Kathryn Finney hopes the Doonie Fund helps people learn to act, not overthink.

Back in the springtime, as the bad news mounted, Kathryn Finney was worried about the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Women and people of color, who disproportionately own smaller companies in high-touch fields, like salons and restaurants, were shut down. Even those in high-tech sectors and professional services probably had lower capital reserves than male-owned businesses.

Meanwhile, the aid programs were set up to help small businesses with a lot of full-time employees and previous relationships with bankers.

Finney knew, as an entrepreneur and the founder of digitalundivided, how lonely it can feel. Who, Finney thought, was going to let Black women entrepreneurs know that they mattered?

“You have women and women of color who are doing everything right. Then they get to the end, and there’s nothing there for them,” she said.

She had about $5,000 saved up to go on a vacation with her family (her husband and her 5-year-old son). She got $5,000 in matching funds from Microsoft, where her husband works. She gave it out in $100 increments through digitalundivided, a social enterprise supporting Black and LatinX women founders. Those tiny sums turned out to have a profound impact, as the number of applicants – more than 1,600 now — and their stories showed.

For instance, there was Atlanta-based Melanie, from Modern Brands for Women. “Hey friends! I wanted to say how grateful I am that you are here in my little community of dreamers, doers and encouragers … ” and Julie O. Griffith, the founder of Champagne & Melanin. “I am excited to announce that I am a 2020 recipient of The Doonie Fund,” which included a shoutout to Finney for helping Black women “stay in the arena.”

More on the name “Doonie Fund” later. But what’s turning out to be important wasn’t that entrepreneurs were getting emotional support — they were — but that the relationship between the women of color and “society” — the collection of funders and powerful people Finney had assembled through digitalundivided — was changing. The Doonie Fund and similar initiatives that may evolve put the onus on the givers and investors to let go of their need to measure impact and to examine in a forthright way why they were giving: To right a societal inequity that they have benefitted from.

The microinvestments are not being tracked and no returns are expected. The application asked nothing but that a business existed currently, with the evidence being a web site, instagram or shopify account. In the era of soul-searching brought on by the Black Lives Matter movement, the idea that philanthropists and investors should focus on changing themselves rather than their recipients is gaining traction.

 “You have a group of people – for the first 400 years or so – whose economic value was not recognized,” Finney said. “How deeply is that concept embedded in America?”

“How dare this person wants money when their product should be free? It has to do with both being African-American and being women.”

Research has suggested that one reason women do not advance is the same: their labor is expected to be delivered for free. When they do favors for men, the favors are forgotten.

What Finney did was, she says, was write checks with the same ease and spirit that white men and privileged people are generally written checks. The checks were small, yes – but it was the act, rather than only the size, that turned out to be important.

Finney has left digitalundivided for other work, including serving as a mentor and investor to the Doonie Fund, which she turned over to younger women. Digitalundivided is developing its own version of a similar fund, according to Sheila Herrling, a member of its board of directors.

“The notion of almost no barrier to entry, no conditions on how recipients could spend the money, and no reporting requirements — not by the recipient on how they spent it nor by digitalundivided on whether it had impact — was revolutionary.  It challenged the power dynamics that exist in the vast majority of foundations and impact investing companies and their tendency to convey a sense of distrust through burdensome reporting requirements and restrictions on spending,” said Herrling by email. “The construct of the Doonie Fund was impactful simply by how it was structured — to empower the founder by saying ‘I see you, I believe in you, do what you deem best with this money, your financial and emotional wellbeing benefits us all.’  We learned so much during its tenure and are very excited to launch The Do You Fund, building on those lessons and best practice in the microinvesting field.” 

Where The Innovation Came From

Finney’s innovation seems simple, but its smart subversion was woven of three threads. First, Finney had successfully navigated the patriarchy as a Black woman. She sold a media company built around her Budget Fashionista brand for undisclosed sum that she will only say was “good.” From having succeeded in it, she knew how unlikely it would be that the system would be able to move fast enough to help Black women entrepreneurs.

She also had a decade of activism. She founded Newark-based digitalundivided in 2012. In turn, she had supporters including Melinda Gates’ investment firm, Pivotal Ventures, and unrestricted funding that she could tap as the Doonie Fund took off.

Third, she had generations of history to tell her that small acts matter. An interview last week started as an exploration of the concept of the Doonie Fund for a book I’m working on with Seth Levine, but became more. In the past few months, white people around the country have been seeing parts of America’s history that have been hidden in plain sight, in the experiences of black families.

For me, as a white woman journalist, hearing Finney’s family story was like a journey through that history and my own lack of knowledge of the context of being Black, and the ways it is different and the same as the stories of white families in America. It started as I asked about the name, Doonie. She’d told me earlier that it was the name of her much-loved grandmother.

“Tell me about her?” I asked.

Kathryn Finney’s family

“She was a born a black woman in Kansas in the 1920s,” Finney started.

But having learned more about the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the sunset town of Corbin, Ky., lately, I sensed more to the story. There was.

Finney’s great-grandparents owned a restaurant and home in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, she said. After their restaurant was “bombed out,” she said, they left for Kansas. She sent me a picture of her great-grandfather, George Woods, Sr. He is standing with his daughter, Kathryn “Doonie” Hale, holding Kathryn as a baby, and Kathryn’s mother, Karen, and brother, Robert.

They were active in the reparations community, but ultimately received nothing for the land.

“On the one hand, there’s a sense of entrepreneurship and achievement,” she said. “It was everything that black people have been criticized for not doing for 100 years. And it was destroyed because white people were jealous.”

Finney’s grandmother, Kathryn Hale, went to community college in Coffeewood, Kansas. She married, had a grown daughter, and then decided to divorce her first husband in 1970.

With a 7-year-old daughter, she moved to Milwaukee, where her older daughter lived. “I think it was the ballsyness of that period of the 1960/70s. She left with nothing,” Finney said. “But she was a very talented seamstress. I spent the early part of my life in the summers hanging out in the sewing room in the den of her house.”

Designing doll clothes and sewing was the beginning of Finney’s love for fashion. The older Kathryn, “Doonie,” was the younger Kathryn’s constant encouragement.

The Doonie Fund was named in her honor.

Finney was raised in Milwaukee. Her mother was a debutante who went to Kansas State University. Her father was a brewery worker who didn’t graduate from high school until he was 30, while he was working at the brewery.

He was laid off, at the age of 36, which is when a small act of volunteerism led to a change in the family’s status. Finney’s father signed up for a worker retraining course. An executive in IBM’s Milwaukee office, Monroe Shaw, volunteered six Saturday’s to come teach displaced factory workers C+++.

From there, Finney’s father got an unpaid internship at IBM, and then an entry level position at Digital Equipment. He worked his way up to the executive level at EMC. He gave computers to many of Finney’s friends when they went to college, and Finney herself went to Yale. When her father died, there were more than 1,000 people at the funeral.

“Tech changed my family’s fortunes,” Finney said. “Monroe Shaw’s act … led to someone like me.”

I asked about her mother. “My dad would not have been what he was without her. He knew that and recognized it,” she said.

Finney’s grandmother, Doonie, is 97 now. Even with severe dementia, she is still “into fashion and fabulousness,” Finney said. “I just sent her a Juicy Couture jogging suit.”

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.

A business journalist for 20 years, am the founder of Times of Entrepreneurship and the co-author of The New Builders.