This interview is part of the City of Philadelphia’s Most Diverse Tech Hub initiative. Campus Philly is featuring the “tech stories” of Black and Brown tech founders, entrepreneurs, and young professionals who are making an impact in the region, demonstrating why the Philadelphia region IS the most diverse tech hub.
Senzwa Ntshepe is a 2x founder of DEI tech platforms, a corporate DEI strategist, and President & CEO of The Connect, an organization dedicated to retaining attracting, and cultivating Black and Brown talent in Philadelphia by connecting members to community, social and professional resources and opportunity. His past work includes Co-founding Elivade, “a LinkedIn” platform for professionals of color, and Edclusion, a transparency platform for marginalized student experiences. Senzwa also is a self defense/MMA coach who trains communities and individuals in personal protection strategies. Senzwa’s personal mission is to be a conduit of collective progress for Black and Brown populations.
Tell us about yourself! Where did you attend college, what’s your current role/title, and what’s your connection to the Philadelphia region?
My origins began in Washington Heights, NYC, but I was raised in Philly. I’ve lived in virtually every quadrant of the city and went to every type of school (charter, public, private), and eventually ended at Germantown Friends for high school. Next, it was off to D.C. for undergrad at The George Washington University, where I served as president of the D.C. student chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi). It was in this role where I first started to recognize the healing aspects of likeminded communities. ABPsi served as an external validation of my story, cultural style, and interests and provided me with rare professional opportunities through their network. I had a moment where I said, “Wow, is this what acceptance feels like? Everyone should feel like this.” Unknowingly, this was the feeling that was to undergird all of my future work.
How did you first get started in the tech sector?
It hadn’t dawned on me to find a solution to combine the two until I met a man completing his Wharton MBA program who was creating a platform that was to be a “Linkedin for professionals of color”(Elivade). It was that moment where I realized that 1) I could combine my interests in technology and creating community into a coherent career path and 2) I needed to reappraise my relationship with technology from “worker-ship” to “owner-ship.” Tech could not only liberate me from existential hardship, but through technology I could have help provide that same sense of community that I felt in college to others.
Did you always know that you wanted to start your own company one day?
I never wanted to be a founder, but I knew that I needed to address certain problems, so if that made me a founder, I guess that’s what I became.
Now, finding you calling is one thing, executing it something entirely different. Being an early stage founder and especially a first-time founder is a very unique type of struggle where you do nothing but eat, sleep, and live your brand. I’d say 85% of the time you have no idea what you’re doing, but you have a conjecture and you tell your hypothesis to everyone who will listen, to get feedback so you can iterate your corporate identity and product.
You learn everything by failing, brazenly, until things start to make sense. Also, as an early stage tech founder, you get a crash course in all things tech. You become conversational in product management, marketing, finance, etc.
Out of all the skills that you are required to develop to be an effective tech founder, the one that aligned with my calling the most was User Centered Design thinking. The methodology of garnering robust experiential insights and then creating solutions for potential pain points is something I had been doing the entire time, I just called it advocacy. Once I realized the power of doing everything from a stakeholder-centric perspective I fell in love with the methodology and have enmeshed as a part of my everyday professional practice. I create user personas and empathy maps for situations where I am trying to understand needs of a stakeholder that lay outside of my personal experience. I match them with value proposition canvases to make sure my efforts are either relieving some pain point or propelling them closer to a goal. Strategies like these enable me to form meaningful connections with stakeholders for whom I advocate.
Share more about The Connect. What is the organization’s mission, and what inspired you to create this community?
The Connect had many forms before it was bequeathed to me. As of now it serves as a company that helps young Black and Brown professionals find likeminded community, access to capital (both workforce and entrepreneurial), and develop their conviction as a means to retain, attract and cultivate local talent to Philadelphia. We are a professional community/network while also functioning as a strategy firm to assist companies and municipalities in creasing their DEI competency. My Co-Founder and VP of Strategy, Stephon Braithwaite-Martin and I make work to make this a reality.
The Connect was birthed from a need. The same need that I mentioned while in undergrad. The need to be able navigate this world as a young Black and Brown person and not feel aberrant, othered, overlooked, and disregarded. A need that validates your cultural style as legitimate while not being indicative of your intelligence, skillset, or interests. A need to feel like you belong, no, that your needs are equally prioritized in your city and corporate environment. Satiating a need like this requires very specific attention to the esoteric experiences and of young Black and Brown talent in this city and that’s what we use to inform our strategy.
The Connect was created because Black and Brown professionals are leaving Philadelphia for New York, DC, NC, LA, etc. Often, our community indicates that there is a social and professional cap in Philly and that they can find growth elsewhere.
We are changing the fabric of Philly while disseminating resources to ensure that Philadelphia can feel like home to our community.
Even before I was consciously aware of my calling, my personal mission has been to create opportunities for marginalized people. My soul always sought it out, it just took me years to listen to myself and and ignore what the world thought was my value and determine my value for myself.
How did your experience within previous roles (internships and full-time) help you on your path to creating The Connect?
In retrospect, The Connect is an amalgam of the skillsets and the passions of every role that I’ve had previously:
- In high school worked as a Youth Ambassador for the Philadelphia Youth Network. Our roles were to be advocates of their youth stakeholder experiences to improve the quality of their work environment. I learned the importance of garnering insights from experiences and using advocacy as a tool to improve the quality of your environment.
- In undergrad, my work with the Association of Black Psychologists revealed to me the existential healing aspects of community.
- My work with DiverseForce and UPPN (now BBEx) accelerated my growth exponentially and showed me the utility of having an interconnected community, the power of a robust network, how Diversity Equity and Inclusion work done well can activate marginalized voices and transform ecosystems.
- Elivade was my tech founder boot camp, which I mentioned previously gave me a roadmap of how to take an idea to MVP and taught me how to build a community of professionals from scratch.
- Edclusion required me to get hands on with the product technical knowledge.
Without these experiences. There is no way I could do what I do now. Every experience has a lesson. You just have to be willing and able to identify it and grow from it.
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical day includes for me starts with 20 minutes of meditation, and a cold shower in the morning to focus. After that I am answering emails and attending virtual meetings with either my team, members, or partners for the majority of the day. I try to allot at least an hour for personal ideation and creative time. Outside of that I am either attending an event (you can frequently catch me in a suit) or teaching and training in self defense/MMA. I teach Krav Maga and train in Boxing and Muay Thai. Lessons from combat of resilience, transfer well to tech entrepreneurship.
What’s something unexpected (good or bad) that you’ve encountered in creating, and running, your own company?
The most pleasant surprise that I’ve had from creating and running my own company is the amount of interest and support I’ve received from absolute strangers. When I first started I thought I’d have to sell everyone of the value of the thing I was trying to build and while there is a lot of pitching involved, most people grasp the concept quickly and and are on board to help. That’s the power of social enterprises—people are more willing to help manifest your dream when the impact is clear.
With 2023 right around the corner, what’s one goal you have in mind for your career and/or for The Connect?
In 2023, I want a few things for The Connect:
- For The Connect’s influence to be so infectious that people want to move to Philadelphia to experience the magic of our community and city.
- The Connect’s mission to be on the City agenda. I want the City of Philadelphia to acknowledge that it is losing Black and Brown talent and work with The Connect to create solutions to reengage us back into the fabric of the city.
- To start developing our mobile app technology to push our agenda further.
If you were to offer ONE piece of career advice for a college student or recent graduate interested in pursuing a career in tech, right here in Philly, what would it be?
There are so many things I can say about Tech that are typical adages you hear everywhere:
Use your network
Find a mentor
Skills over degrees
But if I can leave you with a call to action, it will be this:
Technology is a tool that amplifies the best and worst of humanity.
Use technology for good.
Remember, there are people whose lives will be irreversibly affected by these technical products you create. Understand their needs, their pain, that they are having a human experience, and create empathetic products, environments, and services that will remind them that a well-intentioned human created this. Weave your empathy in the soul of your products and always be an advocate for what you know is right.