Make It Black

'On top of that, I was Black and female': How this Silicon Valley founder overcame impostor syndrome

Madela SH Dixon is recording a video segment at the Startup Grind Conference in Redwood City, Calif.
Photo courtesy Jeremy Young

This is part of CNBC Make It's series on what it's like to be Black in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley has long been a culture dominated by white men, with a fraught record of following up on commitments to fix its race problem, from major tech companies that have barely moved their numbers on diversity to a lack of funding for Black founders. Here, CNBC Make It spoke with Black professionals to hear their experiences.

For most of the decade Mandela S.H. Dixon has been in Silicon Valley, she didn't feel like she fit in. 

"I never took a formal business, tech, or finance class prior to starting my first business," Dixon says. "My last job before launching my first tech start-up was as a 6th grade teacher in Pacoima, California, teaching low-income students English and social studies. I was not an Ivy League graduate. I had school and consumer debt, and I didn't have any wealthy family or friends to help me get a head start on financing my business," Dixon says.

"On top of that, I was Black and female."

"Factor all of this in, and it quickly became apparent to me that I was far from the typical founder that succeeds in Silicon Valley," Dixon tells CNBC Make It

Dixon dropped out of a Ph.D. program at UCLA and cashed out her retirement to co-found job site DemoLesson in Los Angeles in 2011. She sold Herbalife, gave soccer lessons and tutored to make ends meet.

In 2012, she moved to Silicon Valley and eventually pivoted DemoLesson to Tioki, which allowed for educators to not only look for jobs but to boost their brand and create community — like "LinkedIn for Educators," Dixon says.

Later she spent two years as the Global Director of Startup Weekend Education (2013 through 2015) and became a portfolio services director at venture capital firm Kapor Capital. Most recently, in 2017, Dixon founded Founder Gym, an online training program that teaches underrepresented tech founders how to raise money and grow their start-ups.

But despite her success, Dixon says knew she was different and, early on, that took a toll. "That awareness fueled my impostor syndrome and for years I hid my differences from other people," Dixon tells CNBC Make It.

"When you're an only or one of a few, there is an added pressure to deliver and to not show weakness. You don't want to prove other people's stereotypes right, so you act like everything's ok and you have it all together, even though you could honestly be struggling and could really benefit from getting help," Dixon says.

By contrast, "when you are in positions of privilege and power, being vulnerable doesn't usually come with the same baggage or negative connotations that it does for other founders," Dixon says.  

So for years, Dixon didn't talk about her past. But in doing so, "people ... didn't recognize how much of a gap in preparation and support there was between me and my peers," she says.

"In hiding my truth, I wasn't able to get the help I needed to be successful during my first attempt at building a start-up, and as a result, I ended up learning some hard lessons."

Most importantly, Dixon learned that power and success lie in vulnerability.

"Lack of vulnerability is the very thing that prevents you from winning. I learned over the years that the best, most successful founders do one thing better than those who don't succeed: They identify their gaps and they seek help to fill them," she says.

More recently, since the killing of George Floyd, the conversations the world and people in Silicon Valley are having about systemic racism have made Dixon feel seen. 

"There have never been so many wealthy white people in Silicon Valley talking about Black people," she says.

"I feel a little bit like, 'Oh, finally you guys understand what I've been trying to say this whole time,'" says Dixon.

That gives her reason to have some optimism, she says, but there's still a lot of work to be done.

"Silicon Valley does not operate in a vacuum," Dixon says. "Silicon Valley is a larger kind of reflection of our broader society and if you look at Silicon Valley, you look at who's in positions of power ... the people who basically hold the purse strings in Silicon Valley are white men. Time and time again, you can go on any website of top 10 [venture captial] firms and go to their team page and it is clear as day who is really fueling this engine called the tech industry."

That's part of the reason Dixon started Founder Gym, which since it's launch has seen 440 founders from 22 countries raise over $50 million in start-up capital.

"I never wanted anyone else to come into this ecosystem and have to feel the way I felt. I never wanted anyone to have to stumble the way I stumbled," Dixon says.

Before Dixon, who grew up in Pittsburgh, discovered the world of entrepreneurship, "I didn't even know what Silicon Valley was. I didn't even know what venture capital was."

Her parents were civil rights attorneys and social justice advocates. "I didn't have entrepreneurs in my family. Business was not even a thing that I ever aspired to," Dixon says.

And "you can't be what you don't see right?" she says.

"A big part of why I am so passionate about educating people about this is so that they understand this opportunity even exists," Dixon says. "Because people I don't really think fully understand that the tech industry is literally the fastest wealth creator in the world like there is so much wealth being created by such a small group of companies in such a small group of people — and with wealth comes power."

So Dixon sees Founder Gym's success as her contribution to the problem of systematic racial injustice. 

"My fundamental belief is that if you can shift the wealth, you shift the power and you shift what the world looks like. And so I actually see my role in this movement as helping people leverage technology to manifest the world that they believe needs to exist," Dixon says.

Now, in this moment of collective recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement, Dixon is not taking her foot off the gas.  

"I understand that this is a moment that has really never happened before," Dixon says. "And I'm living in this moment and I'm in a position of power and what am I going to do with that so if anything I feel like I've been very introspective and reflective about just making sure I am clear," she says.

See also: 

25-year-old Black tech lead in Silicon Valley: I want to use my influence to combat systemic racism

Michael Tubbs: From son of a teen mom and incarcerated dad to one of America's youngest mayors

Being a Black founder in Silicon Valley after George Floyd: 'I honestly feel more safe'

How Michael Tubbs became one of America's youngest mayors in Stockton