistry, and my uncle who is kind of like my father, because my real father died in the Rwandan genocide, was a data statistician early on when computer science was first starting out. So, I’ve always been interested in heading into STEM, but they really helped me form my mind around why I like engineering, why I like tech, and why I like seeing ideas come into fruition. That’s how I got into chemical engineering. From there, I had a couple of opportunities to get interested in computer science through different internships, and kind of thought I could marry the two. That’s how I got here.
ALLISON MURDOCK: What attracted me to finance would probably be entering Morgan State University as a freshman. I had originally submitted my application with the intention of being a business administration major. I went very broad because I wasn’t sure what I exactly wanted to do. And in my business orientation class we were given different projects to research careers within the business school, and more specifically we were each given majors specific to that school, and my team had to research finance. That was just one way I was introduced to finance, and I learned so much, I was able to talk to several different professionals. I spoke to a foreign exchange dealer from western union, I interviewed a professor within the business school who had a degree in finance, and so that was most of my exposure. The other part of my interest comes from the fact that I’m very analytical so from a very young age. My parents knew that I had talent in my analytical ability, along with my ability to understand numbers. The first language I learned math in was French. That’s something that catered to my ability to understand math in a different realm, and it added to my analytical skills as well. Finance is something that I’m able to understand, and there are many people in my community who don’t really have a good understanding of it, even though it’s something that revolves around our life. I want to use my talent to pursue a career in this field and teach others like my family members and community about it.
Could you describe your journey to this major, and your college experience? Did you ever feel ostracized for choosing this path?
Josianne Ishimwe: My experience with studying engineering started in high school.My high school had a really great program where we could take an engineering course. It was kind of like a modified shop class where we bought our own supplies. We used power tools, we used computers to program Legos, just a myriad of things and that were more white male-dominated. That kind of pushed me towards Howard, and at Howard everyone is Black or Asian, but the engineering program was all people of color so the white male dominant aspect didn’t really come into play until I started having internships. But STEM as a whole is a pretty white dominant field. I think once you kind of get past that, you realize that no matter how you look on the outside, math has been the same since Aristotle did it. Science has been the same since, I don’t know, Albert Einstein did it. You have different innovations, but the applications and the basics of each thing that are coming about is the same, so you all know the same stuff. It’s kind of like going to the gym with the same supplies, the same shoes, and the same clothes. There’s not much that differentiates you from others expect from how you solve problems, but I think once I got through and stomached that pill, it was easier to feel less and less like an outsider in a very male and white-dominated field.
Allison Murdock: When I started college, I was ridiculed by people in my high school for attending an HBCU institution. Most of them wanted to see me go to different universities that I had the opportunity to attend. However, I wanted to stay close [to home] and I also felt I needed support from my community in order to succeed. Starting college should’ve been nerve-wracking, but I remember staying up the night before waiting for my nerves to kick in, and they just didn’t. I think it’s because when I started high school I had a nervous break down the night before, and so it was completely different when I began college. I had grown so much in high school. I think I looked at college with a completely different lens. I was just ready to grow. I knew I’d get thrown into different situations. I knew I had to use my prior knowledge, everything I learned from my parents, and look out for any danger that I’d come across and look for opportunities that would better my experience. I just had to navigate things and make decisions on my own. I remember my first semester I moved to campus and I had so much going on, but I was also able to balance my workload, and a lot of that came from practice in high school. My second semester, I had so much more to juggle. I joined more organizations. I started dancing again, with the modern dance ensemble, which is something that I absolutely love to do, but I was doing it in a different setting than I had before. When I was in middle school or high school I had a little more time for dance, but here I didn’t have as much, so juggling my school work along with my extracurriculars was a challenge. But in the end, it helped me grow.
In my experience, just being the only black woman in the classroom makes me feel pressured to represent my race and combat stereotypes. Do you ever feel that way? How do you overcome it?
Allison Murdock: Most definitely. In my persistence to land the internship with Intel Capital, all I was thinking about was how successful I wanted to be. The first thing on my mind wasn’t, Well, here’s all the odds stacked against me, it wasn’t, Oh well, I’m a woman I may not get it. All I saw was an opportunity, and that’s really what made me go after the internship. Now, in earning it, I think it was more pressure knowing that I had earned it and now knowing that I had to perform. Of course, in wanting to get the internship I knew I wanted to be successful, but I think the pressure came from the more research that I had done, the understanding that African-American venture capitalists aren’t very common. It was more so the culture shock that I experienced, especially in the area that I was in. I think as a woman, it’s one thing, as an African-American it’s another. When I got to Intel everyone was so welcoming, and the atmosphere that I experienced wasn’t what I expected. I think the anticipation between the time that I had actually earned the official internship and the time I arrived there was probably the toughest. Upon arrival, the few days I had before starting the internship. the area that I was around, there were days that I didn’t see a single person who looked like me! But when I got to Intel everyone was so nice, I just knew I could do it, and of course, there were those thoughts where I was like, “Darn, how am I gonna get through this day?” There were those hard days, but the one thing that always kept me going was my mother’s voice inside my head. She’s been so in tune with my education. She’s an immigrant from Jamaica, and education is so important to her. She and my dad instilled the belief that I could do anything I put my mind to. And that’s what kept me going. I went to a French immersion school where there were so many different people from so many different places. I was surrounded by different religions and different cultures so I was able to handle the culture shock in a way that it was familiar, only now this was going to be my career, and I’m gonna deal with this.
Josiane Ishimwe: Originally, that pressure made me feel like an outsider. Over time, I began to view it as a badge of honor. I try to share nuances rather than speaking for other people because, in the end, I don’t like being the spokesperson for all things black girl, and it’s hard at times. Sometimes, you’re like, I don’t want to be the black girl today, I just want to be the engineer.
How would seeing more women of color in high positions at venture capital firms and other companies affect you?
Josiane Ishimwe: I think it’s definitely encouraging to see women in such high positions. Aicha Evans is one of the only women on the MCM level at Intel and she’s definitely one of the only black woman. And she’s from Senegal! I met her randomly in the hallway, and for me experiencing that meeting, taught me that having black women, black people, or women in general in higher places definitely helps.
Allison Murdock: One thing is for sure: I didn’t even know what VC was. I had always heard, Oh well this company bought this company or this company merged with this company, and Oh Facebook bought Instagram, but I never a knew that it was a career and that it was something that I could do. I think that when I mentioned it to people like my sisters, and cousins, that I’d be interning at a venture capital firm, they had no idea what I was talking about. However, when I was out in California and went to several intern events in the Bay Area, you mention to someone who doesn’t look like you that you’re in VC, and they kind of look at you like, You’re in VC? What? Wow, how’d you get that? And then, of course, there’s that stereotype that, “Oh you’re only here because you’re African-American.” If there were more African-Americans within this field there wouldn’t be that stereotype. I know that I worked hard for what I got, and I have to be confident in that, but hearing others reactions to where I am and what I’m doing, and their take on how I got there is something that affects you. But you can either let it define you or you can define it for yourself. For me, I had to just ignore it. All I could do was visualize myself being the head of global mergers and acquisitions one day at a company of my choice, like Intel. I had to believe in myself before could I let what I was hearing affect me or what I was seeing affect me. I had to have that same energy that Rosa Parks had when she decided to sit in front of the bus, and all the ridicule she received, the jail time she served, things like that. You have to put yourself in the mindset that you’re bettering a situation for someone else. If had I seen African-Americans in venture capital growing up, had my aunt been a venture capitalist, or if it had just been mentioned to me at a younger age, I think I’d be more inclined to believe I could be a venture capitalist one day.
What would diversifying venture capital and investing in more diverse businesses do for your community?
Josiane Ishimwe: I think that would be so powerful. I know Intel Capital has a diversity fund, which they’ve pledged 125 million dollars, in diversity CEO funds. That includes startups that have black women, people in the LGBTQ community, veterans, etc, anything that makes a CEO or their company diverse. It’s initiatives like that, that I think can really change the way we look at VC because I think in the past it’s been, “Oh I know this guy that I play golf with and he has a company and it could be this,” or just a bunch of closed-door conversations, but now with more initiatives like the diversity fund, you have CEOs that are bringing socially relevant changes and innovations within technology. There’s a lot of things I came across this summer, and it wasn’t, “Oh you’re the intern, you’re a diverse candidate, and we want you meeting with diverse companies.” It was more like, “Hey this a company we’re really interested in because at the end of the day, their technology is incredibly relevant, socially relevant, and this is how it works.” I think seeing how it’s a bit of a catalyst amongst a bunch of Silicon Valley firms, shows that it’s paving the way for a world that isn’t just white male-centric, and technology that isn’t just white male-centric.
Allison Murdock: Oh my goodness, it would help my community so much. There’s so much talent in my community. There are so many people at Morgan State University with such amazing ideas—clothing lines, makeup, all sorts of things. After this summer interning at Intel, I finally understand how Google became Google, how a startup goes public, how one idea turns into a fortune. People have ideas and they don’t really do anything about it, because it’s like, “Well where am I going to get money from? How am I supposed to pitch this to someone? Who do I even pitch it to?” I think it’s a matter of hope and giving people a chance to believe.
Are there any people in STEM people that inspire you?
Josiane Ishimwe: My mom. I know that’s very corny but she’s always been a big staple in my life. She fled the Rwandan genocide. She’s powerful and was still able to maintain her academics, and she was able to come to the States with nothing, and eventually get a great job and work in a field that she’s passionate about. Within the Silicon Valley ecosystem; definitely Sheryl Sandberg. Lean In is one of the best books ever. I was a Lean In coordinator on campus for the society of women and gender, and Lean In circles are incredibly relevant, especially within the black community, and because Howard is such a close-knit group, we’ve even had Lean In circles with male students. I love Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. He spoke at the NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) conference that I went to a few months ago, and he’s just someone that I’m really interested in. While he’s not a black woman, he’s a white male who’s a champion for all things diversity and more inclusion. He’s all about making people comfortable and understanding what he doesn’t understand, and how he can make it better. I really admire that kind of forward thinking.
Allison Murdock: Yes! My older cousin, Brandon Reade. He’s been the one who motivated me from a young age. He’s a biochemical engineer, he has a PhD, his parents, just like my mother, are immigrants from Jamaica. He attended the same college as me and graduated. He now has a job at Johnson and Johnson. He’s just so awesome. I always have this vivid memory of being in kindergarten and my mother telling me about my cousin graduating from high school and getting a full ride to college. I remember I was getting out the car one day, and she was telling me about him. I walked through the blue doors of my elementary school with so much motivation. I was so inspired. I knew the world was ahead of me, but I knew that I could conquer it. I knew it because someone just like me, someone blood-related, someone who looked like me could achieve such greatness. Then there’s my aunt, she’s not my blood aunt, but I consider her to be my aunt. She was my preschool teacher, her daughter is amazing. She went through the same French immersion program that I went through. She’s a lead engineer for the Hub at NASA. She’s just so amazing, she graduated from John Hopkins University. I just have so much motivation, I love to see how innovative STEM majors can be. Yall are changing the world, let me help you, let me add the business aspect of it. It’s funny you ask this, because I was in my business professional development class, and the professor said, “You know we’re on this side of campus, and there’s this whole other side of the campus that’s doing STEM research, and its time that y’all take the initiative to reach out to them. Offer them that perspective on how to develop a business plan for their inventions and ideas.” We were watching The Men Who Built America, and we were learning about Nikola Tesla and how he was going against Thomas Edison for their ideas about electricity, and she was asking us about why Edison was successful, but Tesla wasn’t. It was because Tesla wasn’t a businessman, he didn’t have the support in that aspect. She was connecting the ideas of STEM to business, how they work together, and are synonymous.
Do you have any advice to young people who are thinking about pursuing a career in STEM?
Josiane Ishimwe: Number one would be to not underestimate how hard it can be. It is challenging and I think it’s easy to belittle engineering, because everyone wants to go into STEM now, and it’s kind of become a buzzword. For young women who are applying to college and don’t necessarily know exactly what they wanna do just yet, I wouldn’t just want to throw that term out there lightly on going into STEM or engineering, because it’s gonna take a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifices, and a lot of blood sweat and tears for lack of a better phrase. Also, when it comes to internships and applying for things, never be afraid to apply for things that don’t necessarily sound like they would be good for you. For me, I was pretty scared of going into a computer science internship this past summer because I didn’t have any experience prior to that. I had a small one before, but it wasn’t too software heavy, so I felt a bit anxious when applying to companies, and kind of wanting to a get out of traditional chemical engineering with the two prior summers I had spent at ExxonMobil. So I would suggest not being afraid to step outside of your comfort zone or the box that’s been explicitly outlined for what your major is, or what STEM is. Right now, we’re seeing a great big marriage between everything within STEM. Whether it be finance, technology, engineering or math, with the arts as well, and seeing how things are coming to together to bring about this big data industrialization. Don’t be afraid to color outside of the lines, and don’t be afraid to do something you’re not used to, or what you think doesn’t apply to you.
Allison Murdock: You know that saying, “Just do it?” It’s so cliche but just do it! You’re going to know! The stars will align! Take risks. If it scares you, it’s probably a good thing. Don’t set limits on yourself. Try to defeat the odds. For all women, girls, and teens, especially minorities, you’re trained to think that the odds are stacked against you, and if you decide to believe that you’ll always have a limit on yourself. You have to take that limit off, and go after your goals. You have to research, you have to put the work in, but you have to especially believe in yourself, and the problem with that is you can tell people to believe in themselves, have hope, and walk by faith, but unless you have an example it’s hard to do so. Some people have no vision and without a vision, there is no final product. So in order for you to develop a vision, you need to find an example. If you’re African-American like me, and you’re looking for some type of example, maybe you can talk to a teacher. Find a way. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and you have to find that will, and you can only have that if you have a vision and some type of example. I want to let other young women know that you have to work hard for what you want. Don’t let anyone tell you no. Don’t take no for an answer, because I could’ve taken no for an answer. I could’ve taken, “Well you’re a freshman and we’re looking for juniors and seniors,” as a no but I didn’t. Don’t ever set limits on yourself because you can do whatever you want. Just believe in yourself. Some people may say you can tell someone to believe in yourself all you want, but unless young people have an example it’s hard for them to do so, which is why I want to tell my story, and it’s why I want to share as much as I can. There’s no such thing as keeping knowledge to yourself and thinking that there’s only enough opportunity for you. There’s opportunity for everyone. You have to think in abundance. You have to understand that if you fail once there’s something else. There’s another door opening for you. You just have to knock. ♦