As I write this, Domonique Fines is concluding a month’s worth of vacation time. She’s earned it. Fines is the Director of Events at Y Combinator, which means she coordinates gatherings all around the world for one of the top startup accelerators behind some well-known tech companies. Not too bad for a woman who graduated from Oakland High School.
About a month ago, I talked to Fines in a fully furnished futuristic-looking trailer parked just outside of Y Combinator's Demo Day, where people presented startup ideas of all sorts to try and secure seed funding.
The trailer, which Fines had ordered as a place for women to breastfeed, was vacant at the time; it served as the perfect place to talk with her and her mentee, Maada Thomas. “I don't think he had any clue the level of events that I do,” Fines said, looking at Thomas and discussing the first time they met, during a recruitment tour Fines headed near her alma mater of Clark Atlanta University.
“I had no clue who she was,” said Thomas. “Bro, you're really not understanding. My mind was just blown. Like, you know that moment where an angel comes and swoops down on you, and is like, ‘Yep, you're the chosen one. Let's go!'"
I laughed and asked Thomas, “Did you expect your angel to look like Dom?” Thomas' eyes bulged, his smile widened and his voice got loud. “What? It's lit! It's lit. Are you serious?”
Fines, an African American woman in her 30s, is a lover of fly shoes, sports and music. A Taurus, she's a self-described balanced thinker—meaning she uses both her left brain and right brain equally. Add to that the fact she’s an Oakland public school grad and an HBCU alum, and she isn’t your typical "techie."
Beyond race, gender and education, she’s evidently really good at her job, based on the immediate fruits of her labor: a major event in San Francisco, where amongst many other notables, Joe Montana was casually walking around. But the kicker came when we stepped out of the trailer, and I saw Fines interact with folks; she was quarterbacking the whole show.
In the collage of people sporting crushed Khakis, AirPods and Patagonia vests, Fines moved without a problem among the 1,500–2,000 people on hand at Demo Day, an annual event that she's done six times over. Fines never planned on becoming a "tech worker"; she initially went to school to be a lawyer, but dropped out one week before starting law school at Emory University.
She returned to the Bay Area to manage the family business, the Me Lounge in Hayward. “Then I used that experience to apply for event jobs,” said Fines. “But I got denied, I counted: 486 times.”
Through those numerous applications, her name began to circulate. She told me how she finally got a job offer, but for a mediocre role, so she turned it down.
Weeks later, when she got a call from Y Combinator, she didn’t think it was real. "Who? What? Huh? How'd you get my number?" Fines recalled asking herself, during the call. She put two and two together: Y Combinator had been referred to her by the company that she turned down.
"So yeah, that's how it happened," said Fines. "I would've never known. They don't even post roles like this. You can't apply for this.”
I asked about her mentors. “Did you have that angel who looked like you?” I wondered.
“No. I just knew that I wanted to do this,” Fines replied.
Even if you have a flip phone and still communicate via fax, you've probably heard about the gender and racial disparities in the tech industry. Reports show that only 20% of the workforce is comprised of women, and when they are hired, they're offered less money. The disparities grow in leadership positions, especially within venture capital firms. For black women, the numbers only get worse: according to a 2018 study by the Kapor Center, "When it comes to tech leadership positions... black women make up less than 0.5 percent."
Y Combinator is continually striving to do something about that disparity. Of their 2019 cadre of applicants for funding, 13% of the companies' founders are individual women, and 6% of the founders are individual African Americans (individual as opposed to one member of a team identifying as either female or black). It's a small shift, but it gives context to the importance of Fines' position.
There’s some who might argue Fines isn’t a coder or engineer, so she’s not really "in tech." But Fines’ job, orchestrating events, provides a platform for purposeful interactions that lead to the production of the next big idea; she's a gatekeeper to the tech world. With that position, unfortunately, comes the institutional racism and sexism that's present in the rest of the world, but only more concentrated.
When I asked how she deals with the double-whammy of being a woman and African American, I saw boardroom Domonique Fines come out. “Good question,” Fines said before locking in. “I don't deal with it. I chase it." Fines continued, “It's not something I have to do. I think there's a lot of things I had to deal with before I got here. But now I'm in the role that I want to be in, I don't have to deal with anything.”
This mindset isn’t anything new: Fines tells me that, as an elementary school student at St. Jarlath, she once got in trouble for being too assertive. Now, far removed from that prepubescent experience, she's in a position to call shots.
Fines told me that Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel recently asked her about her next career step. "I told Michael, 'Yeah I want to work with Beyoncé,'" she said.
Fines says Seibel replied, "How do you know Beyoncé shouldn't be working for you?"
Fines represents a story that needs to be told, about overcoming an archaic system that wasn't set up for her to win. A public school student who found her way into the tech world after over 400 attempts. An African American woman who created her own lane in an industry where it's rare to see people like her behind the wheel, organizing tech events around the world, putting on for younger HBCU students and taking month-long vacations in celebration.
As Jared Friedman, a partner at Y Combinator, told me outside the trailer at Demo Day: “If Dom was a religion, I would convert.”
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.