It was a pleasantly shocking moment that Dara Solomon and Fela Strickland-Smith will always remember. At Black Enterprise’s Entrepreneurs Summit last month, the magazine awarded the sisters a Small Business Award as Family Business of the Year.
The recognition is especially surprising because the sisters launched Satori Interactive in 2004 without any entrepreneurial experience, business advisers or employees. What they did have, though, was confidence, solid family support and successful careers in the male-dominated technology industry, where blacks and women are underrepresented.
“In our hearts it was a stamp of confirmation that the sacrifices we made to get this far were worth it,” Smith says of the magazine’s recognition.
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. African Americans made up just 6 percent of that job sector. As for software development, whites held nearly 60 percent of those jobs, followed by Asians at about 30 percent.
Smith, who graduated from Virginia Union University with a degree in math and computer science, worked for 15 years as a senior information technology professional, managing projects for top corporate companies. Her younger sister studied industrial engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State, later earning a master’s in human-computer interaction at the university. She worked for 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 the sisters’ close relationship. Even though they worked for different companies, they 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 recalls with a slight chuckle. “I said, you know, that’s probably a good idea.”
Smith says that they have “very complementary skills” and that there were gaps in the technology industry where they could find a comfortable niche to grow their business.
“Satori” is a Buddhist term that means a state of enlightenment. The sisters are not Buddhist, but they thought it expressed perfectly that “aha” 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 aha moments,” Solomon explains. “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 says.
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 says.
A USA Today analysis from 2014 uncovered a hiring hypocrisy in the tech industry. Although tech companies complain that they cannot find qualified applicants, the report showed that elite universities graduate black and Hispanic computer science and computer-engineering majors at twice the rate at which companies are hiring them.
The underrepresentation of blacks in the tech industry is a challenge that everyone from the Congressional Black Caucus to a collection of tech companies is addressing. But it also helps to have role models like Satori’s founders. 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,” Smith adds. “Move forward without thinking about what might hold you back.”
Nigel Roberts is a New York City-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter.