In the latest installment of CNN’s pivotal docudrama Black in America 4- the New Promised Land: Silicon Valley, CNN correspondents follow a group of eight black and female founders from the NewMe Accelerator as they attempt to launch their fledgling companies by pitching their ideas to a series of investors throughout Silicon Valley. These savvy entrepreneurs are met by roadblocks at every turn. Perhaps one of the most chilling blows is dealt when TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington states, “I don’t know any Black founders.” Really? In fact, black and brown tech pioneers such as John Thompson (former IBM Vice President and Symantec CEO), Gerald Lawson (now deceased he was creator of the first video game cartridge for Fairchild Semiconductor and the only black member of the Homebrew Computer Club in the 80’s with fellow members Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak co-founders of Apple), and Frank Greene (now deceased he was a Silicon Valley pioneer and founder of Technology Development Corporation) have been making strides and outstanding contributions to the technology ecosphere for several decades. Blacks have also been pivotal in the Web2.0 internet explosion, with tech founders such as Omar Wasow of BlackPlanet creating one of the largest social networks to enter the social media space specifically targeting black consumers.
The sad reality is that these pioneers are often “invisible” to popular culture. While tech giants such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs become iconic and revered for their technological achievements, black and brown founders often struggle for both recognition and advancement in the booming technological ecosphere.
This lack of visibility has a very direct impact on youth from underrepresented communities. Most African American and Hispanic youth idolize the entertainment and sports figures which have dominated popular culture; allowing Jay-Z, Lebron James, Russell Simmons, etc. to become the defacto role models to which many of our young people aspire to emulate. As a result, a focus on technology and science pursuits is eschewed for a one in a million chance of becoming the next rap/sports mogul.
My dream of starting BlackGirlsCode -- an organization focused on introducing girls of color from underrepresented communities to technology and entrepreneurship -- was born out of this frustration that “blacks in tech” are often the unmitigated invisible men (and women) in the room. We are not only invisible in theory to tech pundits such as Michael Arrington and the like; our numbers are actually so miniscule within the tech industry that we are virtually non-existent as potential role models for the thousands of African American and Hispanic youth who will be the majority of the domestic workforce within the next decade.
In his pivotal Washington Post article, “We need a Black Mark Zuckerberg” Stanford educator Vivek Wadhwa states;
“We can both improve the quality of U.S. innovation and uplift disadvantaged communities by mentoring minorities. Ultimately, we are going to have to increase the numbers of blacks and Hispanics studying engineering and science. Nothing will accelerate this trend more than the success of other members of these minority groups.”
Young people of color need role models who are a reflection of themselves to prove that success in technology and other traditional STEM fields is possible and that it is cool to be a techie. Of course tech is not “cool” if none of the movers and shakers looks like you. It becomes a goal that is unreachable and a self-fulfilling prophecy is set in motion. There are no visibly successful black tech founders or CEOs, so young people don’t consider the field of technology as a viable option and decide not to pursue an education in STEM fields, as a result there are too few black technologists in the pipeline to become the future Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs.
This problem of limited representation is just as striking for women in technology as for other underrepresented minorities. In fact the number of women receiving degrees in software engineering decreased from roughly 40% of degree recipients in the mid-80’s to less than 20% of degree holders today.
Having received my degree in Electrical Engineering some years ago, I am all too familiar with the sting of being the “one and only” throughout my career. It is a solitary and lonely road that many women often chose to abandon when they find their careers progressing at a slower trajectory than that of their male peers. Being both black and female? Well, the struggle to reach a level of success can become even more daunting.
As Vivek states in his Wapo article, organizations such as the NewMe Accelerator, and I would add technical educational organizations such as BlackGirlsCode, YouthAppLabs (http://www.youthapplab.com) in Washington, DC, LearntoTeach (http://learn2teach.org) in Boston, Massachusetts, and HackChange (http://www.hackchange.com) in New York City, have the ability to both drive and improve the quality of US innovation while uplifting underrepresented communities. As society becomes increasingly more technologically driven, it is imperative that our young people have the skills required to compete and thrive in the new millennium economy. The ability to code and fully utilize all of the technological tools at their disposable is an extremely important skill set for young people to possess.
I founded BlackGirlsCode with the specific goal of creating opportunities for girls of color to envision themselves as the “masters of their technological universe”. I am in search of the next (Black) Mark Zuckerberg. Above all I am hopeful that she will forge a NEW pathway towards innovation and social impact that will change the equation for future generations of black and brown creators and leaders in technology. It is a mission that is long overdue.