Meet Gen Z’s fierce female founders aiming to radically reshape the tech world

There’s been a lot of talk about Gen Z lately — and it’s easy to see why. Members of Gen Z are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation we have ever seen, are on track to be the most educated, and are the most technologically savvy by a wide margin.

No wonder other generations feel a tad intimidated.

Many of these young people are now gearing up to enter the workforce, and have plans to radically overhaul institutions and industries that haven’t budged for decades. Growing up online has influenced many to take on the tech industry, with Silicon Valley as the target.

Digital Trends interviewed three young women who are making monumental moves to create products for the future, ensure the most-connected generation is even more connected, and rebuild the already fraught industry from scratch — taking only what works with them.

Kelsey Davis, 23, co-founder and CEO of CLLCTVE

Kelsey Davis always knew she wanted to be a content creator. Before college acceptance letters even arrived in the mail, Davis was picking up steady gig-based work as a videographer, director, and editor, contracting with various small businesses across Atlanta on projects.

She continued to freelance during her time at Syracuse University. But it wasn’t long until she began to see a disconnect. She knew how important it was to keep her social media channels up to date, network with professionals, maintain an active portfolio, and reach out to brands for work. There wasn’t a one-stop shop where all of the pillars of freelancing could be done in a single place. So she created one, CLLCTVE, and added “entrepreneur” to her list of job titles.

Davis describes CLLCTVE as the “LinkedIn for creators” — a platform that helps young creators build a portfolio, exhibit their skills, link their social media channels, connect with others, interact with brands, and land deals. Davis and her co-founder completed the Techstars Los Angeles Accelerator program last summer and raised over $120,000.

“Now that we live in a digital age, if you want to engage with people, you need to be doing that online,” Davis said. “We want to make it easier for the average person who is not super into business or marketing to still be able to find these opportunities.”

Davis sees gig-based work as the future, not only because remote and flexible work is changing the economy, but because young creatives don’t find value in companies, but in the work they do themselves.

“Brands are looking to reach 17-year-olds, but have a bunch of 40-year-olds in the office making decisions”

“I think workers really just want autonomy,” she said. “They want to choose where they work, when they work, how they work, and why they work. Over the next 10 years, people are going to see themselves more as individuals in the context of work.”

CLLCTVE caters to the next generation, but it also makes it so much easier for brands to find the next generation of talent without having to scour through résumés and social media profiles to find the right fit.

“Gen Z is going to occupy 30% of the labor force in the next decade, so that means everything is going to change radically,” Davis said. “Young people understand internet trends, consumer trends, and market trends, they have the insight to make more strategic investments.

“Brands are looking to reach 17-year-olds, but have a bunch of 40-year-olds in the office making decisions. If you want to bridge the gap, you have to talk directly with the talent you are trying to serve.”

The tech industry, however, is insular and elitist. Silicon Valley rewards innovation, but has huge blind spots when it comes to doling out money to women and people of color. Davis knows this, and doesn’t expect the industry she’s entering to change overnight.

“I could be upset all day about what the numbers are, and I knew what the numbers were coming into this space,” Davis said, adding that Black female founders receive less than 1 percent of venture capital, a number that has tripled since 2018 but remains dismally small.

Instead, what Davis is focusing on as she moves CLLCTVE forward is the network she surrounds herself with — and she recommends that every young founder be as deliberate about who they keep in their network as they are with their work.

“What I do have is the choice to align myself with people who are really innovating the space and being super-intentional,” she said. “And I think I have done that.”

Emma Salinas, 21, co-founder of Gen Z Mafia

Growing up, Emma Salinas was aware of the lore of Silicon Valley because it was everywhere: In the movies she watched, the magazines she read, and on the newsfeeds she scrolled. As a teenager in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Twitter was her only connection to the bustling technology industry on the West Coast. And she wanted in.

“I remember there was this one tweet that was like, ‘San Francisco is just tech Twitter but in real life,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god, take me there!’” she laughed.

Salinas was obsessed with technology from an early age, a characteristic she shares with many tech CEOs. Her dad is an electrical engineer, and Salinas herself has been tinkering with software and developing apps ever since she got her first cell phone.

After she graduated high school, she snuck into computer science and physics courses at the local university, and sometimes spent 12 hours a day coding. Another trait Salinas shares with tech icons like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates is that she also doesn’t have a college degree, but has relied on her unparalleled networking and social media skills to foster connections and land jobs.

“I didn’t like having to put on this professional mask. I found that in the Bay Area, you don’t have to do all that. You don’t have to jump through hoops.”

In March 2019, Salinas moved to San Francisco with $2,000 in her bank account. That’s not much for the city with the highest cost of living, but she thought she would figure it out. During her first year in San Francisco, Salinas was struck by the laid-back nature of the tech industry. And was grateful for it.

“In North Carolina, everyone is very LinkedIn and professional, and that was something that never vibed with me,” she said. “I didn’t like having to put on this professional mask. I found that in the Bay Area, you don’t have to do all that. You don’t have to jump through hoops.”

Wanting to bring together all of her techie Twitter friends in one place during the pandemic, when in-person meet ups were impossible, Salinas created Gen Z Mafia. It’s a server on messaging platform Discord aimed at informally connecting young people eager to build new products and find collaborators and funding.

In the last eight months since launching Gen Z Mafia, Salinas has been surprised to see the progress. Hundreds of people have joined, new channels have been created, and people have been able to meet co-founders, roommates, and investors all because of the network.

“Having to be extremely professional at work doesn’t really fit in that well with our identity, and sometimes adds a lot of friction to interactions,” Salinas said of Gen Z Mafia members. “Slack and email are really dense, but with Discord, you can interact in a much more playful, casual way.”

What makes Gen Z Mafia such a unique space online is that its members acknowledge Silicon Valley’s fraught history and exclusionary nature, but also look at some of the industry’s most controversial figures for inspiration.

“When we admire the history, we’re not admiring all of it,” Salinas said. “We admire the execution ability of Elon [Musk] and Jeff Bezos’s organization, but we don’t admire the bad stuff.”

Wanting to rebuild the industry into a much more inclusive space while also picking apart the founders who built it is a difficult balancing act. The changes Salinas and her peers want to see for Silicon Valley are based in conversation, forgiveness, and expanding one’s bubble.

“I think a huge part of it is just building a place where it’s very OK for people to make mistakes and be called out,” she said. “Knowing I have the support of my peers when something is wrong, we all will recognize it, voice it, and fix it. We are all on the same side.”

Salinas hopes to bring Gen Z Mafia into the real world soon, with startup hacker houses, retreats, and conferences.

Corine Tan, 21, co-founder of Kona

As an English major at UCLA, Corine Tan never expected to find herself as the co-founder of a technology startup. The tech industry, Tan thought, relies heavily on technical skills, so naturally, she questioned her presence in it. But luckily, not for long.

“I realized nontechnical skills, especially the ability to communicate and spread your vision to your first early users, that’s gold, and it just happened to be a space that I could thrive in,” she said.

Kona is a “culture platform for remote teams” that seemingly came at the perfect time. The coronavirus pandemic changed the way we work as a society, but younger generations were already challenging the need to be in the office for the typical 40-hour work week. Before writing a single line of code for the product, Tan and her co-founders reached out to over 150 remote managers and found “that soft skills and relationship building were some of the hottest topics” among remote workers. So far, the company has raised over $1 million from investors like Amazon’s Jeff Wilke and venture capital company Kleiner Perkins and is used by companies like Nextdoor, Asana, and Medium.

“There’s so much potential for remote work to open up our activities,” Tan said. “When you can work from home, that opens up a lot of opportunities for minorities and mothers, and increases accessibility to opportunities that were previously inaccessible.”

“Authenticity is something I really appreciate about our generation. I don’t need to appear in heels to get respect from people.”

Tan grew up in Alameda, California, which is right across the bay from San Francisco. On class field trips to tech campuses, she would marvel at all the amenities available to workers. Cafeterias, cool sweatshirts, and great company cultures. However, she always felt intimidated by it. And sometimes still does.

Tan said she frequently struggles with impostor syndrome — a belief that one does not belong or isn’t worthy of their success and accomplishments. Impostor syndrome is a growing problem for many young people, but for Tan, it is only accelerated by her presence as young, queer woman of color in a historically exclusionary space.

“It’s an honor to be part of a small group of folks who were once excluded from the space,” she said. “And it’s up to us to shed those awkward, cringe, and professionalism aspects that are toxic about this space and be part of the future movement we want to see in tech.”

One way Tan believes young people are leading the way when it comes to rebuilding the industry is through authenticity.

“Authenticity is something I really appreciate about our generation,” she said. “I don’t need to appear in heels to get respect from people. The idea we are encouraging with Kona is to say when you are not OK at work. It’s amazing how that’s revolutionary.”

Tan’s biggest takeaway from the past year has been that vulnerability only makes you and your team more successful, and hustle culture, as it turns out, is unhealthy.

“A lot of hustle culture is great in that you can kind of get a lot of things done, but at the same time, you shouldn’t be bragging about how much sleep you are losing,” she said.

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