In the 80s my father, an expert on terrorism, spent a number of years tracking American white supremacist groups for the US Government. Even 30 years ago the heavily armed extremists militia white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations in Idaho and Montana were viewed as a significant internal threat to many of our national interests.
I was too young to know the details of his work, but I remember how I felt when I came home from school in our Washington D.C. neighborhood, thousands of miles away from those people, and found an axe at our front door. Even then, these people were scary and their networks and tactics of fear extended far and wide.
Extremist white supremacist groups have persisted in the US certainly for most of the 20th century. It's a short leap from the terrorist KKK groups responsible for lynching and other unspeakable crimes, to white supremacist groups proliferating and organizing today. It's easy to forget the Oklahoma City bomber was a radicalized white supremacist who viewed government as the enemy. And of course, nearly every mass shooting in recent years has been a white male with ties to white nationalist groups. The roots of violent white nationalism are deep and wide. After the horrific terrorist act in New Zealand, it's certainly the right time to be looking more closely here at home. Could a New Zealand like attack happen here? Of course, it has over and over again.
When I wrote my book, Crossing the Thinnest Line two years ago, my thesis was that white Americans have never been asked to seriously confront our racism and the deep-seated biases that have been part of our identity as a nation since its founding. We reinforce a constant narrative that institutional racism is a thing of our past. That the Civil Right movement won. That we have moved on. WE have failed to come to terms with the fact that America remains deeply segregated. Since the 1990s, progress on school integration nationwide has reversed. Most Americans live in totally homogenous communities, cut off from real connections with or the opportunity to learn from people different from ourselves. Too few Americans have the tools or the experience to recognize their own biases. White Americans largely deny we even have them.
This denial and unwillingness to seriously face our demons, our lack of commitment to fostering serious dialogue and understanding is exactly the vacuum in which white supremacy has been able to persist and now fester. Aided and amplified by social media and the internet age, abetted and mainstreamed by the Trump doctrine of us versus them, legitimized by him and by Laura Ingram, Tucker Carlson and others who peddle the idea that difference is the enemy. It's easy to see New Zealand, or Pittsburgh or Charleston as far away. But those places are now everywhere. There is nowhere that this hate needs not be confronted.
This denial and unwillingness to seriously face our demons, our lack of commitment to fostering serious dialogue and understanding is exactly the vacuum in which white supremacy has been able to persist and now fester.
There is a real and imminent danger to all of us if we cannot have a serious national discussion about the cause of hate which is isolation, persistent segregation in schools, universities, businesses and faith-based organizations who run from rather than engage in the real work of building deeper understanding across lines of difference. All of our institutions need to seriously confront this existential threat. As we move toward becoming a minority majority nation how will we prepare to capitalize on this diversity to be the great social and economic asset it truly is? Are we doomed to divide into entrenched camps of us and them? No. It is possible to show more Americans a path away from hate but it takes a willingness to be honest about how serious the problem is and commitment to fostering understanding and confronting the cancer of hate eating away at so many.
Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses
Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.
I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.
The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony
The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.
I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.
I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.
I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke
I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.
I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.
From Paper to Digital
We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.
The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.
I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.
I second guessed myself all the time.
A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.
I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.