At a recent screening of the fourth installment of CNN’s Black in America series, The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley, host Soledad O’Brien led a panel discussion about the absence of Black startups in Silicon Valley.
The show, which aired on Sunday, follows a group of eight aspiring tech entrepreneurs who have come to the Valley in the hopes of getting their big break. They live together for nine weeks in preparation of presenting their startup companies to a group of industry veterans and potential investors. According to a recent statistic that only 1 percent of tech entrepreneurs who got venture capital in 2010 were Black, the odds are clearly stacked against them. Many wonder if institutional bias is at large.
O’Brien opened the discussion with this question: “The country is in a recession, except for Silicon Valley. Where are all the Blacks?” It’s a fair question, but one that doesn’t have an easy answer, partly because investors and employers in the Valley are not exactly forthcoming with information on diversity practices in the workplace.
CNNMoney recently filed a Freedom of Information request seeking Equal Employment Opportunity statistics from some of the industry’s top companies. The documents would serve as a profile of employees, broken down by race and gender. The request was denied, though limited information on certain companies has been found. The revelations aren’t pretty. At Fortune-500 company Dell, for example, more than 80 percent of its workforce is white and Asian and of its 137 top executives, only 1 is Black. And Microsoft touts equal opportunity, but the company refused to release demographic data. The same holds true for several other companies including Google, Groupon, Apple, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook.
In the show, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington was interviewed and admitted that he didn’t know “a single Black tech entrepreneur” and when investor Ron Conway was asked about hiring minorities, he responded by saying, “We don’t know how to recruit those people”. An Indian Silicon Valley techie who is seen visiting the housemates advised them to do what he did: get a white male student from Stanford to, essentially, be the face of the company. This way, he insists, there would be a greater chance of getting funding and, thus, a greater chance of success.
The entrepreneurs in the house pondered why African-American digital entrepreneurs are virtually non-existent. “Blacks tend to be consumers and users of technology, but not creators,” said Angela Benton in a scene from the show. Benton is one of the eight tech entrepreneurs featured and she is the creator of startup NewMe Accelerator.
Navarrow Wright, chief technology officer at Interactive One and one of the judges seen in the show, is thinking positively. “My big hope is that there is someone watching who is teetering on the fence of whether or not to start an Internet company. And if they see enough like-minded faces, they’ll see that this is a reality. Our biggest challenge is that we have a perception problem among African-Americans. You have highly successful African-Americans who are doing well in their jobs who think it’s not an issue because they’ve succeeded. And then you have a large block of African-Americans who aren’t successful and don’t see that as a realistic opportunity for themselves so they say ‘It’s easier for me to become a rapper or an athlete’. That’s what they see everyday. I’m hoping that this [documentary] will let people know that there’s a whole other world out there that they can take advantage of and make it realistic,” he says.
Wright, who along with Russell Simmons founded Global Grind, continues, “I used to consider myself an anomaly. There are so few African-Americans in technology that there are not enough examples to pull from. I told the group ‘You are anomalies, too, and our goal is to no longer be anomalies’ ”.
But, still, taking on Silicon Valley is an uphill battle for those competing. Wright says navigation is key. “The differentiator in Silicon Valley is that it’s a difficult world to get into, but once you get in and understand the dynamic, you can navigate that environment. Within the environment, it’s very open and very sharing. What I’ve tried to educate people on is to create a rock-solid product and make it so that it’s indisputable. When you leave open a layer of subjectivity in what you’re doing, it gives people a reason to be able to shut you down. But when you create something and the data is there and it’s clearly obvious that it will benefit them whether they want it to or not, they have to do business with you,” he says.
On why African-Americans tend to be consumers of technology more than creators as Benton pointed out, Wright says it’s hard training because we don’t have a lot of examples we can show people and we don’t think that way naturally. He says it’s a fundamental shift that has to happen and it’s not going to happen overnight. Lastly, he says, we have to come up with a mechanism to educate African-Americans on the right way to enter the field.
During Q&A after the screening, some asked about Black venture programs. Others wondered if celebrities, athletes and entertainers would be willing to fund digital initiatives. One of the panelists suggested that if Blacks don’t get into the digital arena now, there is a risk of them becoming a permanent underclass. If, in fact, the future of business is to become one big digital landscape, as experts predict, then the fear here is that Blacks will get left behind. Towards the end of the discussion, someone challenged any one in the room to name a few successful Black tech entrepreneurs. Like Arrington, no one could.