Get comfortable being uncomfortable – an interview with Flavilla Fongang

With only 5% of the UK’s small and medium-sized businesses being ethnic minority-led, we asked the question, ‘what does the industry need to do better to support and nurture minority founders. We spoke to Flavilla Fongang, who heads up TLA’s Black Women in Tech working group, to get to the heart of the issue.

An entrepreneur herself, having founded the 3 Colours Rule marketing and branding agency, Flavilla understands first-hand the barriers that exist for minorities in pursuing careers in the tech space. ‘I was surprised by the struggle it took to find peers at tech networking events in London. ‘I’m always networking, that’s my job. I remember thinking to myself, I don’t believe there’s no women in tech, no black women. I can’t believe it.’ So, Flavilla set out to do something about it. Leveraging the Tech London Advocates community (TLA) she set up TLA Black Women in Tech. The group, which launched last September, today has 700 members who meet up monthly.

Groups like this are vital. Not only do they create a community for networking and learning for black women, but they provide an opportunity for non-minority leaders to understand, although briefly, the minority experience. Flavilla explains how the group welcomes anyone to attend:

‘You need to come to our network, come to our events so you understand how it feels to be a minority, this is how we feel all the time. We use that experience to go out and explain the importance of diversity.’

Why are there not more black founders?

TLA Black Women in Tech, with a motto to inspire, educate and create opportunities, supports black female entrepreneurship and mentorship. And while the nascent group is having a big impact there is still a long way to go. We asked Flavilla why there are not more black founders. She cited perception as one of the main reasons:

“When I came to London 18 years ago, I didn’t speak a word of English. And my perception of what I was able to achieve was probably just assistant to somebody else. That only changed when I stopped, and I saw more people much more powerful and accomplished. If they can look like me and can do well, so can I.

This belief that you can’t be an entrepreneur is only the first hurdle. The second problem those brave enough to pursue a business idea face is accessing capital. Without experience or networks of contacts to advise you, many do not know how to go about raising capital. Flavilla explains that for many the bank is the first port of call, but if they don’t approve the idea, potential founders are left uncertain of where to turn next. While there are a plethora of investment networks out there, for many the application experience is daunting and ultimately off-putting.

The first step is education. The system hasn’t kept pace with change, and young people are left unaware of the opportunities available to them, especially in tech. Flavilla tells us how she is pushing more black women to become mentors and to go into schools and say to children, ‘these are all the opportunities you have.’ However, even convincing women to be mentors has its challenges, ‘that’s where the imposter syndrome kicks you,’ she explains. ‘All the mentors I’ve had have been white men and sometimes as a female or a black female you don’t think you’re good enough.’

She also speaks to the importance of BAME focused ideation workshops, ‘sometimes people have great business ideas, but they don’t see them as viable.’ Ideation workshops are group sessions where people can come together to discuss solutions to problems that could be business ideas. It’s not about coming with a business idea because you are an entrepreneur, because many do not see themselves that way. It’s about having the support you need to develop an idea and build it up so you can become an entrepreneur.

How can we support black founders?

Like all entrepreneurs, help is needed along every step of the way, from establishing a brand, to building a business plan, to pitching for investment. Flavilla believes that it’s important to have founder programmes, accelerators and networks aimed at minority groups. ‘Being black is not the same. We don’t perceive things the same way. We need that representation.’

The other critical element is for the existing community to support black founders. Flavilla encourages investors to support founders that are different to them and have something else to offer. ‘If you have two people you will naturally invest in something you are already connected with or better understand.’

And she extends the message to the broader community.

“‘The system has privileges that people have benefitted from, but now it’s time to use that benefit to open the door for other people. Ask yourself: am I part of the problem? How many people do I have in my network that don’t look like me? And above all, get uncomfortable because if your always comfortable you will never achieve anything new.

You can’t change the game unless people in power decide to be with you in the front lines – I am there and I’m going to use that to achieve change. We can fight as much as we want, but if we have no allies with us, we’re going to be in the same situations.

It’s about us collaborating to do things differently. It’s very important.”

Learn more about Flavilla’s work on TLA Black Women In Tech.

Read more Envestors interviews & insights from founders and investors.