A lot of newsletters curate headlines based on what’s trending, letting culture dictate coverage. Sherrell Dorsey, founder of ThePLUG Daily, is adamant about flipping that model, using data- and research-driven reporting to drive those conversations.
ThePLUG is a curated newsletter, with daily and weekly editions, focused on diversity in entrepreneurship. Dorsey says it’s the first newsletter focused on black and brown innovators and founders specifically.
Dorsey herself is a technologist and journalist, currently pursuing a masters degree in data journalism at Columbia University. She’s based in Charlotte, NC, but was born in what she refers to as the “Microsoft country” of Seattle (she interned at the tech giant each summer in high school). She’s worked for Uber and Google Fiber and has bylines in Fast Company and City Lab, a background in policy and calls herself a “major data nerd”.
Now, she’s taking that exposure to policy, her journalism and technology background, and an interest in entrepreneurship to the masses with ThePLUG. The website and newsletter stemmed from Dorsey’s belief that, not only is there an access and capital gap for founders of color, but a gap in the type of media coverage they receive as well.
“We do a lot of investigation into ‘the Amazons and the Jeff Bezos,’ but I think that there should be much more scrutiny around the kind of companies that are being started by women and people of color,” says Dorsey. “And not from a sense of trying to sniff people out for anything terrible, but the way that we measure those businesses over businesses run by white males is they’re kind of taken a little bit more seriously — there’s less profile feature stories versus real news stories.”
Launched last year, she has quickly picked up a dedicated audience that look forward to the team’s original reporting and curated bylines.
“We’ve been going strong for a little over a year, and it’s been interesting to be able to show that not every futurist is a Mark Zuckerberg or an Elon Musk,” says Dorsey. “We all come in different shapes and flavors and different backgrounds and I think all of those things need to be documented.”
What does your day-to-day look like?
We’re a two-and-a-half women show. I have a daily editor that curates the newsletter every single day and we connect weekly on setting priorities. We are all remote. I work primarily at this point on business partnerships and setting the strategy for revenue — right now we’re sponsored by Capital One, which has been just tremendous partner. They’ve done some pretty incredible things around women in tech and focusing on fostering diversity. It’s been an awesome opportunity to invite people to apply to jobs at Capital One, and we’ve also covered various events that they’ve had, to share them with our audience, in addition to interviewing some incredible women of color on their team.
From a day-to-day perspective, no two days are the same. Our priority is making sure that we get out a high-quality newsletter and provide insights on where the market is today. And a lot of our time is spent digging to find new stories or new people to feature as a profile.
Give some examples of what would be a good fit for your newsletter?
Today there were two black women who have raised over $40 million in capital, and that’s huge news because we know that black women in tech, specifically black women tech founders, most have not raised over $300,000. So this was pretty pretty significant in that they were the 15th and 16th black women in the U.S. to raise a significant amount of venture capital.
I think what I’m most interested in at this point, especially as someone who is a student of data journalism, is looking at, how do we leverage the data that we’re collecting and make it useful for policy or for workforce development. So we’re also looking at different ways that we can cultivate that data into new products, useful for a wide variety of industries that are interested in investing in entrepreneurs of color.
What sort of general trends are you seeing around inclusion in entrepreneurship, since you’re watching this so closely?
I think that there’s definitely a trend around folks trying to solve this problem of unconscious bias, or I guess conscious bias, in hiring, trying to find ways to move the needle to make sure that women and people of color get greater access to the jobs available in technology, and also getting people into leadership roles specifically. You’ll see a ton of these platforms being created to match talent with companies, with major brands making investments in recruiting from these platforms.
There’s also an increased push with the heads of diversity and inclusion at companies. I think there’s starting to be more of a definitive job description of what that role looks like — because it’s more than making press announcements and planning events, or setting up employee resource groups internally. I think there’s going to be more data collection around what that role really looks like and how to measure it. When Google and Facebook and Yahoo came out with their numbers just a couple of years ago, the reaction was very alarmist — people didn’t know what to do; companies were on the chopping block. I think you’re starting to see a shift of thinking, that now they’ve had two years to clean up their act, so what does that role actually look like and what was that work?
And then honestly I do just see more coverage of diverse founders. As someone who is a journalist, we do a lot of investigation into the Amazons and the Jeff Bezos’, but I think that there should be much more scrutiny around the kind of companies that are being started by women and people of color. And not from a sense of trying to sniff people out for anything terrible, but the way that we measure those businesses over businesses run by white males is they’re kind of taken a little bit more seriously — there’s less profile feature stories versus real news stories. I’m hoping larger publications will really start taking those companies seriously.
What remains the biggest weaknesses in this space?
I think that we need to be able to look up five years from now and say that we actually got something accomplished. So I think that there needs to be more people working on this problem from a boots-on-the-ground aspect. I think journalists are going to have to diversify their Rolodex, really talking and getting the perspectives of black and brown founders, of women, of different affinity groups, the LGBT community, the disabled community, to really create well-rounded reporting on what’s happening in tech. And they have to go outside of Silicon Valley!
And then I think also there’s a tremendous trend of people establishing more funding routes for diverse entrepreneurs. I’m hoping that continues to grow; it’s still just a fraction of what the general market is, but you see places like New York City with over a billion dollars in city contracts that has gone to women and minorities. There has to be a better analysis on whether our cities are really following through with their commitments to ensure that diverse entrepreneurs have access to low-cost loan products and government contracts.
Do you think it’s a city’s responsibility to promote inclusion in entrepreneurship?
Absolutely. At the end of the day, the goal of a city is to continue to drive revenue, in the form of taxes, people renting properties, people purchasing properties, sending their kids to school, continuing to invest and call a place home. When it’s not viable for people or families to be able to live in a city, they move. Well, when you look back at which cities people have completely abandoned, those are very struggling cities. So city officials have to be very diligent about the holistic need for people to live and stay in cities.
So we look at, what are the options for economic mobility? If I want to start a business, what’s the likelihood that I’m going to be approved for a loan, that I’m going to get support? I think that I think that the smartest cities, the smartest governors and mayors, are making those investments now. You see places like Seattle, like Raleigh, even New York, having a startup liaison — a specific person at the city that is there to help direct people who want to start a business to resources. The Chambers of Commerce in these cities were initially designed to attract large businesses, but now we’re seeing this focus on garage entrepreneurs. Cities have got to create a good environment for everyone.
Let’s narrow it down to the Southeast. What are some of the cities that you see doing a good job?
I think Atlanta is killing it. You have these great partnerships that Georgia Tech has fostered with different companies. You have tremendous talent and investment going there. I also think the Raleigh and Durham area, from a research standpoint, has been tremendous. I think Charlotte is trying to put a focus and emphasis on fintech, which is a great place for them considering they’re the second largest financial hub in America after New York.
I think city policy is also trying to change to make environments friendly, especially because those places tend to be a bit cheaper but also hold great schools. So I think from the Southeast perspective you’re just seeing a lot more investment in getting people to think about entrepreneurship and innovation — and then making people want to stay.
Are there any weaknesses around inclusive entrepreneurship in the Southeast that you think we need to address?
I think there is a lot to deal with from a policy standpoint. In these states, from a policy perspective a lot of times economic mobility for poor people is a challenge. We know that our school systems are extremely challenged, which directly affects our mobility to be able to afford to live in those communities, in addition to people who get hired. Right now, a lot of the talent is immigrated, so a lot is from the North, but that can lead to devastation of the local community.
In Charlotte, in the Mecklenburg area, there was a study saying if you’re born poor, it’s almost impossible for you to actually get out of poverty, and that directly affects inclusion. We need to have access to talent and it’s disproportionately black and brown people who don’t get that access.