ACT | The App Association recognizes the gap in representation in the tech community, and we want to change that. Our Amplify series lifts the voices of those in the tech community who are working to close those gaps in representation. We’re highlighting the problem solvers, telling the stories that don’t get told, and elevating those who are driving change in their field.
This Amplify segment highlights Cory Lancaster, chief technology officer of member company Street Entrepreneurs. She is a full stack software developer experienced in technology and internet policy analysis, as well as a technology journalist. Cory is passionate about translating policy into programming by building applications for grassroots advocacy organizations and social good technology initiatives, utilizing constructive journalism to advance the missions of organizers, non-profits, and activists, and studying the intersection of civil rights, technology, and government.
Recently, we sat down with her to learn more about her efforts and what made the difference for her in learning how to amplify her own voice.
Ok, to start us off let’s do a quick lightning round: Who are you and what do you do that relates to tech?
I’m Cory Lancaster the CTO of Street Entrepreneurs. I am a full stack developer, technology policy analyst, and technology journalist.
Can you tell me about Street Entrepreneurs and the work that you do there?
Street Entrepreneurs is an inclusive, community-driven accelerator. We ignite the power of problem-solvers using their dynamic enterprises to create positive change. We are creating access to human, social, and economic capital through pay-what-you-can educational programming and connecting start-ups and entrepreneurs to the right mentorship.
At Street Entrepreneurs, I focus on digitizing the process of trading time as capital for new skills within our entire entrepreneurial ecosystem, telling the stories of entrepreneurs and the problems they hope to solve, as well as telling the story of Street Entrepreneurs itself. Spoiler alert: it’s one for the history books.
I think that the work that Street Entrepreneurs does is amazing, and it’s not just because you guys are members. Can you talk more about that work and why it is so important?
Our work to encourage and support ingenuity and entrepreneurship is important to me because we’re focused on empowering underrepresented founders and communities that don’t always realize their economic mobility or the power of entrepreneurship.
If you’re a person who has grown up in survival mode – meaning in a low-income community where there is not opportunity or assistance and it is difficult to make ends meet, or as an immigrant, survivor of domestic violence, or a refugee – the level of ingenuity, resilience, and innovation that you possess is far greater than a person who has never learned how to make a way out of no way. Traditional academia doesn’t value or celebrate these skill sets, it doesn’t teach entrepreneurship, business fundamentals, or even general personal independence like how to pay bills, establish credit, apply for loans, buy property, etc. Our work is important, especially in communities where conflating factors like systemic oppression, poverty, post-industrial economies, etc., either bind a person to one life trajectory or professionally incapacitates them entirely. Our goal is to end poverty and the lack of economic mobility through entrepreneurship.
Like I said, AMAZING work. Let’s switch gears a bit and talk more about you. How did you get to where you are today?
I did my undergrad at Duke University where I was a biology major focusing on pre-med for two years. I hated it and was terrible at it, so I changed my major to public policy analysis with a certificate in ethics before junior year.
After I finished my degrees I was recruited to a telecommunications, information services, and marketing analytics firm here in DC to work in their external affairs department under their deputy vice president of public policy and chief privacy officer. This was one of the hardest, most informative experiences of my life. I took the position and found myself in the world of business policy and politics by gaining professional experience, cultivating a network, and developing a legitimate professional tool kit. I studied senior professionals very closely and learned a great deal about business, leadership, government, lobbying, data, and privacy.
However, as I tried to grow I was repeatedly told that my best value was in administrative work, which made me feel small. The company was paying for my graduate school tuition, which came with a one-year commitment post the final payment. I took a part-time job as a hostess so that I could stop accepting their money, and I left as soon as I fulfilled my one-year commitment.
That is extremely brave, to leave that kind of financial stability, but I get it. You were in a situation that didn’t feel right, and you did something about it. What were you studying in grad school?
I studied public policy analysis with a focus on finance and budgetary policy analysis. After a while, I decided to completely restructure my program to synthesize computer science, social justice, and technology policy.
Nice! So, then what?
I took time off to figure out who I wanted to be. I did some freelancing media work and took a constructive journalism approach by completing solution-oriented reporting. As I began to feel more comfortable completing full stack web development, I also worked to assist the software development component of this problem solving. What started as an effort to grow my writing and development portfolio turned into a full-time business venture (82 Tabs).
After all this, how did you get to Street Entrepreneurs?
I was referred by a mentor to Street Entrepreneurs to take classes on business development. I took a marketing course, met Juliana Cardona Mejia (the founder of Street Entrepreneurs), and the rest is history!
Speaking of mentors, let’s talk about them. Who are some of your biggest influences and strongest mentors?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Mom has owned her company, an accounting firm, for more than 20 years while also serving as the CFO for another company. My dad owned a manufacturing firm for 10 years and successfully exited. My grandparents own law firms. My parents and family are my greatest mentors. My dad taught me how to be a warrior, my mom taught me how to fly freely, and my brother taught me fearlessness and emotional independence.
More generally, I feel like I learned more from people who said “no” and people who didn’t support the path I’ve chosen for myself. It helped me develop an emotional resilience that allowed me to remain grounded through the daily highs and lows of managing and working with people. These people challenged me in a way that strengthened my discernment, redefined the problems I want to solve in my life, and refined what I want my contribution to the world to be.
In previous Amplify blogs, we have had people discuss how they were in the minority in their field and how that has affected (or did not affect) them. Your experience is different because you work with diverse populations daily. Can you talk about how more workplaces can be more inclusive? How they can do better?
By just being inclusive. LinkedIn, search engines, and hundreds of newsletters highlight resources, thought leaders, and industry professionals, and they are absolutely free. If you can’t find diverse talent, it’s because you don’t want to.
LinkedIn, search engines, and hundreds of newsletters highlight resources, thought leaders, and industry professionals, and they are absolutely free. If you can’t find diverse talent, it’s because you don’t want to.
Another thing – pay people money. It doesn’t matter if it’s an internship, speaking engagement, consulting gig, or an equity opportunity. Working for free to fill a token/prop role is always dehumanizing. Black people and people of color (POC) should not have to choose between visibility and their own integrity. Black people and POC should not have to sacrifice financial stability or opportunities to build wealth for a fake seat at the table.
I think that it is important that we allow Black people and people of color opportunities to fail and recover from failure. How can we do that? By providing spaces where ideas are celebrated, accountability, mentorship, and access to resources are non-negotiable, and processes and procedures allow for thorough onboarding, acclimation, and training.
And finally, be a professional always. A large part of this is checking your microaggressions, biases, stereotypes, and general assumptions before you get to your workplace. Working in spaces where you feel on guard or constantly boxed into an inauthentic version of yourself is a health threat, not a privilege. Being a person that creates tension in the workplace is not a personality trait, it’s a cancer and general threat to productivity and company ethics.
What do you want to leave readers with?
“Is my entire Black life designed to only resist and fight back? What a waste of our precious life.”
I saw this quote on social media from Dr. Kortney Ziegler, the founder of Appolition, which resonated with me a great deal given my professional endeavors. I want to end by reminding Black people that your life is not designed to solely resist, fight back, close margins, or innovate for the purpose of being the superhero that you wish you saw as a child. I’m a regular person, figuring it out, just like everybody else but I want my life to be fun. I hope that joy, happiness, community, connectedness, partnership, and spiritual fulfillment are equally part of our journeys and that we’re able to find those things in safe spaces outside of the problems we solve and the politics of doing such.