The Q & A session followed the screening of She Started It, a documentary film that profiles several female tech entrepreneurs, including Allen, and explores the obstacles that contribute to female underrepresentation in the industry. The evening and Allen’s visit, which included several small-group classroom seminars with students earlier in the day, were part of the Goodyear Fellowship program.
Allen, who immersed herself in tech at age 22 after she had an idea for an app, echoed the film in saying that the journey can be an uphill battle. “I had a really big challenge,” she said. “First, I was female. Second, I was black, and third, I was from Mississippi. People think we are all country bumpkins and don’t know anything. I used my own money to start my first company and I had two million downloads of my app in two months — but every investor I saw still had an excuse for not writing me a check.”
Allen persevered. With no technical background and limited funds, she took her first mobile app — a money-organizer that she conceived of as a senior at the University of Southern Mississippi — and built a successful company called Sheena Allen Apps, which she is in the process of selling. Last year, she launched another startup — a financial technology company called CapWay that focuses on unbanked and under-banked individuals.
Our students were hungry for advice and had lots of questions for Allen. She talked about learning along the way, the mentors who helped her, the creative ways she promoted her apps using free tools such as social media, and the challenge of converting a great idea to reality.
“Being a woman, you are going to have to take 10 steps more than your male counterpart to get there,” said Allen. “Whether or not you will succeed depends on who you are as a person. You have to be passionate about what you do. Starting a company is hard, so you had better love it. You have to be dedicated, and you have to be willing to make sacrifices. . . But if you keep the goal in mind and always focus on proving yourself right, rather that proving others wrong, you can do it.
“And talk to everybody at every opportunity you have,” she continued, sharing an anecdote from her own experience. “You never know who they are or who they know.”
Which brings us to those elevator speeches. Allen noted that sometimes one of those people you talk to agrees to hear about your idea and you have to be ready. “They don’t want to hear you talk for 10 minutes,” Allen said. “You have to pitch it in 30 seconds and you have to be very convincing. . . The first time I practiced my pitch, my mentor stopped me about 10 second in. ‘You sound like you need my money. Don’t do that. Sound like your idea is so great and this is such a great opportunity that I would be a fool to miss it.’ That kind of confidence is sometimes hard for women.”
And then Allen asked for three volunteers from the audience who “had an idea.” Seniors Alex A. and Olivia R. and freshman Kenzie G. came forward and bravely gave 30-second pitches on ideas that involve international interior design, solving garbage challenges in the developing world, and a medical mobile app.
All three girls received enthusiastic rounds of applause — and then joined the entire audience in giving Sheena Allen an even louder and very appreciative ovation for the engaging and inspiring evening.
The Goodyear Fellowship program, offered through the generosity of the family and friends of Alison Harrison Goodyear ’29, brings distinguished speakers and provocative performers to Foxcroft to deliver a keynote address and conduct small group seminars with students. The Goodyear Fellowship program has brought to Foxcroft such remarkable voices as Maya Angelou, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Sally Ride, and former White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III.