It was a pleasantly “shocking” moment that Dara Solomon and Fela Strickland-Smith will always remember. At its Entrepreneur’s Summit last month, Black Enterprise awarded the sisters its Family Business of the Year award.
Smith recalled not really expecting to win, while filling out the contest application. At best, the sibling business partners “hoped to be recognized” by the magazine. Shortly after entering the contest, they received an e-mail from Black Enterprise announcing their nomination. That acknowledgment alone made them feel like winners. But it was a magical moment when they actually won.
“In our hearts it was a stamp of confirmation that the sacrifices we made to get this far were worth it,” Smith said.
The sisters launched Satori Interactive in 2004, with no entrepreneurial experience, business adviser or employees. What they did have, though, were confidence, solid family support and successful careers in the male-dominated technology industry, where blacks and women are underrepresented.
In a 2013 U.S. Census report (PDF), based on 2011 figures, men represented about 75 percent of the workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. Blacks comprise just 6 percent of that job sector. And when it comes to software development, whites held nearly 60 percent of those jobs, followed by Asians at about 30 percent.
Smith graduated from Virginia Union University, with a degree in math and computer science. She worked 15 years as a senior information technology professional, managing projects for top corporate companies.
Her younger sister studied industrial engineering at North Carolina A&T, later earning a master’s in human computer interaction at the university. She worked 18 years in the tech industry, making computer platforms more user-oriented and teaching those skills at the Art Institute of Atlanta.
They bring their education, talents and passion to Satori, which provides a range of business-to-business technology services. Located in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, the company is uniquely adept at making computer applications user-friendly.
Taking the plunge into entrepreneurship evolved from their close relationship. The sisters, even though they worked for different companies, would always consult with each other. Smith would often call her sister to talk about projects she was working on. And Solomon, who specializes in human factors in IT development, would ask if she considered the users. At one point, they realized that those types of conversations were happening more-and-more often.
“Fela, being the big sister that she is, said, ‘hey, why don’t we start a company,’” Solomon recalled, with a slight chuckle. “I said, you know, that’s probably a good idea.”
Smith said they have “very complementary skills,” and there were gaps in the technology industry where they could find a comfortable niche to grow their business.
Satori, by definition, is a Buddhist term that means a state of enlightenment. The sisters are not Buddhist, but they thought it expresses perfectly that “ah-ha” moment that their clients experience.
The company’s foundation is user research and understanding how people and technology interact. To that end, they organize focus groups to see how potential customers interact with their clients’ software or website.
“That’s when clients often experience ah-ha moments,” Solomon explained. “They’ll say ‘that’s why people are having trouble with our website.’”
There was never a doubt that the sisters would choose careers in technology. Their father was an electrical engineer who encouraged them, at an early age, to focus on STEM occupations.
“He told us, ‘as women you could do anything a man could do in science and technology,’” Smith reflected.
His encouragement was invaluable. As women in a male-dominated field, the sisters often had to prove themselves early in their careers. Even today, they’re usually the only women—and almost always the only black women—in the room.
“Our father would tell us, ‘if you’re good at what you do, people respect you and they welcome your suggestions and feedback. Nobody can take your knowledge away from you,’” Solomon recalled.
A USA Today analysis uncovered a hiring disparity in the tech industry. According to that report, elite universities graduate black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering majors at a rate two times higher than companies hire them.
The under-representation of blacks in the tech industry is a challenge that the Congressional Black Caucus is addressing through its CBC Tech 2020 initiative. It brings together the tech, nonprofit, education and public sectors to increase African American inclusion in the tech industry.
Solomon advises young black girls not to fear “stepping outside the accepted boundaries” and to pursue their interest in science and technology.
“The only barriers that are out there are the ones you create,” said Smith. “Move forward without thinking about what might hold you back.”