This episode with Kathryn Finney, the Budget Fashionista turned entrepreneur, investor and author, examines how identifying opportunity can lead to untold success – but this isn't just Kathryn's story. Her own father's career change gave her a "lesson on living", and from there she has gone on to make a hugely positive impact on the world, and as a result has a beautiful, compelling and engaging story to tell.
[Ann 00:00:00] Welcome to this week's episode of the Bet On Yourself podcast, where we speak to some of the world's most inspirational people who have all at some point in their careers, taken a huge bet on themselves, transforming them personally and professionally. Today I am joined by Kathryn Finney, the bestselling author, innovator, entrepreneur and all-round superstar. Born and raised in America's mid-west, Kathryn has built a career on examples of kindness and endeavor set by her father and those that came before him, which has seen her overcome anything that has been put in her way. After traveling around the globe to study and research women's health, Kathryn then turned to fashion blogging and took the world by storm. The Budget Fashionista became an international phenom, seeing her featured in The New York Times and Marie Claire and even crossing paths at one point with Jane Fonda. Kathryn's latest book, Build the Damn Thing, is hitting shelves this week and I am so excited to share her story with you. As of this recording, her book is the number one new release on Amazon. It's really good. So if you enjoy this conversation as much as I think you will, then please be sure to let me know in all the usual places such as a review on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, or wherever you happen to be listening right now.
[Ann 00:01:19] Kathryn Finney, thank you so much for being on the Bet on Yourself podcast today. Thanks for having me. I'm excited to chat. I'm very excited too. So I have been fangirling and stalking you cyberly for a while, and I did notice that I hear people refer to you by several different names, not necessarily just Kathryn but Kat and other things in between. How do you prefer to be addressed? I guess is my first question.
[Kathryn 00:01:35] You know, it's so weird. Like when I was in trouble growing up, my mother would call me Kathy Anne, because Anne is my middle name. So like, not Kathy Anne that's like a trigger, right? Most people call me Kathryn, but it's really interesting through the years, like, each sort of friend has like a different way of, like, calling me. No one calls me Kate, but it be Kat, Kay, Kathy Kathryn, so I usually answer mostly the Kathryn, but anything that's not Kathy Anne.
[Ann 00:02:04] Not Kathy Anne, we've got that safe space created for you. That will not come up today. Well, I am so excited to dive into many aspects of your incredible life career. And, of course, the book that you're just launching of Build the Damn Thing. I'm so excited to talk and talk about that and dove into it. But first, I always love to start our conversations at the very beginning. I am curious what a young Catherine was like and I have heard some very fun stories about what you were like as a sibling and as a young girl. But please set the stage for our listeners who might not be familiar yet.
[Kathryn 00:02:40] You know, I was this big thinker, dreamer, quirky little black girl in Midwestern United States, and so was born in Milwaukee, grew up mostly in Minneapolis. And I was very different and very, very different from the early age like this. The way even thought about things is very different. But, you know, for me, I was really lucky because I had parents who never told me I could do anything. So I grew up as this quirky black girl in Minneapolis feeling like I could do whatever I wanted to do and knowing that I could do whatever I wanted to do with my life. And so that was really powerful for me because I never had limitations put on me. And as a result, I didn't put limitations on myself. And so I was able to do just crazy stuff. I was like one of those girls in high school that everyone like, I don't want to say everyone hated, but it was like like the overachievers. I was like my class president. I got like every award I played sports. I was in drama. It was like I had a presence. 25 years ago. I mean, it was a full circle moment for me, but I was always this like really outgoing kid. I was friends with everyone, which is a skill that I think growing up in Minnesota really helped me with. I can talk to anyone. I don't care who you are, I can talk to you and find a way for us to connect, even if it seems like there's nothing we have in common. Like, I will find something in common And that really came from growing up in Minnesota and being this sort of outsider and having to make connections with people who are different than me. I was saying to a friend, I said, if I didn't, I would have been really lonely. I would had no dates. Like, we had to, like, learn how to, like, make friends and connect with people who were different. And that was a really powerful lesson, growing up as something...
[Ann 00:05:09] I'm always fascinated by the different elements of nature and nurture that come out. It seems like your nature is this very vivacious presence, this big presence that you have, but it's also something that you've shared in podcasts and other things that you've published about the foundation that your family life really gave you the example of your parents. And I just love that they empowered you fully from a very young age to embrace what made you special and different and see that as a superpower instead of a disadvantage. I, I really enjoyed on your podcast where your brother was sharing what it was like to be a sibling to you, and he was, he was sharing how you've been entrepreneurial from the very beginning. In fact, you had the idea to loan him your allowance and then charge interest on the pay back, which I loved. And then also setting up a babysitting network and then taking your cut for 4 billion. I just I mean, we're talking like five and six years old. So I think this is something that's just in your bones which I find very inspiring. But not only that, as you said, you can talk to anyone and you can inspire that in others who maybe are their natures or their nurtures have been very different. They're coming from different environments. And that's why I'm so excited to dig into the elements of your book, because you've given us such an actionable playbook where anybody can really see themselves as an entrepreneur, and self-identify that way. But I was really touched by a story that you shared about your family and about how your dad's journey of really his non-linear path into his career progression influenced you. So I would love if you wouldn't mind sharing that story of what that was like for your family in those years.
[Kathryn 00:06:55] You know, I think there's nothing about my dad that would have said he would have died a millionaire. There's nothing in his life story, particularly the beginning, that would said that that would have been a possibility for him. Yet it was a reality. And so my father was a very worker. Most of my family is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I'm several generations, particularly my dad's side, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. So people are often like, well, where did you put your parents come from? Milwaukee. They're like, where are your grandparents? Milwaukee. Your great grandparents, Milwaukee. Because everyone's trying to figure out how how many generations removed I am from the South and like, I'm deeply Midwestern. And and so he grew up he grew up with a single mom who was a teenager was raised mostly by his grandparents, who were incredibly influential in his life, and especially his grandfather, who was this amazing man. I never met him, but I knew my great grandmother very, very well. And we called her big mama even though she was like 411 and like everyone else was like to be called her. But but but I knew her very, very well. But his grandfather had such an influence on him. And he found himself as a teen in trouble. He was going through a lot and to be a young black man in 1960s Midwest, there weren't exactly, you know, help for him at all. Really, And so he had an option of either going to the Army at 16. I mean this is right at the beginning of the Vietnam War or going to jail and he went to the Army and did four tours of duty and came back and was working at the brewery which is what everyone does in Milwaukee, at least at that time period. It was great jobs. You can make great money working at the brewery at that time. And met my mother, who came from a very different background. She came from a middle class two parent background. Her mother had went to college. Her father was an accountant. And the Air Force base, I mean, she was a debutante. I mean, like the complete opposite, complete opposite I of that's my dad was like, how did you get her? And like, but they fell in love. And I think my mother was such an influence to him of like what the possibilities could be. And my dad was always very entrepreneurial, always industrious, always that sort of person, and worked at the brewery and then a brewery shut down. And what happened in Milwaukee was no different than what happened in many other parts of so this industrial Midwest, like Gary, Indiana, you know, parts of Chicago, Detroit, where you had these communities that were built around manufacture bring into the manufacturing left and nothing came in to replace it. And so devastated Milwaukee. But my father had this vision of himself that was bigger than really I don't know how he got it because it was bigger than any vision, you know, a middle aged black man with two kids who didn't graduate from high school really was allowed to have. But he had it. And so he went back to school. He graduated valedictorian. I don't know how you do that with two kids and a wife, but he did it and found himself at a workforce training center. Quote Oh, I see. This guy from IBM was like, i'm just going to teach displaced factory worker in C++, which is the foundational computing language. I would love to see if I could ever find him or find his descendants because I'm like, what made him say I'm going to go teach C++ to factory workers like that, that sort of connection and I also think his family would love to know how that little moment, how the Saturdays that he gave up teaching this place factory workers led to me being able to talk to you about this book I wrote. A ripple effect is huge. That's right. Yeah. I think we often don't realize how the small things, things that we think are really really small, how that influences others and how it changes other people's lives. And so he fell in love. We often say, you know, C++ was the other woman in my parents marriage. He had this aptitude for information and retaining information. And I see that in myself. I know so much useless information mostly you, but you could just retain information and found himself with an internship at Digital Equipment which is one of the early computing companies for those who know about early computing and worked his way up and was recruited away from dead, he won every award you could possibly get it. Digital equipment was recruited away joined Microsoft in 1992. So this is I often say this is when Microsoft was like Google like Microsoft was like the hot hot place and totally changed the fortune of my entire family, not just financially but also just socially. Our community benefited greatly. My dad was always trying to figure out how he could use his position to give resources or pathways to others. You know, it's interesting my ex-husband was in a car, we were in Atlanta and Uber and he was talking to the Uber driver and the Uber driver was talking about he asked you know, he said that he lived in Minneapolis. And my ex-husband said, well, you know, yeah, my in-laws are from Minneapolis. And he was like, oh. And anytime he talked to another black person from Minneapolis, you always ask my details because it's not that many. And come to find out that my dad was a mentor to this Uber driver who was was who had left Microsoft but had like mentored him. I mean, this is Atlanta 20 years later and like having this conversation, that's the type of person he was and I learned when he passed away, there was over a thousand people at his funeral. It was crazy. It was held at the local high school auditorium. That's like how many people were there and had friends who flew in. And I learned that my dad had sent computers to all my friends. Like when they went to court, I had no idea. I had no idea that he had paid for college tuition for several of my brother's friends. Like all these things that we were learning of things that he just did or how he was encouraging word or how he helped someone get a job. And it was just so overwhelming. It was such a lesson on living, was such a lesson on living that you could get close to a thousand people to come out at the end of January in Minnesota. If anyone who's ever been in Minnesota in January or February, that is not that is true love. It is. I don't go I don't even want to visit my family then. But but that's how much of an influence he was. That's how much he mattered to people. And being a 25 year old, seeing that it changed my life. It was a lesson on living. I had a front row seat to how you live and it profoundly changed the way I think about the world and profoundly change how we move in the world.
[Ann 00:14:15] This is why I like to start with an origin story that is so inspiring. There's so many nuggets of wisdom in there. We can spend the rest of the conversation, just unpacking all of that that your dad has modeled for you. But obviously the apple has not fallen far from the tree. I think you're a beautiful continuation of that legacy. And honestly, that's what I was thinking the whole time you were sharing that story. I was like, that is a living legacy. So many of us, we don't know this. We have a single precious life and we none of us know how much of that we get on this planet. And to watch someone actively live a living legacy and being so purposeful and so incredible ripple effects throughout the world that continue today, it just I love I love that. Thank you for sharing that. And I'm really I now so much of your story and your impact in the world somehow makes sense because when I was reading your book, I was just like this. Where did this woman come from? Just the way you chat. I just felt like this was the most powerful, like best friend I could have who was giving me the real talk, business advice and the power with which you present your message. And so unapologetically of of how you're showing up in the world. I see where you get it from. I love it. So use you have been very successful in many, many elements of your life. You've been a natural leader. Even when you were in school, you went to you have a B.A. in women's studies from Rutgers and a master's of public health from Yale. I really enjoyed the stories that you shared about your educational experiences and how you are the way you showed up in those environments changed based on where you were at in Minnesota. You described feeling the need to fit in, although not fitting in, and then how that shifted through your your education process when that was no longer was desirable is what made you unique and cool. Can you tell me a little bit about your educational experiences and how that maybe shaped you, especially in your approach when you became a unintentional entrepreneur in that very first time?
[Kathryn 00:16:22] So I have always been this like lifetime overachiever and for a long time was really I think this happens to women, and particularly when you grow up in environments where you're different, you want to like shrink yourself a little bit so that people don't notice you. And, and you hope that by shrinking yourself, people will kind of leave you alone and no one will will notice you and they won't mess with you. And I remember speaking of my father was my senior year in high school. I was dressing horribly. This was grunge. So it was grunge and it was like dressing horribly on the grunge end. So you can imagine that, like and we're in the car. And he says to me, you know, you are a big girl. You are five, ten, Catherine you have a present and you come in the room. People look at you, you it doesn't matter what you do. People are going to look at you. So give them something to look at. And it was just so powerful because I was like trying to shrink myself. And what I've learned is it I can't like this is who I like. And it's so interesting. When I meet people, the first thing they're kind of like is you really are. You really are that like you are your book. You are who you are. You know, like you are really. Catherine I'm like, yes, this is like who I am. And so when I went to Rutgers, which was like, I mean, completely the different world, I mean, from Minnesota to like New Jersey at the height of like hip hop, puffy with shiny pants, you know, all of that it was so weird difference was like celebrated. I mean, I had friends who wore drag to class. This was in the nineties. This wasn't now they were like, we're full on drag the class and no one cared. No one said anything. And so I went to school with all these amazing people, everyone who's ever existed went to Rutgers with me, like every person you could think of and to go there and then to succeed, as well as student government. I did play rugby that all that stuff. And when my class award like at Rutgers, you know, to still succeed at that level was pretty powerful. And then going to Yale, I went to Yale, it was between Yale, Harvard and Johns Hopkins and went to Yale because I had lived in Ghana, West Africa for a while. When I entered college, I entered technically as almost a junior because it had all these college credits from high school. And at 20 I wasn't prepared to like graduate and go back to Minnesota because again, this was the height of Puffy. So any PEDs, hip hop clubbing in New York, anyone who is a New Yorker who went to New York in that time period know exactly what I'm saying. It was like total party. This was before bottle service. And how you got into clubs was based upon how cool you were. And if you got a guest list and had all these friends who ran guest list. So I was like always clubbing. I never had a class on a Friday, which is like and I still graduated at the top. Like, I don't know how I did that, but, but yeah, you know, it just I didn't want to go back to Minnesota. It was just like having that freedom of being in New York City from Minnesota. It just wasn't in the plans for me and having the freedom to be my full self. I had a fellowship and went to Ghana, West Africa. I was supposed to be studying breastfeeding in Western Africa. I did, but I really just hung out and hung out a lot. But I learned so much more from the hanging out actually. And but I got sick there. I got malaria and was very, very ill for a good month or two. And luckily for me, I was dating someone whose family kind of like took me in and was great. And so I got better, but that had a profound impact on me. I got better because I had Western medicine. I had access to high quality care because I had the US dollars like that, and I was an American. And that was really the only reason why I had great care and that really disturbed me because I was like, Why do I get better care just because I have U.S. dollars? Like, everyone should have great care. And so when I came back I knew that I was going to go into public health. And so I decided on Yale mostly because when I went to visit, they really wanted me. And I think sometimes in life you go where you want it. It makes your life a little bit easier. And Yale really wanted me. Not that Harvard and Johns Hopkins didn't but Yale really wanted me to the point that my mom and my grandmother came with me to visit Yale, not because they needed to, like, give their approval, but because they were visiting me that week. And it's like, let's drive up to New Haven. And so we drove up to New Haven and they treated my mom and grandma like gold. I mean, they, like, put us up in a hotel I mean, it was this whole big thing. And so I loved it. And I went and Yale was nothing like I thought it was going to be. I think I thought it was going to be stuffy and stodgy and everyone wearing, you know, those corduroy jackets with like suede with pastel and I ended up having the time of my life. I you know, I met lifelong friends I got to do really important work. My focus was on HIV, AIDS and women. And so I lived in South Africa for six months in Durban doing research on that. And it just opened my eyes, my world, the resources you have when you go to a place like you or any Ivy League school is pretty game changing. And for me, coming from this non-Ivy sort of big public institution to this Ivy institution, it was just like a really interesting combination of educational background. And so I had this like elite education. I went to Phillips Academy Andover for a little bit and then, you know, I went to public school in Minneapolis and then I went to Rutgers, which is this big public institution. Then I went to Yale for graduate school, and it was like all of these like, you know, elite in mass education sort of experiences all together. And it taught me how to move in pretty much any space. And I think that was the benefit of having that sort of like sort of quilt of of educational experiences. And so I knew that I could go into any room and be OK. I could go into a board room at Goldman Sachs and be very OK. And I can go into, you know, a nightclub in Harlem and be very OK. I can go to. And in fact, it's so funny, darling Geller Jones, who's a dear friend of mine, but also an executive producer on the podcast, she's the reason why the podcast is so amazing. She talks about the time where we went to a radio station, and on one side of the radio station was the Gospel Channel, and the other side of the radio station was the hip hop channel. And so and she talked about how I'd go in and I go to the gospel channel. I'm like, you know, praise the Lord. God is good, you know, like quoting Scripture. And then we walk over to the hip hop and I'm like, Yo, yo, what's up? You know, I feel like it was like 30 minutes between those two, if you like. And both were authentically Kathryn.
[Ann 00:23:59] But I think this is something very special about you. I can see that. And it makes sense of so much of your journey that later on when you had this massive success, how you could handle it when you were faced with the bro culture of tech, you could handle it and you could stand up for yourself. There's this foundation of understanding how to be authentically you in wildly different environments has served you so well. So I am very I have so much I want to ask you. I just feel like I have to do lightning round on everything, but I'm so coming out of Yale. You had you share in the book, you had $90,000 in student debt, but you had a real love of shopping. So you your your husband encouraged you to maybe turn this passion of yours into a different expression where it didn't cost money, but you could just be sharing your passion with others. And then we became the budget fashionista which is just I mean, the mythology around it is huge for me because I started in tech right around the time you launched your blog. I started at Amazon in 2002, and I remember how hard I also started a blog that literally five people have read, including my mom and my four sisters. That's it. But I remember how hard it was to do it because we didn't have smartphones yet. It wasn't easy to upload content. In fact, I highlighted this entire paragraph where you share the entire process of getting your content up there. That I think is for those who don't yet, who can't remember, who are too young to remember what it was like in those early tech years. Set the stage for us when you were starting this and how it how quickly it took off because really this grew so quickly into an absolute phenom. You became the first blogger who was invited to New York Fashion Week. You had a regular spot on the Today Show. I am curious, one, what was it really like behind the scenes? And then to how did you handle that spotlight when you so quickly got attention so early in your career? You're still very young. I don't think I would have handled it as gracefully as you did to suddenly be in the national TV spotlight.
[Kathryn 00:26:01] You know, I have this gene, you know, so everyone has this gene that tells you not to do something, right? I don't have that. No, like I don't have that. And so I have this ability to like be scared and be frightened, but then put it in like a place to go back to later. So while I'm in the moment, I'm just not I'm just in the moment. And this being Kathryn, you know, when we started the blog, it was 20 to 23. There was no what you see is what you get sort of system. There was that WordPress wasn't even invented yet. It was just no way to do this. And actually people didn't see content as actually a viable business model online. When I started, there was no display ads even like there was. I remember Google had just invented was it words right or ads, and they just had just just acquired it like so and I was really excited because that meant that you could actually monetize what you were doing. So all of this was new and I started it because I was bored and as a distraction, my father had passed away and I was shopping and spending money to basically assuage grief and started it to stop spending money instantly. And it was, you know, it started off as this hobby of only a couple of people reading it. But what we did was we had learned about this thing called SEO, which this relatively new browser called Google was using. And so we embedded a lot of SEO into search engine optimization into the site as a result, if you like budget fashion samples, sell all these terms. The budget fashionista came up first and a reporter from the New Yorker or the reporter from Associated Press, I remember her name, Natasha Gurel contacted me to write an article about people who traveled to go to sample sales. And in that article, the Associated Press article that had a link back to the blog and it was released on January 1st 2004. And this went everywhere because at the time most of our publications, the New York Times, Marie Claire, did not invest anything on content online. They actually just use whatever was on the wires. Like they had no online editors. They had no like online stat. They just didn't think it was worth it. So as a result, this little article about people who travel to go shopping, linking to my blog with everywhere and the traffic was crazy. And this was before we had cloud. So we spent I mean, I don't even want to say how much we spent on server. I can believe this is before Hwc way before you, way before Hwc. This was before even Amazon really had like really solidified its business.
[Ann 00:29:05] Yeah, absolutely. We were making it up as we went in those years, right?
[Kathryn 00:29:12] Like, it's like nobody. No, no, nobody knew. As I like to say, nobody knew nothing. It was like, no, it was so it was like, how do you have that happen? And not have it expected? It was just like, oh, my God. Like, this is something real. Like, this is a real thing. And then fast forward about a year or two later, I wrote a book from Random House is one of the first books by a female blogger. And that led to this. They show did a bunch of TV like Good Morning America, stuff like that. But The Today Show was like a regular occurrence. And if you Google, you can find some clips of me like there's a crazy clip about this Halloween segment I did where like, you know, Ann Curry was like pop locking in like like I'm just doing this immediately. It's like crazy. It was like how to shop on it, like on the budget. It just went like very crazy. It was a lot of fun. And behind the scenes, you know, it was really interesting. Because Al Roker is like the nicest human being to ever walk the entire earth. He was just so nice to me, and he would often do my segments. And so would Ann Curry in Savannah Guthrie, who are all like just really, really amazing. And at the time I was doing it, like when I was really really doing my corresponding work, they were remodeling the studio because Meredith Vieira was coming on. I know if anyone remember when Meredith Vieira came, who is also like the second nicest human being in the entire world is like her and our going to, like, duke it out for that title. And so we had to do our segments where everyone gets dressed in stuff using the Saturday Night Live dressing rooms. And that meant that we were in where they actually did the costumes and stuff for Saturday Night Live and was in like the studio where they do that. But I mean, it was crazy. And so I met like all these people, like Jane Fonda, who we were being very loud at six in the morning and because we were like, you know, and we always I always try to make it fun because they use real people, models and like, you're getting up at five. I'm going to make this a lot of fun for you. And she came in to the room because she was in the dressing room next to ours, and she's like, it seems like you all are having a lot of fun. And you can imagine, like, the silence when, like, she was in there, like, that's Jane Fonda. Oh, like, you know, for me, I was kind of used to the celebrities being around. But, you know, the real life models that I were using were real people. They were like, that's Jane Fonda. And she took pictures with everybody. I met Ed McMahon a number of times, which was he was always very nice. And so it was just a real experience. And, you know, at that time, I did a lot of spokesperson work, too, for Marshall's and TJ Max and Tied and folks like that. It was very, very lucrative from a business standpoint. And you really it's very lucrative.
[Ann 00:32:11] You really invented that because that was not a thing like to be to you. I heard that your book tour actually had been sponsored by Marshall's, right? Yeah. That had never been done before you. This concept of a content creator and influencer, it didn't yet exist, and you really created that business model. And also, by the way, your book was a very big deal back then. It still is. I think you're in your 13th printing of your first book. I believe so. Buying it. I love it. Eight years old or something. I'm like, Wow. I mean, that's pretty. I mean, that's amazing. But OK, like, it's a big deal. But I think it's it is about this larger force. You had this vision of doing things that no one else had ever done before. You were really approaching this in a proactive way. And I think all of these authentic connections that you are creating with these, you know, nicest humans on Earth lives through that work. I think that's what is so attractive about it is it feels inclusive rather than elite. An excuse for these other people, for these famous, you know, Jane Fonda categories who seem so perfect and larger than life and not human. You know, I, I think the magic of how to be a budget fashionista is that inclusivity that you, too, can have this presence, this look, this confidence and anyway, that's just my, my guess on, on why it's really resonated. But you invented really the gold standard of content creation and influence and partnership and making it your presence online could be lucrative in a way that no one had had done before. Did that just evolve naturally? Is this a master plan of yours? To take over the world? Like, how did the event...
[Kathryn 00:33:43] I have very few master plans, actually, I do. I know that sounds like probably not what people want to hear. Everyone's like, You do this plan. I believe in go. I believe in flowing like water, meaning, you know, going where the opportunity is when it presents itself. And then also having the energy that creates those opportunities and really coming forth, coming to things with that sort of energy. I mean, one of the things that happened to us is it was in 26, it was an early ad network called Glam that people may remember that didn't became bold. And we were one of the first, I think we were the first people to sign on to glam, and glam was the first to really understand how lucrative the lifestyle space, particularly the, the women's lifestyle space was going to be. And so I was able to make quite a significant amount of money, I mean, like absurd amount of money, like we were making $12 CPM for remnant ads like right at that time. And so I started to see the real business opportunity. And when that came in, there was a way to monetize. It was actually a business model. Now it was advertising generated primarily, but there was a business model to content and that was really, really exciting because prior to that there was really no real way to make money off of that. And then you had other organizations like Blog Hearst, and when I sold the Budget Fashionista, I went to work for Blogger as the editor in chief editor at large and helped them build out their lifestyle space. And that was really interesting. I mean, one selling a company was an interesting experience, particularly as an African-American. When I told my family I sold my company, the first reaction was like, Oh baby, are you OK? Because it's our community selling your company. Is that what you do, that you only sell it if you can't keep it right is no idea of like you're selling it for profit. You're selling it because it's valuable, you're selling it because you want to move on to something else. And I remember having a conversation with my grandmother and I'm like, No, I'm very good. And then subsequently they got a lot of benefits from it. So they, they know that it's great. But at that moment it was like, You're selling your company, what's wrong? And for a lot of people in the content space, it became this beacon of how to transition to something else, which is something I'm very, very proud of. I always try to leave an example whenever I transition from anything of like how to do it in a way that's graceful as as well as empowering the others. And so it gave examples to those who are coming up behind me of like, how do I do something different? So I did this content and it's great. Now I want to move on to something else and how do I do that? Like, how can I exit? And it's particularly important for women and people of color because we're not taught how to exit. We're taught that this is what you do and you do it for 30 years, and then you get a gold watch and then you move on instead of like, Maybe I only want to do this for five years, and I created value and somebody else might want it and I can sell it for profit great. Let's do it, you know? And so being able to model that, being one of the first black women in particular to be able to sell her company in that sort of way, has been really important to me in terms of my legacy, and I've seen the impact it's had on others. I do a lot of consultation with younger folks about how to position a company for sale, how to think about it like you know, what, what are they buying? Because usually when a company buys this for one or for what I call the forties, it's for traction. You have this great community you have great growth. It's for taxable income, which is another way of saying, like money, you have great revenue. It's for technology. You've built some technology that it would cost them more to to do themselves. So they just buy it from you because it's easier or talent. They're buying it because you have this great team that you built, or maybe you're buying it because they want you to come on. But one of those reasons or the reasons why they buy your company and they bought the budget fashionista for taxable income and, and really traction because I wasn't going with it. I decided once I sold it, I was done. I did not want to be the budget fashionista anymore. And so and that affected the price said to someone like, if I would have stayed and did an earn out, it would have been a higher price. But I know me and I know when I'm done, I'm done. And like I didn't want to be there. And it also drove me crazy having this company that I led for eight years and all of a sudden someone else is coming in and telling me what to do. And so sold it went to work for black and white bloggers, saw that, you know, I would go to these conferences and it was just no women and definitely no women of color. And we would go and there would be like, you know, a line around the round the hallway for the men's bathroom and no line in the women's bathroom. So it's like crazy. Like the patriarchal structure of tech at least allowed us to p I guess at least they were like, I don't know what that was like. The one benefit from being excluded is that we could go to conferences and go to the back and there would be no lines to but it's like in seeing that, where are we? Because I know there's women like me out there. I know them. A lot of them are my friends. And started really digital Divide It, which started as a conference call focused on how to gather basically all the black women who are doing start ups like and like who were in tech, literally. That was like our idea. We just going to invite everybody, we're going to find you. We're going to like shake a tree or two and it's really crazy to see almost ten years later, actually, it would be ten years later this year of the Focus conference where some of these women are. I mean, Issa Rae spoke at a conference when she was doing Awkward Black Girl on YouTube. Mandela Schumacher Hodge Dixon, who's now the head of all, raise that like her when her first pitch contest was at Lake Folk is Love Asia. He's like this big celebrity now like all these people who were at focus and they were either, you know, working or they attended or part of this community which is crazy. It was crazy this to think of all these people who are now massive celebrity Stacey Philpot like, you know, all these folks who were there and part of this community that we built and that turned into digital divide it, which is the social enterprise that I founded and led for for eight years but yeah, it was just such an incredible time.
[Ann 00:40:39] And I think of just how everything has just flowed into each other. I think it's such a beautiful example, just as you're describing this cast of characters that came up together, how bringing them together, it's really not by accident that you all became so successful. It's really empowering to find a tribe of people who are like you, who understand you in a really unique way. I do. I worked at Google for 12 years and my closest bathroom was a floor down like that, you know. But I met my best friend there when both of us were having a meltdown actually in the ladies room. At the same time. But there's I call them my foxhole friends. These people you've been through the trenches who understand you don't have to give a context. They just like, Oh, yes, I understand you you it's very powerful experience to come out the other side of that. And then you also I mean, this all sounds very glamorous and like overnight success you had, but you've been through the trenches like after this. Through the trenches, you start your book, by the way, I have to say the full title because I absolutely love the full title. It is Build the Damn Thing: How to Start a Successful Business If You're Not a rich White Guy. I really I love that because I'm the same as a woman in tech. Starting around the same time you did Amazon 22 to 25 and then Google 2006 for the next 12 years. I often was the only woman in the room. I often was just surrounded by. As you also mentioned in the introduction of your book, all of them had gone to Stanford, Harvard, MIT, except for me, I, I not only was the only woman in the room, I did not go to an Ivy League school I went to great schools but not, not those same schools. And I was surrounded by ten year old people who all have the same background and ideas of tech and wonderful people. I mean, I dearly I had wonderful experiences, but it's to find your tribe is so empowering. And that's really I think something that comes through in your book is you've really not only created this shared so authentically your journeys and the ups and downs of that, but you've you've transitioned that into a playbook that you can not only read as a very fun story but also come back to and reference over and over again. If you're an entrepreneur or you're struggling through a particular thing, you just open up that chapter again. I know I'm going to be doing that many times but I wonder if you wouldn't mind sharing one of your hardship stories because I found it so relatable as a woman in tech. Would you mind sharing your I think it was 29 story of when you work first? Yeah, it's real hard when you're your first encounter with. So I love how you frame it in the book. You've got the entitled and the builders and your book really here is empowering the builders to try and level the playing field in the way we can. But your first experience into the VC world was not positive and not great and very much pitching to the pros of tech. Would you mind setting the stage for us? And this how you first came into this VC world?
[Kathryn 00:43:32] You know, one of the things and I talk about this in the book, there's nothing like the certainty of mediocre white men. They're like the most certain people in the world. It's impressive, actually, and that's what I experienced really at this incubator program was an early incubator program in New York City. I had this idea that I was going to do like sort of a beauty company for like black women. Now, this seems like a total no brainer, right? It's a no brainer. It's totally. You saw it before anyone else did. Yeah, before, but 29. No one saw that. Yeah, they did. And they didn't see it, especially from someone like me. And so I entered into this incubator program where I was met for the very first time in my life with people having no expectations of me, that low expectations no expectation. And I had never experienced that before. I grew up in Minnesota, so I was totally used to being like, I see the only little chocolate drop in the room that was like, not a problem for me at all. And I could make friends and connect with pretty much anyone, but I was so marginalized and so put in a box because of my race and my gender that it was as if I could not succeed. There was nothing I could do to change their mind about who I was. And so I got up to do a pitch of my idea. Mind you, they used to call them people randomly. They never called on me. When I said that I wanted to pitch my idea, they were like shocked that I wanted to do that, almost like, Oh, you can talk. Mind you, I was a correspondent on today's show. I had this bit of a today show segment that morning before doing a pitch, so I knew how to talk. I'm from Minnesota, too. I know how to talk. And so I get up into this pitch and at first the feedback was like amazing from the mentors. The mentors, like, loved it. They thought it was great wanting to learn more, but the people in the audience who are my colleagues, it's like 100, 150 people. Almost all of them were white men proceeded to tell me how wrong I was in the most ridiculous ways you could possibly do it. So one person asked me, Did I know of any, like, beauty or fashion bloggers? Mind you, I was like the dean of the blog. You are the Queen of beauty. I was like, dude, like, OK, 11 guy said with as much, like, certainty as he could, that he didn't think I could relate to other black women because I had an accountant that made my blood boil. When I read that one, he was like, You're not relatable because you're so successful and put together and you have an accountant. So yes, and black people are not successful. That's essentially what he was saying, like, and it was and I couldn't react I think any of us who have ever been in those situations and I talk about in the book, like, how do you turn it? Because we will you will find yourself in the situation where someone is saying the most absurd thing to you and they usually are mediocre. I have found that successful, intelligent white dudes don't do this. It's usually the mediocre white dudes who do this because of your your your intelligence triggers something in them. And so I like literally was like I don't it just it's like I couldn't say what I wanted to say. I wanted to yell at him in Cosmo, but I also knew if I did that, it would have an impact not only on me, but on any other black woman who came into that space. And that's the sort of unfair burden we carry of like, I I'm representing a lot more than just Catherine fit in. So I have to be conscious of that. So while I want to react and say all sorts of stuff, I can. And so in the book, I talk about how, you know, you turn it around like particularly when you're a startup and you're going in to meet with a VC and the first thing they want to do is they're really fascinated about you and how how did you get to whatever institution you went to or how did you get into the room? That's really they're fascinated by how you got into the room. That you end up wasting 45 minutes of that hour because you only get an hour. You don't get an hour and 5 minutes. You get an hour for that meeting talking about why you're why you are in the room and only 15 minutes on your business. And then what you hear in the back. And I hear it from fellow because, well, they only talked about themselves. They didn't talk about the business and so and I'm like, Well, you did. Did you ask them questions about the business or did you ask them a bunch of questions about why they were in the room? Because you were so fascinated that this woman is doing a biotech company and could actually get in the room. And you've never met a woman biochemists. So you want to, like, talk to her about how she got to be a woman biochem is versus spending the time talking to her about her company.
[Ann 00:48:22] And I love. And so in the book, how you say you reframe the power dynamic and you give women this permission to turn that around and say, I would love to have another meeting about that where we can dove into that and you that such a power move. When I read that I was like, ooh, underline triple underline because then you're one you are in control of this conversation where it's going and two, you're getting a second meeting. I thought that was genius.
[Kathryn 00:48:43] Always the second meeting. You always want the next meeting. And so you just say, you know, Gee, Conner, that's a great question. Why don't we set up a meeting next week to go over it and I can explain a little bit more like in this kind of deflect and move to the next meeting. Keep moving everything to the next meeting, next meeting, next meeting, next meeting. But yeah, I mean, that had a profound impact on me at fast forward, 20 years later, this particular VC who ran the organization, he was seeking funding from a very well known LP in my own fund. And they asked me about him and I said, you know, I got to tell you the truth, it was the worst experience. Let me tell you what happened. And it's and it's not just me, but it was others too, who had this experience. And so I think if you would have asked him in 29 with this black chick, be in a position of power to help him either get a significant amount investment or not, he would have laughed in your face. But fast forward, you know, 11 years later and here she is in this position and I decided that I wasn't going to be silent because I didn't have to be anymore. And I was like, I'm going to tell the truth and this is what happened to me. And so, yeah, but you know, and throughout the book there are stories personal stories, but it's always connected to like a lesson or something that I learned particularly about how when you are, you know, a builder there are different factors you have to think about. It's very different than others. I'm a mom. It is very hard for me to just jump on a plane and go someplace like that day. I have to plan and strategize with a number of different people, a number of different entities, and a six year old to make that happen. It is a lot of moving with that. And I think, yeah, I think every person who is a caregiver, whether you're a mom or dad, understands the challenges that you have with that and how you have to rethink things. And for me, having family to be able to lean on was massive in building my companies. And when you're an entrepreneur, you don't have a lot of money. And so you need to draw on whatever resources you have. And yeah, your family might not be able to write you a check, but they could do what my mother did, which was move to the city I lived in. They helped me raise my son at a time where myself and my ex-husband was traveling so much that we needed somebody there who wouldn't get mad if our flight was delayed, who wouldn't get, you know, and she came and it was such a lifesaver for us. And I don't even know how much money that would have cost. I mean, well over $100,000 because she was with us for four years. So, you know, it would have been so much money in that value. And I think as entrepreneurs and who are builders understanding the other ways that our families can help our communities, can help and support us is really super important.
[Ann 00:51:44 ] I love the theme that you're describing right now where the definition of entrepreneur doesn't have to be this ten year old white guy in his garage who's taking $100 million a VC, you know, seed money, for example. And I one part that really stood out to me was what you call the five boldface lies of entrepreneurship. And I particularly this particularly resonated with me because a big mission of mine is to help people self-identify as an entrepreneur, entrepreneur, when nobody who looks like you or comes from where you come from has done this crazy thing that you feel in your heart is calling you. Can you walk us through some of the the five lies and how you've seen this in action? Because now you've done it yourself, you've walked it, you've lived it, but now you're sponsoring all these upcoming women and underrepresented entrepreneurs to live their journey as well. So yeah, I really love this section about the lies of entrepreneurship that we're being told.
[Kathryn 00:52:35] Yeah. I mean, like one of the big ones was that you had to know how to code. You do you really don't. It's helpful to particularly if you're building something that is really a tech heavy platform like software or it's helpful for you to understand a bit of programing for no other reason than for you to be able to talk to your CTO and to be able to have meaningful conversations with them. And they will appreciate that. You understand you have a little bit of a foundational language there to help understand what it is that they're doing. So that's more of I look at it as more like learning a little bit of Spanish before you go to Spain, right? People speak English there, but it'll really help you communicate. If you learn, just a little bit of Spanish will go a long way. And similar with that. Another one was that you had to go to Ivy League school you don't. And in fact, most of the successful people didn't. I mean, Steve Jobs didn't go to an Ivy League school. He went to community college in a small college. And like Auburn, people don't realize that Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, did not go to an Ivy League school. Jack Dorsey didn't go to an Ivy League school. Right. Like like that's a total fallacy. And particularly when you're a person of color, many of the very successful people of color did not go to Ivy League schools. And some didn't even really go to school. Puffy, you know, dropped out a puffy Puff Daddy, and he changes his name a lot. Sean Puffy Combs dropped out of Howard Oprah went to Tennessee State. I mean, so these amazingly successful people did not go to these schools that had these sort of networks. And I think that's really important to know as you build in this space, because there's a tendency to say we didn't go to Harvard and MIT or Stanford. You know, you don't fit the pattern. Don't know if we could do it. And that's not the case.
[Ann 00:54:32] I, I love how you bring it down to the heart of you yourself, your unique vision, this calling, this thing that's larger than yourself, is worthy of investment in that and passion. Where's the time gone? I want to do a lightning round of two things that I think are really important that builds on that beautiful point that you're just making. One is how much in the book you emphasize the importance of balance. First, on focusing on your core values and knowing who you are as an entrepreneur. First, like having those foundational mission, vision and values really clear in your head and who you are. And then the second is really about creating that balance. In fact, a quote that I really love from your book is as a builder, you are the head of your company. If you're if you're not good, then the company will not be good either. Taking time to mentally prepare yourself for the daunting task of building a company will give you a much bigger return on your investment than just jumping in. Can you share a little bit about why you think that mission, vision and value in that clarity of who you are and taking care of who you are is a really important part of the success as an entrepreneur?
[Kathryn 00:55:10] You know, being an entrepreneur, you're going to be challenged. It's just a fact. You who you are, what you do, you're going to be challenged at every stage. And the way to help manage through the stress of that is to have a real sense of your core values and a real sense of who you are. And actually writing it down, I talk about in the book, like I wrote down my core values in our company before we even raise a drop of a dollar for our funds, we focused on core values and the biggest one being be human. And we live that because if I could see the humanity in myself, I can see it in you too. And it makes the business interaction all the more different it makes when we have to have tough conversations. Very different, because I can recognize your humanity because I see it in myself. And part of finding the balance is also goes back to being human. We are human beings. We are not machines. We break. And when we break, sometimes it's hard to put us back together. And so taking the time to do what you need to do to be you, to be your full self is incredibly important. I swim. I know when I had that swim in a while because they get a little kooky, crazy. I take vacations. I'm going on a three week vacation in July. I'm going on that vacation. I need that vacation. I been thinking about that vacation. Doing those sort of things where you, like, set out whatever it is that helps you to be you and keep you centered. It could be. You know, I have a friend who likes to make like she was a barista in her previous life. She loves to make coffee for herself each morning. It's a ritual. And like, whatever you have to do to keep you whatever is meditative for you, do that by all means and do not let go of that no matter how much time constraints you have, because that is going to be how you're going to get through this. Entrepreneurship is a marathon. It is not a race. And we are all in this because we want to live a creative life in which we can control but we can't do that if we're not here. We can't do that if we are not centered. And so taking that time to really figure out who you are and your core values and what you stand for what you care about and making sure that you live that within your business is incredibly important.
[Ann 00:57:57] Beautifully said. I literally got Goose bumps. I don't know if you can see it. Literally got goosebumps in that description. Katherine, thank you so much for sharing your journey, for being this incredible mentor and sponsor and paying forward this beautiful ripple effect to so many entrepreneurs. I can only imagine the 10x effect of the people that will benefit from not only your life and your example but this beautiful book, this playbook that you've given us to replicate that in our own lives, in our own journeys. I had the great privilege of first experiencing you at South by Southwest. I know you're a very active keynote speaker. I the second I saw you on stage, I was like, We have to talk. I knew we were of the same tribe, but where can people follow along with status? Can we see you on how can we follow your journey? Where can they find the book? What are the ways we can connect and keep this conversation going short?
[Kathryn 00:58:46] So the book is so wherever books are sold on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, you can find me at Kathryn Finney on Twitter. I am also on Instagram at Hi Katherine. Instagram is fun. I'm doing like some fun video so it's kind of good.
[Ann 00:58:59] I follow you. It's very fun.
[Kathryn 00:59:03] Yeah, yeah. Like then you all can see my fashion too. I'm like a big fashion person as well. And so yeah, and then also, you know, there we have YouTube with Vimeo. But I think, you know, one of the things I'm most excited about, particularly for people who get the book, is for you to like tag me so I can see how you are using some of the principles in it. I love to see that and share with me how the book is working for you and has impacted you because I like to be able to share some of that with others as well. And so I am so excited about this book. And I'm so proud of it. I'm so very, very proud of it. And it's cool too.
[Ann 00:59:41] Very cool. I have to say, having read an early copy of it, I feel it is very, very cool. I can't wait to I'll follow all of the socials and see. It's so exciting to see your book, Baby Out in the Wild and like Living Its Own Life. It's very exciting. Well, Catherine, thank you so much. For being on the podcast today and I look forward to watching this journey as it continues.
[Kathryn 01:00:01] Thank you.
About my guest

Kathryn Finney

Kathryn Finney is an investor, visionary entrepreneur, philanthropist, and startup champion who is Founder and Managing General Partner of Genius Guild. She is the chair of The Doonie Fund and founder and former CEO of digitalundivided, a groundbreaking social enterprise focused on creating a world where Black women own their work. She is also the founder of The Budget Fashionista (TBF) and became one of the first Black women to have a successful seven-figure startup exit when she sold TBF. A Yale-trained Epidemiologist, she has been recognized for her pathbreaking work by the Aspen Institute, Entrepreneur Magazine, Marie Claire, Ebony, Inc. Magazine, Black Enterprise, and more. She is the author of the new book, BUILD THE DAMN THING: How to Start a Successful Business If You’re Not a Rich White Guy.