Updated: Dec 30, 2020
Kristina Francis is the Black Girl Ventures Board Chair and Founder and CEO of EsteemLogic, an advisory and IT consulting firm. With a background in psychology and computer science, she climbed the corporate ladder at one of the nation’s most prestigious consulting firms before launching her own venture. In addition to her business savvy, Kristina is a champion for women and girls in technology and entrepreneurship.
Amid her hectic schedule, Kristina graciously carved out some time to chat with us about her journey. We were delighted to hear her thoughts about effective decision-making in business, how partnerships can accelerate growth, trusting the process in entrepreneurship, the importance of mentorship, and more must-read career insights.
You have degrees in psychology and information systems technology. How do you balance intuition and data to foster change and drive business results?
Analytics and intuition together are significant drivers in my decision making. It’s how I naturally operate. Right now, it’s one of my competitive advantages. As a data-driven person, I can take any statistic, metric, and/or a number and tell a story. Most people who work with me know one consistent question I ask is “What do the data/numbers tell us?”. I usually follow up with, “Does that support or hurt our narrative?” particularly with a proposal or marketing initiative.
Generally, numbers don’t lie AND numbers don’t tell the entire story. Behind data points are people. Real People. For much of my career, I’ve sold the “genius of my teams,” not just products. When I examine data and statistics, I like to drill down into the people, the teams, and their stories. These stories in context with desired business results help me better understand the true essence of what I am dealing with and the decisions that I need to make.
One consistent question I ask is “What do the data/numbers tell us?" I usually follow up with, “Does that support or hurt our narrative?”
In some cases, those that I work with - women, girls, and generally individuals not well represented in today’s job and entrepreneur market - don’t fall into the current statistics and data sets. It’s not that they don’t exist, they aren’t yet represented in the data that we see. Quite frankly, when there isn’t a lot of “historical data” available to draw conclusions, I lean towards intuition.
We’ve all heard the statistics like “less than 1% of VC going towards black women” and “5% of tech startups owned by women”. I have a portfolio of companies that are already defying those statistics. Black Girl Ventures definitely has a universe of women who will be a catalyst in changing these statistics.
You've spoken about the importance of partnerships and building community. Can you share some “co-opetition” strategies that you've seen companies implement?
As someone who played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse growing up, I’ve always believed in a team approach to victory. In my opinion, big visions don’t successfully happen without some form of intentional collaboration. Many of the businesses that I advise have big visions and will need to build capacity to meet future milestones. For those of us with big visions, partnerships, and community building can be key to crushing milestones, achieving scale, driving growth, and actually realizing the vision.
I’ve always believed in a team approach to victory.
We’ve seen large brands and companies partner to accelerate their vision and in some cases change the game for consumers. A few that come to mind- Starbucks and Spotify, Apple Pay and Mastercard, Nike and Apple, and recently Beyonce and Adidas! Partnerships can take many forms like revenue sharing, sharing of assets, co-branding, bringing new product/service to markets, and more.
If a founder or company has a big vision, then I absolutely encourage exploring selective, creative, and bold partnerships. To be clear, the partnership is not a default- it’s best used to help accelerate growth, enter a new market, or firm a credible position in the market. If there is no mutual benefit, then the partnership may not be the best option. What is the most important leadership trait?
If I only had one trait to select I’d say – Humility. In general, true leaders keep P.A.C.E:
Positive Problem-Solvers: They are radically optimistic and have the ability to discover, create, and lead others towards real solutions. They use intuition, data, and people around them to solve the most complex problems.
Accountable and Agile: They are consistently accountable for their actions and the actions of their team/companies. Accountable leaders are also ethical, fair, and have humility. They also have the ability to bounce back or optimize momentum. Agility is one of the most underrated qualities—it’s a must for anyone that I work with or invest in.
Courageous and Creative: They aren’t afraid to be the first or only, and they try different paths to success.
Empathetic: They realize that they work for those who chose to work with them AND they create environments of trust, collaboration, and respect, resulting in greater outcomes, increased loyalty, and motivation. What was your AHA moment that made you decide to take the leap and launch your own venture?
It was more my response to the question “What do you need to do to wake up the majority of mornings energized with the resources and platform to maximize your strengths?”. My leap was driven by the convergence of a few things- I was turning 40, spent 12 months winning and losing large business opportunities, was struggling to effectively balance family/work/me, and attended 3 funerals of people who died way too young. I felt like I was in a lose/lose scenario and needed to jump off the hamster wheel. I worked for a great institution, loved my clients, my team, and a lot of the work that I did. But I felt spiritually and creatively “gutted”. I craved more. I had ideas and visions.
“What do you need to do to wake up the majority of mornings energized with the resources and platform to maximize your strengths?”
I resigned from my job with the goal of continuing to advocate for women in tech and innovation, exploring my own business ideas, maximizing my strengths, and serving communities. I didn’t know immediately what that looked like and spent almost 2.5 years settling into the roles I play today. I started with building a backyard garden product which I scrapped after 6 months, then I developed an apprenticeship program which I implemented, tested, and eventually gave to another company to run with, then I dabbled in blockchain projects.
During all of this, I continued to engage and commit time to things that fueled me professionally- consulting government contracting businesses focused on emerging technology, investing in women-owned companies, and engaging organizations supporting entrepreneurs. All of these activities led me to where I am today. I also make time to mentor and share insight with women who are in the same position as I was in 2016. How has mentorship made a difference in your career? Why is mentorship so important for women, and especially Black and Brown women?
My first mentors were Vern and Alice Davis, my grandparents. My mom and dad were teenagers when I was born and my grandparents stepped in to help raise me. I spent Saturday mornings reading the newspaper with my grandfather, discussing politics, business, and gaining generational understanding. My sports coaches, pastors, teachers, neighbors also served as mentors. So naturally, when I started my career, I gravitated to people who wanted to share knowledge and insight. I’ve had so many mentors over the years.
Mentorship is so important for women, and especially black and brown women, because there are nuances in business and entrepreneurship that unfortunately have been heavily influenced by cultures and genders in which we aren’t apart. The path to hiring, corporate promotions, partnerships, and funding decisions are often determined at the intersections of these nuances and influence. Big decisions require trust, comfort, relatability, and relationship. In order to achieve this, we must be able to connect on different levels- relate, understand, articulate in ways that resonate.
Big decisions require trust, comfort, relatability, and relationship.
My mentors have spoken on my behalf and advocated for me in so many ways. They helped eliminate [some] bias about my background, assuage concerns about my limited “run time” in a position, and advocate for my raises and bonus increases. My mentors were there for me (and my family) during major life transitions- going to and transferring from colleges, getting through college, breakups, marriage to my husband, during my challenges getting pregnant, my promotions, my births, death of my grandfather, my resignation, even selecting business partners.
I couldn’t have navigated my career and life without mentors like Charlie Cahn, Damien Dwin, Caleb Pitters, Elizabeth Tarquin, Claude Louis Charles, Ron Turner, Reggie Holt, Tom Church, Roberta Gosling, Michael Andrews.
How can we encourage more girls and young women to pursue careers in technology and entrepreneurship?
I am lucky to have 4 living generations- my grandmother, my mom, me, and my daughter. In fact, my grandmother was in the delivery room when my daughter was born. As I watch their relationship, I am convinced of this—Girls don’t have to see it to become it, they need to be exposed to it and then simply need to believe they can be it and have support to become it.
Girls don’t have to see it to become it, they need to be exposed to it and then simply need to believe they can be it and have support to become it.
We encourage by increasing exposure to different types of technology and paths to entrepreneurship, amplifying voices and stories of other women technologists, attending pitch competitions with them, intentionally buying products built or developed by women, and buying our daughters emerging technologies like VR/AR devices, drones, and gaming systems.
My daughter and all of the girls/young women growing up today will have career choices that don’t exist today. We have to encourage them to learn things that teachers aren’t teaching, be comfortable being an expert, constantly learn and grow, and love the exploration of technology and entrepreneurship.
What is the best piece of advice you have received over the course of your career?
I’ve received so much helpful advice. One-piece I wish I learned earlier in life is- Don’t take yourself out of the game. This is important for women, especially women of color. So often we talk ourselves out of something -- We don’t apply for that job, we don’t take that new customer, we nominate someone else for the keynote speaker, we don’t ask for the money we want. We accept less than we deserve. Whenever you have fear or doubt, ask yourself this question- “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” then develop a plan based on your responses.
What does success mean to you?
Right now, success to me -- At the end of my life, can I answer “Yes” to God’s question – Did you use all of the gifts and love that I gave you to serve those that I asked you to serve?
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