Alumna Kathryn Finney Celebrated at 2023 Heinz Awards
A recipient of the prestigious 28th Heinz Awards, Kathryn Finney, MPH ’00, was recognized in October by the Heinz Family Foundation for her contributions to the economy, specifically “for disrupting the status quo in the tech field and boldly breaking down barriers that have long hindered Black and Brown women from entering the startup ecosystem.”
Finney is the founding partner of Genius Guild, a Chicago-based venture firm that invests in high-growth startups led by diverse founders. The Genius Guild builds market-driven solutions using as a framework the social determinants of health – the underlying factors that contribute to health inequalities such as poverty, unequal access to health care, a lack of education, and racism.
The Heinz Awards recognize outstanding contributions to the arts, economy, and environment. Finney, who received the Heinz Award for the Economy, describes herself as “a builder, innovator, and futurist.” Her time at Yale School of Public Health gave her the courage to think big, she said.
“To be a woman of color and know that I can think that way, that there’s support for me to think that way, a lot of that comes from my time at Yale,” said Finney, who was trained as an epidemiologist at YSPH.
Finney’s pioneering research, ProjectDiane, was the first study on startups led by Black women entrepreneurs and identified the need for more equal access to funding. In 2012 she created digitalundivided (DID), a social enterprise that develops programs to support Black and Latina entrepreneurs.
In 2022, she published the book, “Build the Damn Thing: How to Start a Successful Business if You’re Not a Rich White Guy,” making The Wall Street Journal bestsellers list in the first week of its release. A guide for entrepreneurs, Finney shares the story of her journey and career as an entrepreneur and a champion of inclusion. She also offers encouragement to Black founders and women entrepreneurs on her podcast, “Build the Damn Thing.”
In the podcast episode, “Leaning into your purpose,” Finney describes how her family’s history shaped her personal history, or as she puts it, “how she came to be.”
Finney’s great-grandparents, George and Florence Woods, owned a grocery store and restaurant in the predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma when the community was destroyed by a white mob in 1921. Having lost everything, they moved to the border of Oklahoma and Kansas where they raised six children, sending each to college, including Finney’s grandmother who became a teacher.
“They had every reason to give up…after their livelihood was stolen from them,” Finney said. In response, she has devoted her career to ensuring racial justice and equity within the field of business development and entrepreneurship.
“I come from this stock, this genetic stock of people who were builders, who were visionaries, who commanded respect even in the face of being disrespected, even when people would take things away from them,” Finney said.
“Every day at Genius Guild, we take one of the most flexible forms of capital that was created for a non-diverse group of people living in a specific area of the world and we use it to find the keys to unlock the door so the great-grandchildren of those of Greenwood and other communities can be in the room and can have a chance to win.”