Sibyl Edwards has made it her mission to cultivate spaces for the D.C. tech community to discuss the need for more diversity in the field.
She cofounded Black Female Founders (#BFF), launched D.C.’s first women in tech conference CODE(her) and most recently helped start an umbrella organization for diversity in tech groups called Technicolor DC. Plus, she’s been the president of DC Web Women since July 2010. Through her work with these organizations, she’s been pushing forward necessary conversations to bring more Black and brown tech founders to the table.
A painter by trade, Edwards started her career in fine arts and received her bachelor’s degree from the Corcoran School of Art + Design at George Washington University. In 2000, she became intrigued by web design and how the Internet allowed for individuals to uniquely create their own communities. Since then, she has worked with a number of companies and organizations sharing her growing expertise in art direction, web design and digital media strategy. She’s currently the Chief Creative Officer of Wetogethr, a new creative agency she founded with DC Tech Meetup’s Brandon Luong, who also cofounded Technicolor with Edwards.
Technical.ly DC recently caught up with Edwards to hear about how she got her start in tech, her brief stint away from the District and what she’s excited about.
You’re what I consider an OG in the D.C. tech game. Take me back to 2006 when you started working with DC Web Women. What was the tech landscape like back then?
Back then, it was just DC Web Women and Women in Tech, based out of McLean, Va., serving women in the tech community. In the last three to four years, there’s been this proliferation of all these women tech organizations which is fantastic. But the reality is, even with all of these organizations, we’re still dealing with a lot of the same issues and the same challenges that we started. Some things have improved and some things haven’t but the great thing is more awareness has been raised about the importance of gender issues in tech and the importance of getting women and people of color in tech.
In DC Web Women, we do everything from networking events to training, development, teaching people web development, content development and social media. We also do a lot of professional development events in order to help women reach and attain management-level positions. We also have our main events like Tech The Halls, which is a mega-holiday party where we collaborate with nine other tech organizations to not only celebrate the holiday season, but to network and cross-pollinate.
And something more recently that I’m proud of: three years ago we started the CODE(her) Conference, which is the first tech conference that is geared to women in D.C. It’s not an unconference, it’s not a hackathon, but a conference for women in the D.C. metro area. This will be our third year and we’re already so excited. We’ve got a number of amazing speakers — so many that we’re having to turn some away. The event will be at the Washington Post this year, and we’re very lucky to have it there on Sept. 17.
What inspired you to pursue a career in tech, and what challenges you’ve faced in your career, not only as a woman in tech, but a Black woman in tech?
I started off my career in fine arts — I was a painter. Once I graduated, I would try to find fields related to the art industry and art history and I couldn’t find anything, so I kind of floated around a little bit to find myself.
"For people of color, getting funding isn't about making people millionaires. It's about the money going right back into the community."
In the late 1990s, almost early 2000s, the internet had been around for a little while and they had this great community called Geocities and it was like the Tumblr of its day. People would usually create pages around topics that interested them, just like Tumblr. But with Geocities, you had the opportunity to really go in and design your page and it was a Wild West back then and very experimental.
It was very creative, and one of the things I noticed during this process, and just in general, looking at the web was the fact that as an artist, you can put your work up on the web and anyone with an internet connection could view it — and to me, that was astonishing.
This idea of information and technology being democratized and available to anyone with internet access (it was dial-up back then), that you could read or view anything in the world — to me, that was mind blowing. I thought that was a superior method of getting content to people than more traditional methods, so I wanted to learn how to do that. I knew you could do it, but what was the backend? How did it work?
In the early 2000s, there weren’t that many schools that taught web design. But I was living in Virginia at the time and luckily Northern Virginia Community College did offer a few web design courses, so I took those in the evenings while I worked at a software company during the day. After a little bit of research, I found that the Art Institute of Dallas offered an entire program on web design, so I packed my things and moved to Dallas. After a few years there, I found that I missed The District, so I moved back in 2006, and the rest is history.
What are some current trends that you’ve noticed within the tech space?
Everyone is hoping to be the next Uber, Airbnb or Snapchat. But as these organizations grow and continue to evolve, there’s still the lack of leaders who are women and people of color. There is also the issue of funding for these startups, as well. Women get seven percent of funding and we’re 50 percent of the population. And out of that group, Black women almost get zero percent.
A great study that I recommend people check out is Project Diane, which was created by Kathryn Fenney, where she found that there are only 88 ventures in the United States led by women of color which have received funding. And that’s why my colleagues Xina Eiland, Erin McKinney and I cofounded Black Female Founders (BFF) to try and combat this issue.
As a new organization that is looking to raise awareness about inclusion in technology and the need for women-of-color founders to receive capital, what are some things we can look forward to from BFF and how can young women like myself get involved?
We actually just had an event last month called “Funding Your Fempire,” which had a panel of a number of accomplished men and women talk about the importance of getting access to capital. From angel investing to venture capital to crowdfunding, the panelists covered all angles on how diverse tech companies can get money to grow their businesses.
We may not have thousands and thousands of dollars to invest in tech ventures, but getting $25, $50, $75 from members of our immediate communities can help raise seed capital.
For us (people of color), getting funding isn’t about making people millionaires. it’s about the money going right back into the community in some form or fashion, which is really important. I run into so many amazing women all the time with great business ideas and it’s unfortunate that their ideas aren’t being heard or funded.
What do you love most about living in D.C.?
I just love how there’s always something going here — and that’s one of the main reason I moved back. It’s very active as a city, but not overwhelming like the busy cities are. D.C. is what I would consider accessible, many of the events and happenings that take place are usually free or very inexpensive.
Also, you don’t have to drive around because we have a pretty decent public transportation system, and while that doesn’t make us unique in that regard, we’re one of the few cities that does it and does it really well.
One of the things that I also love is how walkable the city is. Just last week, a friend and I walked from WeWork Chinatown all the way over to U Street. It was just awesome to view the beautiful architecture, homes and cityscape — it’s just something that I really, really like.
In addition to that, I love Gallery Place-Chinatown and U Street. They’ve got a host of great restaurants, bars and spots to hang out.
And of course, it wouldn’t be springtime in D.C. without a visit to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms.