Angela Benton is the CEO of Black Web Media, founder of NewME, an entrepreneur, a designer, a developer, and a mother.
The conversation about careers and motherhood—a.k.a. “having it all”—often deals with women who are having children in the middle of their careers. Very rarely do we address women who start their careers as mothers, something that is just as prevalent. For many of these women, the stakes are even higher. Leaning in is not a choice, it is what they must do.
Angela is one of these mothers and she leaned in—hard. Her career has taken her through every facet of digital media, and in her own words, “I’ve had so many different roles it is hard to get one over on me.”
Our interview covered everything from the paradox of regressive ideas in the tech industry to the benefits of persistence and passion. She had some insightful, funny and inspiring words to share—and great advice for young mothers beginning their careers.
LB: When you started Black Web 2.0 it was because you saw a need and then created something to fill it. What unique obstacles come up while solving a problem that may not even be perceived by the white and male-dominated tech world?
AB: Well I’m not sure if this is an obstacle but one thing that consistently came up was that white men in the tech world assumed much of the time that the site was created to be exclusive and that other voices weren’t “allowed” on the site. It’s funny and ridiculous looking back but anytime you are dealing with a race or gender issue people incorrectly think that you only want to learn or hear from others like you. I can only speak for myself and the ventures I’ve launched but that is typically not the case. On the platforms that we launched we were just trying to talk about the issues and shine a light on people doing great work who weren’t getting much exposure at the time, we didn’t really care who it was coming from.
LB: Can you pinpoint the moment you knew you had created something successful?
AB: For me the moment I felt like I had created something successful was when there were other people interested in what we were doing with the site outside of my inner circle and mentors at the time. It was very rewarding to have people I looked up to and respected acknowledge the impact we were making at the time. Especially since the site was a VERY niche publication at the time.
LB: Technology is all about advancement, and yet, so often, there’s an attitude of “that’s the way it is” when it comes to the gender inequality in that industry. Why do you think that is? How do you think we can prevent that thinking (especially among women)?
AB: Ugh! It’s so annoying! I think this has less to do with gender issues and more to do with how the industry thinks, somewhat odd since it is known for innovation and pushing envelopes technically. There are some people that don’t get why gender issues or race issues in our industry are important, some think it’s best left for nonprofits to solve and innovators should be focused on innovating but there is a whole other world outside of the epicenter of the tech industry. And I think making a conscious effort to look at the problems those entrepreneurs are solving and generally just getting out of the “bubble,” which means people may not look like a young white guy coding or running a startup. It might look like a mom of 3 who is changing careers.
LB: How does race complicate the conversation about women in tech? What do we need to understand to start assessing how more women of color can advance in the industry?
AB: Race really throws a wrench the women in tech conversation because now we are discussing women of color who have higher percentages of single parenting, as head of households, and generally “doing it on their own” or supporting other people (family, etc.) outside of themselves. Not to mention a higher possibility of a lower socioeconomic status…these aren’t women who have “made it” yet. They don’t have nannies, maids, and house managers to make sure things don’t fall through the cracks. I’ve heard from many woman through our work at NewME that feel like having the career they want in tech isn’t attainable, not because they feel like they are being excluded, but because they feel balance isn’t an option in such a demanding industry where many of the decisions are made by men.
LB: You were a young mother. How has that affected your career, both positively and negatively?
AB: Positively – I worked much harder than most since I was about 15 years old so I’m use to juggling, balancing, and thinking of clever ways to make things work. It’s also made me an extremely persistent person.
Negatively – I demand a lot from people I work with. I expect the same level of intensity and work ethic that I have so I have to constantly remind myself to make sure that I’m keeping it in balance and in perspective because sometimes you have to meet people where they are.
LB:What were your biggest logistical challenges in the early years starting out?
AB: In the early years I was just trying to graduate high school so the logistical challenges were graduating w/ the GPA that I wanted, creating a work schedule so that I could finish high school early. I ended up working 12 hour days on the weekends and a half day after school on Fridays so that I could still pull in PT hours. During the week I took some night classes so that I could finish my core classes and graduate. For instance I took 11th and 12th grade english simultaneously. Once I graduated high school and started college I had more flexibility in when I took classes so it was easier. I took a lot of night classes and distance learning/online classes.
LB: What advice would you give to young, single mothers contemplating career paths?
AB: My biggest advice would be find something that works for you and be persistent. A lot of people get caught up in what you major in and what school you go to just so you can “get a good job” and make a lot of money. I encourage woman to find something they like and are passionate about and see where it takes you… the dots will end up connecting themselves in the end.
LB: You’ve worked in a variety of roles, from coding to strategy. Did you intend to try a little bit of everything, or did it just happen?
AB: This absolutely just happened! Looking back on it it was all sort of a natural progression. I started out designing and then that led to front-end code which led to back-end code which led me back to front-end coding which led me to being mostly on product teams where I got to be hands-on with not only the code but also (eventually) shaping the strategy of products and being in a cross functional role that interacted with Marketing, product, and the technology team. I was lucky to have a great manager who was one of the executives at IAC for the startup we were working on there. He supported my interests and mentored me so that I became a better leader. It was a hugely beneficial experience, especially when I decided to become an entrepreneur.
LB: What role was the most challenging for you initially?
AB: I would definitely say when I was developing in C#. It was difficult and I would freak out if something broke on the site because it took me longer than most to solve those problems. After a while I decided to stick to the front-end work!
LB: Was CEO always your end goal?
AB: No, I didn’t think I would be a CEO, though I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. The two were totally different things to me until I was probably into my early 20s.
LB: Do you think working in many different positions has made you a more empathetic team member? I would imagine you have a better understanding of how everyone contributes. Any other learnings?
AB: Yes, exactly! I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but since I’ve had so many different roles it is hard to get one over on me, particularly when dealing with things on the product side. Also, I’ve had my own business for a while now, since 2007, so I’ve worked with a lot of different people, personalities, vendors, consultants, you name it, and I’m pretty good at spotting problems before they happen based on my previous experiences.
LB: If you could go back in time and give yourself a pep talk at the beginning of your career, what would you say?
AB: I would tell myself to listen to my intuition a little bit more than I did in the past.
LB: What’s your current or next big project? Any details you can share?
AB: We are working on a ton of new things! The first is relaunching Black Web 2.0 as B20 under NewME. I’m excited about this new stage for the site and am looking forward to seeing how it will interact with all of what we are doing at NewME. The other big thing we are working on is scaling the work that we are doing at NewME. Most of our time is dedicated to our 12 week program in SF, however we have a lot of momentum in cities around the country where we are doing short 3 day versions of the program. We are learning an insane amount of information around what entrepreneurs want and need outside of Silicon Valley and are looking forward to building more products/programs to help them reach their full potential.