Building a Platform for Black Tech News: Our Interview With Sherrell Dorsey, Founder of ThePLUG

"ThePLUG was birthed out of the idea that creativity and the world of tech are nuanced industries with diverse people that are too often left out of mainstream media."

by The Editor & Sherrell Dorsey on June 20th, 2016

Highlighting Black leaders and founders, businesses, analysis and stories, ThePLUG is a just-launched newsletter aggregating diverse tech and business news. Delivered daily, ThePLUG aims to bridge the gap in mainstream media coverage and surface the stories that too often go under-exposed. Debuted in April, it’s already growing fast. We sat down with founder Sherrell Dorsey to discuss why she started ThePLUG, building her career in writing, how the media is failing Black people in tech and business, and what comes next.

Photo of Sherrell Dorsey.

MVC: To start off with, tell us a bit about ThePLUG and your background! How long have you been running it, and what inspired you to create it?

My path has been relatively nonlinear, expanding across beauty, fashion, public policy and tech.

I learned how to code when I was 14, building websites and games, working at Microsoft in my native Seattle during high school, and eventually launching a few small businesses while in college studying the fashion business in New York City.

You could say that I fell into my niche through trial and error, eventually finding a passion for how the tech industry was changing and disrupting our lives in positive ways, while addressing serious social issues. I’ve always been a writer and even had an eco beauty blog in college helping multicultural women ditch toxic cosmetics, learn about environmental issues, and become leaders for environmental justice. Over the last few years my writing has evolved as social responsibility, corporations doing good, and digital access have become big conversations.

Being a writer means staying on top of new stories, following trends, and discovering who’s doing what in every industry. I’m constantly scanning the news for the latest trends, technologies and thought leaders in the space. Most stories are centered around one demographic—white men. I found that colleagues and I were constantly digging and searching for stories featuring diverse voices, relatable people that looked like us. ThePLUG was birthed out of the idea that creativity and the world of tech are nuanced industries with diverse people that are too often left out of mainstream media.

I spoke with a few friends and advisors about how I could add value to the space by building a newsletter that would aggregate diverse tech news stories, and also offer access to opportunities to add new voices to upcoming stories and conferences. Every one of them encouraged me to make it happen. After lots of thinking through the vision, ThePLUG was launched in early April and it has been building incredible momentum ever since.

MVC: What are some of the most important stories you’ve featured in ThePLUG recently?

I’ll admit bias here as I think every story in ThePLUG is of equal importance! My team and I handpick stories each day that carry international significance ranging from black founders that have recently raised investment capital, to innovative policy initiatives that are making strong investments in minority and women-owned businesses.

Some of my most favorite stories we’ve profiled on ThePLUG have connected to larger national discussions on power, privilege and the continued social issues our country faces when it comes to race. For example, Jennifer Smith of the Wall Street Journal profiled private-equity financier Robert F. Smith’s appointment as chairman of Carnegie Hall’s board. I particularly loved this story because it was my first introduction to Smith, who is a highly credentialed professional and the very first African American to ever hold the title. Carnegie Hall is a pretty big in the arts and culture world. For a person of color to hold such an important seat at one of the country’s oldest institutions was a moment of pride.  

Another story that was significant was the announcement of Ursula Burns stepping down from her position as CEO of Xerox. There are now literally no black female CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies. The move was a loss for both gender and racial diversity that sparked an important discussion on the challenges faced by women and minority leaders in prominent corporate positions.

Lastly, in light of much of the national social unrest as a result of police brutality toward African Americans in America, I found this article about the Washington Post’s augmented reality initiative — exploring the events that led to 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s arrest and death in Baltimore — to be a critical story. It was written by Mădălina Ciobanu for Journalism UK, and she helped us look at how the world of VR could play a larger role in storytelling to engage readers—especially in such an important case.

The Plug logo: the name in block letters.

MVC: One of the reasons you started ThePLUG is to highlight the stories of Black founders and business leaders — can you talk a little bit about what the existing media landscape looks like as far as covering these stories and perspectives?

To be candid, I’ve had numerous discussions with friends, colleagues and peers about the lack of representation in mainstream media. And quite honestly, media publications that are supposed to cater to African Americans aren’t prioritizing technology —they’re missing out deeply and doing a disservice to the community that depends on them to stay ahead of trends and cultural connections. For example, I attended SXSW Interactive this year, representing a black publication. Outside of myself and one other black publication, there was no one else on the ground covering our stories or insights.

When we can’t depend on black media to do the job, or mainstream media to want to tell “our” stories, there’s a divide. This is where ThePLUG serves a tremendous need. We don’t cover stories out of novelty. We see it as a public service to the thousands of subscribers that are looking for smart stories that don’t always make the front pages of the news, but are significant.

MVC: The conversation about diversity in tech has been becoming much bigger and more visible over the past 3-5 years. What are your thoughts on the state of that movement right now?

While I’m glad that we’re having much more public discussion about diversity, disparity, and disproportionality, the story isn’t new. I fear that we might get stuck on the problem without working toward actionable solutions. There are lots of dollars being shelled out for “diversity” initiatives, particularly with organizations that are orchestrating big PR campaigns and events.

I’m waiting to see what the result of the work will be. Is it effective? Will it move the needle? Will we see parity in funding, job growth, and economic development as a result of all the hoopla?

As a writer, and now armed with ThePLUG as a tool, I believe that our primary focus should concentrate less on employer behavior and more on investing in entrepreneurs and businesses that are already demonstrating inclusive practices. By scaling these entrepreneurs, whether through incubator programs, accelerators, or direct investment, I believe we can develop companies in cities and communities left untouched by these discussions.

Education is also a pressing issues. When you look at the statistics, many high poverty cities and communities are plagued by severe poverty and poor educational outcomes. This means we’re forsaking the opportunity to build a populace of talent. When we ignore investment in communities via jobs, transportation, urban revitalization, and quality education, we have the problems that currently persist today, where there is a shortage of skilled workers to take the jobs of the future. Let’s allocate resources in these spaces, and skip the jargon and political banter.

MVC: One awesome thing that you’ve been doing is writing for tons of different publications across the fashion, design, tech and business spaces. What has developing your own writing career looked like, and what advice would you have for other people in media looking to follow in your path?

My work has been inspired by my inability to stay still. Every day I’m on a quest to learn something new, exercise my creative side, host new coffee conversations and find out where I can lend my platforms to tell the stories of brilliant people and companies with a mission to create impact.

My advice for other writers or those in the space is to stay creative. Stay curious. Stretch yourself. Each subject I approach pushes me to do more research, reach new spaces, and get a true understanding for where the gaps are.

You also need to challenge yourself to learn a variety of new skillsets. I often attend conferences, listen to webinars, podcasts, and sign up for free classes on Edx to continue my learning. Lastly, challenge yourself to create things that don’t exist and develop a strategy to turn your work into a business. Make lasting connections and always find ways to get paid for what you do.

MVC: Finally, what’s next for ThePLUG, and how can people support you and your work?

It’s only been a few short weeks, but ThePLUG is doing major things. We’re sponsoring hackathons, developing strategic content partnerships, and I’m speaking on panels to grow our readership as we move forward. Long-term, we’ll work toward building original content and connecting our community to public platforms to help better share their voices and thought leadership across tech and business.

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