Hank Williams is so cool. Not just because he’s a sought-after, tech guy and was one of eight tech entrepreneurs selected to appear on Soledad O’Brien’s 2011 CNN documentary, “Black in America: The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley,” but because he’s been in the tech space for 25 years, knows well the lack of diversity in the tech space and is, decidedly, here to stay and advocate.
With Kloudco, a software company developing storage, collaboration and database technology, and a few other ventures under his belt, Williams, in 2012, launched Platform. Like its name, Platform is a tech platform of sorts. “A new non-profit organization with the important mission to increase the interest and participation of underrepresented groups in the fields of technology and entrepreneurship, with a particular focus on African-Americans, Latinos and women.” The inaugural summit took place in 2013 at MIT’s gorgeous Media Lab and drew hundreds of people from the science, technology, finance, politics, education, media and design arenas. The impressive list of speakers included Quincy Jones, Tavis Smiley, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Majora Carter, Baratunde Thurston, Troy Carter, Esther Dyson, and Christopher Bevans, just to name a few. With the telling tag line, “Diversifying the Innovation Economy,” the summit was sponsored by none other than Google and Microsoft.
This year’s conference, hosted by Morehouse College and Georgia Tech, drew an equally impressive roster of speakers including Van Jones, Ben Jealous, Pamela Thomas-Graham and more. HBO GO, Kapor Center for Social Impact, Time Warner and Google for Entrepreneurs served as event sponsors.
Recently, Williams was chosen, along with nine other African-American entrepreneurs, to head up Credit Suisse’s Entrepreneurs Circle, part of the bank’s Private Banking and Wealth Management New Markets initiative. It will offer valuable resources to business owners, among them, owners of startups.
Here, TNJ.com caught up with Williams to discuss Platform_, Silicon Valley and the pipeline problem.
TNJ.com: How did Platform come to be?
H.W.: A few years ago, I was involved in Soledad O?Brien?s CNN documentary about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley and the tech eco system. I’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley, and I never saw a Black or Latino person walking down the street in Mountain View, California, which is the central area of Silicon Valley. Though I had been a part of the tech industry for a long time and spent some time in Mountain View, I live in New York, which is a very different place in the sense that you see people walking around from all different backgrounds. And even though the tech industry is not diverse here in N.Y., you don’t feel it as much, whereas you could go a day in Silicon Valley and never see another person of color.
So that was the emotional thing, combined with the subject matter of the documentary and the research that CNN had done, that triggered to me that this was a big deal and that I needed to make some contribution. That was my initial impetus to get involved and then I got invited to the TED Conference and thought it was a really interesting model for supporting and highlighting entrepreneurs of color by putting them on a stage.
TNJ.com: What were some of the highlights from this year’s Platform summit?
H.W.: It was phenomenal. The speakers were really amazing. One thing that is exciting and important to me about our event is having speakers come on and really connect emotionally with the audience and really share a part of themselves. We had Janelle Monae, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Ben Jealous who was just incredible, Mike Blake who gave one of the most powerful speeches I’ve seen in years. There was Lucinda Martinez from HBO and so many other phenomenal speakers I could name. It’s almost like choosing which child you like better!
TNJ.com: What is the biggest challenge in bringing diversity to tech?
H.W.: There are two. If you ask people in the tech industry, they would say there’s a pipeline problem. There are not enough people being educated to do the work. And that is true on the engineering side, which is to say we need more engineers of color. But that does not explain the numbers because the numbers are bad even on the marketing and sales side. There are plenty of young, people of color graduating from competitive colleges. The question is why aren’t they being hired?
One word that Google uses a lot to describe the problem is unconscious bias. It means that people aren?t purposefully singling out people and saying I?m not going to hire this person because they?re Black, or a woman, or Latino, but the net result is that they have biases that lead in directions that are not supportive of diversity. On the other side, there is an educational pipeline issue, though even there it doesn’t explain the numbers, which are incredibly small. But there is a pipeline problem and it?s important to acknowledge it out loud. And we want everyone in the tech industry to help invest in fixing that problem.
TNJ.com: Should people looking to get a job at a tech company get engineering degrees to help facilitate the process of gaining entrance into the tech industry?
H.W.: We need more engineers of color. No question about it. But do you have to be an engineer to work in Tech? Absolutely not. At least 50 percent of the people who work in Tech have no technical background in that sense.
TNJ.com: Ideally, what would you like to see happen? There are companies investing money in schools to help aspiring Tech students gain entry to the Tech world, but what is the short-term goal? Is it just to see more people of color in Silicon Valley and in higher positions at Tech companies?
H.W.: Two things: one is for the larger companies to agree to be intentional about their practices to increase diversity as opposed to just saying, “Yeah, that would be a nice thing” instead of actually figuring out strategies, goals and timetables. And by the way, this is for their benefit. They will communicate more effectively with their target market audience because they have representatives within their organization that are from these diverse communities. That is critically important for product creation and marketing and strategy and all of that. It’s not just altruism. It’s actually a valuable part of building a successful business in a world that is about to become majority-minority.
So, the first thing is just being intentional about your diversity practices. The second thing is investing in solutions: investing back into the community around educational initiatives, and I’m talking about really significant amounts of money. These are companies that are making billions of dollars a year. So when you write a $100,000 check, that doesn’t move the needle. Collectively, we have to have the whole industry writing hundreds of millions of dollars of checks a year to contribute to a problem that they are at the center of.
TNJ.com: Tell me about the Credit Suisse Entrepreneurs Circle initiative and its selection process.
H.W.: It’s a program that is being offered by Credit Suisse to support African American entrepreneurs and they?re offering capital and access to their formidable network of support. The selection process was very network-based. The program wasn’t made public, so there was no way to apply for it. They wanted to have a group in place before they made the announcement.
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