Author Talks: How to build a damn good business

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Kathleen O’Leary chats with Kathryn Finney, founder and managing partner of Genius Guild—a venture capital firm investing in Black-owned start-ups—about her new book, Build the Damn Thing: How to Start a Successful Business If You’re Not a Rich White Guy (Portfolio, June 2022). Finney has done just that: in a business world historically geared toward upper-class, Caucasian men, she worked to become one of the first Black women to have a seven-figure start-up exit. After founding several successful companies, Finney is now sharing her entrepreneurial wisdom. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

I wrote Build the Damn Thing because I have read many, many, many business books, and they all made certain assumptions in terms of the type of resources a person has. They assume that we all have access to the same networks and that we can all go into a bank and get a loan. I had never read a book that was written for someone like me who comes from a diverse background, who is a Black woman, who historically couldn’t go into a bank and get a loan, and who had to figure out other ways in which to build businesses.

I wrote this book for the 99.9 percent of the world that aren’t rich White guys, but, ironically enough, I’ve had a number of very, very successful, rich White guys read the book. They love it, too, because they’re like, “We didn’t know that it was this hard. It’s opened our eyes to some things that we didn’t even know about, so when we work with our entrepreneurs, or friends, or our team members, we’re able to have a different perspective that we didn’t have before.”

Was there anything that surprised you in the process of researching and writing the book?

One of the things that surprised me in writing a book was the self-discovery that comes when you’re writing. When you’re putting together all the lessons you’ve learned when you’re doing really deep research on something, it changes you as well.

The importance of family was one of the things that I knew, but it came out even more so in writing the book—how, when you are a woman entrepreneur, a person-of-color entrepreneur, or an entrepreneur who comes from a disadvantaged background economically, you have to rely on your family, your friends, and your community to support you and help you do what you want to do.

Entrepreneurship is hard. It’s not easy. It is tough. It is exhausting. But knowing that you have people behind you who are there to support you, who can do things as little as cooking dinner on a night that you’re just so exhausted—little things like that are really crucial to our success and has been crucial to my own success.

How does your background in epidemiology inform your work as an entrepreneur?

Having the background as an epidemiologist has been really interesting and helpful. How it’s helped me as an entrepreneur is that I understand data—I understand it and I’m not afraid of it because I was trained to understand it, not be afraid of it, and translate it. That’s been really, really helpful for me. I like numbers, and I like spreadsheets, so it’s been really helpful in understanding data, understanding trends, and then translating it.

It has also been really helpful in dealing with people, because as an epidemiologist I’m looking at things at the population level. For example, how does this particular event—in the case of epidemiology it’s a disease, but in business it could be your company or a change in environmental or economic conditions—impact people, the way people move, and the way people react?

The economic state of Black America: What is and what could be

The economic state of Black America: What is and what could be

Having the epidemiological training has given me a very good foundation for understanding that, understanding people, and understanding their reactions to things. It’s been quite helpful over the past two years in having to explain, from a business perspective, the impact of diseases and other factors that are going to have a continuous impact on us as we build our businesses.

What advice do you have for people looking to bring their authentic selves to work?

One of the ways to bring your authentic self to work is by centering your humanity and other people’s humanity, too. At the end of the day we’re all human beings, right? We’re all human beings in this world, trying to live, and I honestly believe we all want to do our best. Even if we don’t always do our best, we want to do our best, so one of the ways to bring your authentic self is to find a point of connection that is true to you with that other person.

It could be a particular sport or something else, but it needs to be authentic to you. It’s not about them or finding what they like. If they like sailing and you hate water, that’s not what I’m talking about. At times, you have to speak truth to power, even when it’s difficult, even when it may not turn out great for you. I think that’s where having your core values, your personal core values—which I talk about in the book a lot—becomes very, very, very important.

How would you maintain your strength and sense of self-worth amid setbacks?

It really comes from my parents. I grew up with parents who took a risk. My parents left Milwaukee—where we knew everyone and had both sets of grandparents—and moved to Minneapolis. I was a young child at that point. They left everything they knew, took this risk, and it paid off. When you are a young child, particularly when you come from a family that has taken great risk—whether you’re a child of immigrants, whether your family has moved across the country, whether your mom was divorced and raised kids—and you see someone take a risk and then come out on the other side of it positively, it has a big impact on who you are.

For me, I know I can do whatever needs to be done because I was never told I couldn’t do what needed to be done. I saw my parents take a risk and then win. My parents never once told me I couldn’t do something, and as a young Black woman being brought up in a place with possibilities, I had a crazy imagination. I did the craziest things, but they never told me, “That’s stupid. No, you can’t do that,” so I grew up with this belief in infinite possibilities for myself.

As I talk about in a story in the book, a 26-year-old White dude who just graduated from Stanford isn’t going to tell me that I’m not great, because I’ve always been great. Your opinion is not going to change the belief in what I can do because I know I can do it—because it’s been done, and I’ve seen it be done. That’s where it comes from. For those who are questioning, “How do I show up? How do I maintain that?” I always think of a story a good friend of mine, Cheryl Contee, told me.

She said, “When you walk into the room, you’re the coolest person they’ve ever met.” Basically, you walk into a room where everybody’s the same. They’ve been seeing the same Patagonia vest, Bonobos khaki jeans, and Allbirds sneakers all week, and I show up being me. For them, this is refreshing. They get to look at someone different, breaking the monotony of everything else.

It’s about going into that room and making everyone believe you are the coolest person they met that day for the sheer fact that you are probably vastly different than what they see on a daily basis. For that reason alone, you are incredibly interesting to them. You come in with that, and it helps you maintain that strength and that belief in yourself.

Why is it important for entrepreneurs to perform a self-assessment of their core values and define what constitutes a violation of them?

It’s really important to do a self-assessment about who you are and what your core values are because, particularly as a diverse entrepreneur but really as any entrepreneur, you’re going to be challenged. You are going to be challenged. That is part of entrepreneurship, and that’s part of the journey.

You’re going to be challenged to make decisions on things that are questionable, things that may make you pause and go, “Eh, I don’t know about that,” things that may make you question your own integrity. It’s very hard to make a decision if you don’t know who you are and what you value. By knowing what you value, you’re able to see whether this thing that’s being asked of you or your company fits into who you are and your value. The hardest thing—and I know this for a fact because I’ve had to do it—is to say no to something that didn’t sit right.

Building supportive ecosystems for Black-owned US businesses

Building supportive ecosystems for Black-owned US businesses

When you make decisions based upon what you value, even if it is extremely hard at that moment to do and may seem like, “Oh, my gosh. I’m done,” the universe has a way of rewarding you for that. It has a way of making it right, and many times making it even better than what it would’ve been if you had said yes.

What gives you hope for the future of BIPOC and female entrepreneurship?

The tech industry has evolved. It’s been a while, but the tech industry has evolved. There are a lot of bright points that we’re seeing: the increasing number of Black investors, the increasing number of women investors, and the increasing number of women-led companies that are listed—including Stitch Fix and others—so there is a lot of hope.

There’s a lot of growth, but there’s a long way to go. Last year, women got slightly less in venture capital than in previous years, so we still have a lot to go, but the future is bright. The road is ahead of us, and the road is paved, and we can continue to walk it. We are walking it, and that to me is very exciting.

What do you hope people take away from this book?

What I hope that people take away from this book is that you can actually build the damn thing. You can do it. The path may be different for us, but there is a way to do it, and there’s a way to do it while still maintaining who you are—your core values and what you believe in.

I think that’s really, really important. Having been in the start-up community for a while, there’s this belief that you have to be a jerk or you have to be a certain type of person to be successful in this space. I don’t believe that at all. I think you can be brilliant at your work, but you can be a good person, too. What I’m hoping people take away from this book is not only the details of building your personal advisory board, how to raise money, and things like that, but how to do it while also maintaining your own integrity and your own core values.

The book is about how to build a successful business if you’re not a White guy, but I also want to encourage White men to read the book because it will give them a perspective that I’m positive many haven’t seen before. Steve Case, who’s one of the people who endorsed the book and was the founder of AOL, told me that he learned things he did not know.

He was like, “Kathryn, I’ve known you for a while, but I didn’t know you went through all this stuff. I didn’t know all these things that you had to go through, and I’m a better investor now because I have a perspective on what my companies of color are dealing with and the layers they have to deal with. Now I know a better way to help them.” It’s really exciting for me if that can come from this book as well.

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