Pipe Dream sat down with Sherrell Dorsey, founder and chief executive officer of The Plug, a platform used by Fortune 1000 companies to track the Black Innovation economy. Dorsey has also served as a marketing manager for tech companies such as Uber and a contributing writer for publications such as the Columbia Journalism Review. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What inspired you to get into data journalism?
A: “I’ve always been a storyteller, and I’ve always loved telling an interesting story using numbers and the sort of investigative component of taking interesting ideas from what [you’ve] learned from trends and analytics, which on the surface seems really boring. But [it] can reveal some really interesting things to tell stories with, and I had the privilege of working for companies like Microsoft and Uber and Google Fiber, and so much of that work was rooted in data and told really interesting stories around how technology changes our lives. So I was able to just really marry my storytelling along with that and decided to go to grad school — and there was just a handful of data journalism programs in the country and I got the opportunity to really expand what data journalism actually looks like.”
Q: What motivated you to create “The Plug”?
A: “It started off truly as more of a hobby to share what I was learning about Black and Brown innovation, ecosystem, leaders and startups — and I was just in a space of curiosity in my life as I started to see just more interesting companies being built, and not really seeing in media a tremendous focus on diverse storytelling of founders of color who are also building really great technologies or leading interesting companies. So I just set out on my own to discover and to ask questions and to highlight [companies] and accidentally created a business from that. And [I] got a chance to really make a mark in the industry saying, ‘Hey, if Bloomberg and Fast Company and TechCrunch are covering the best of tech and the best of business, the story is not complete if you’re not including the voices [of] people from communities outside of Silicon Valley or outside of the status quo.”
Q: As social media and multimedia become more prevalent, how do you view the landscape for entrepreneurship and development in journalism?
A: “[There are] so many more mediums now that exist, as you mentioned, for storytelling in new ways and accessing audiences and meeting them where they are — which is typically on their smartphones. And so from the journalism standpoint, the role of a journalist is still very important in terms of getting the facts right, getting the information correct, as you know — and so I think journalists and publications as a whole really have to work hard to become the voice of authority because we have so many social media influencers now where a lot of people get their news and information from. And so if you can build a strong following and a platform with interesting content — content that really connects with people and isn’t just about gatekeeping — then you can really create some interesting feedback loops that people can trust.”
Q: The theme of “Unleash Radiance” is about giving back to your community. How do you give back through your work?
A: “I was actually speaking with someone backstage about that — and just what my career path has taken me on — and I feel like all the dots in my life have connected toward giving people access to information on how to create a pathway to get into a technology or an innovation sort of industry, and [telling them] that they have the capabilities. So I think through my work with The Plug specifically, we’ve been able to really help startups and investors and fund managers [to] find and locate interesting opportunities and partnerships, which has been awesome because it’s meant that if an investor reads our newsletter and finds and discovers a new startup, they may invest. And we’ve gotten stories like that all the time, where people have gotten an investment check because a fund manager found them through our publication.”
Q: What do you hope students take away from your TEDx talk?
A: “I think that your college years are all about discovery, and discovery of your talents and what you like. It’s about learning how to be in community with other people. It’s about learning how to apply knowledge and information. And when I look at my TEDx talk — which is all about the stories and the data and how we question those things so that we can design a better, more interesting, more curious, more dynamic future — what I want students and faculty members to walk away with is everything has to be questioned. Especially when we think about any decisions that are made that’s going to impact people. We have to remember if we [are] telling an inclusive story. Do we have a holistic lens on the history of this challenge so that as we are building or solving problems? We know that we’ve done the necessary work to find points of differentiation and diversity and as a result, it helps us to think smarter and more inclusively, and [to] maybe even design something that we would have never imagined could be so, so valuable to the world.”