It’s not easy to make it in tech.
There are nearly 3 million apps in the Google Play and Apple App stores, all competing to be one of the average 27 apps we use each month. Most of those apps, 80 percent in Apple’s app store, are lifeless and rarely downloaded.
Developing a hit app is a surefire way to careen into an industry known for turning hobbyists and entrepreneurs into billionaires overnight. But before the eight-figure valuations and IPOs, it starts with an idea. That’s all Maci Peterson, now 28, had when she applied in 2014 to SXSW’s Startup Oasis competition, which helps discover new products and startups.
“I didn’t have a pitch or anything,” said Peterson, who has a marketing and media background, and formerly worked for Marriott and The Root in Washington, D.C. “All I literally had was an idea of ‘I want to take back text messages.’ But I hadn’t had time to think through the idea.”
No venture capitalist funds, no prototype, no customers: Just the concept of On Second Thought — an app that allows you to take back text messages sent in error, bad judgement or with unfortunate typos. She patented the idea before the competition.
Within days of getting notice SXSW accepted her idea, Peterson scrambled to get to the conference through what she described as a “series of miracles” that involved an airline buddy pass, hitchhiking, a three-hour drive to Austin — including writing her pitch in the cab ride with strangers — and the help of an Alpha Phi sorority sister who gave her a place to stay.
Peterson was first up of about 20 presenters, and one of a handful of people of color and three women. She won first place. “It was validation that not only did I have a great Idea but I had a great business too,” she said. “When I won, there was definitely was an, ‘Aarrp?’ Like really the sorority girl? Didn’t get that one,” Peterson guffawed.
Company leaders across industries are seldom people or color, and even more rarely African American. Of the country’s top 500 companies, only five are black and only one of them is a woman, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns. Corporate boards tend to be a little more diverse with African Americans making up less than 8 percent of board members and Latinos and Asian-Pacific Islanders each comprising around 3 percent, according to 2013 report from the Alliance for Board Diversity.
Peterson, who has a petite build draped in a simple black tank, a flouncy pale yellow skirt and unabashedly optimistic demeanor, isn’t your typical app developer particularly because she doesn’t know how to program. “I can build a website, but I can’t program,” she said, but sternly recommends everyone, no matter the chosen field, learn how to code to make yourself marketable and change the face of the tech industry from the inside.
“Before the competition, no one was really paying attention to me. They were talking to some of the guys, and the guys were busy courting whoever they could get to talk to them. Whereas I was like ‘I need to make sure my pitch is right because…I just wrote it,’” she chuckled.
“But once I won, the dynamic totally changed: People all of a sudden wanted to talk to me, reporters were coming up to interview me. And it was just funny because five minutes ago you had nothing for me or you thought I had nothing for you.”
Peterson fortunately hasn’t encountered some of the hostility many women and people of color in tech report experiencing, but since leaving her marketing job with Marriott and jumping into the industry full time, she noticed the internal shifts people are making to change the culture and quickly shut down negativity or bad behavior.
She recalled fellow contestant came up to her after a different presentation (not SXSW) and said “I honestly expected you to have some silly sorority girl product, but this is legit!” She replied to the backhanded compliment with a puzzling “thanks.” Immediately after the exchange, she said the event organizers stepped in and told the guy his conduct was unacceptable, took him aside and apologized to her on his behalf.
“There’s stupid stuff you would never say to a man, but there’s also zero tolerance for it. And I appreciate that because I do think everyone recognizes there is a problem in tech, in seeing women and people of color, and the need to make an environment where we can thrive,” she said on a coffee shop patio steps away from Washington, D.C.’s Union Station.
While tech companies are on the right track in changing their recruiting strategies and funding computer science programs for minorities, Peterson also said that “part of the onus is on the individual.”
“To be an entrepreneur you have to be a little creative and audacious,” she said. “Don’t allow quiet intimidation deter you from what you believe your purpose is. When you know that it’s for you, you have to go after it…That’s how you really affect change, by doing really well and performing on the inside so you can change dynamics, thoughts and processes because you’ve already established your authority.”
Peterson grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb known for promoting racial integration after the Civil Rights Movement. The village has just over 52,000 residents, one in five whom identify as African American and 64 percent identify as white, non-Hispanic, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“You would have the taxi driver’s kid going to school with the president of Rush University hospital’s kid,” she said. “Because of that we were able to understand everyone’s background. And we’re able to interact and be more empathetic because that’s how we were raised.”
Changing the status quo means being present, fostering relationships with people with different backgrounds and building networks out so that a contact at Google is two phone calls away, she said.
“A number of venture capitalist firms have come together looking to invest in minority-owned startups,” she said. “But they also say, the best way to get in touch with us is through a referral — someone who can give you a glowing recommendation.”
On Second Thought went through all of the typical startup first year bumps, including replacing a designer and co-founder and having an official launch last fall without a product because of a contractor’s bad code. Now, Peterson has a solid team of two co-founders and a designer, and On Second Thought has 36,000 Android users. An iOS version is in the works.
Peterson, a finalist in Women’s Startup Challenge, has big goals for her business over the next three years. She plans to build out a communications platform that lets users recall all messages specifically targeting developing nations in Africa and the Caribbean. And of course, she hopes On Second Thought will be acquired.
“I don’t mind being the sleeper,” she said of being someone who gets looked over at first and later triumphs. Because once that happens, “[they] have to pay attention.”
“Some people may look at the tech world and say ‘Oh, it’s white male dominated, I don’t have a place there.’ But not only do I have a place there, but I deserve to be there and I will carve it out,” that should be the default mentality for those who’ve been pushed out or marginalized.