Race and the Miseducation of Silicon Valley

Education technology is marginalizing under-served, minority children, Kalimah Priforce writes.

A maelstrom of debates about race, diversity, and inclusion in Silicon Valley has opened up in the wake of CNN’s latest chapter in the Black in America documentary series: the NewME Accelerator for minority-led startups. Thus far, several members of the tech investment community have blogged about the issue of what it is to be “Building While Brown” in Silicon Valley.  Tech mavens like Michael ArringtonMitch Kapor, and Brad Feld discussed the funding of minority-led startups from an investor’s viewpoint. Vivek Wadhwa (Diversity, cultural networks power innovation), Anil Dash, Violet Blue (Silicon Valley’s Race Problem) and others have also chimed in on notion that many investors, mostly wealthy white men, believe that there is zero race or sex bias in Silicon Valley.

But that’s a problem. NOT focusing on race or sex just exacerbates social inequities.

Recently, I was in San Francisco to attend the Summit for Courageous Conversation put together by Glenn Singleton and the Pacific Educational Group. This conference focused on going beyond diversity to address the system of education inequity, particularly around race. Interestingly enough, there were no panel discussions at the Summit concerning edtech (education technology) and I was probably the only edupreneur (education entrepreneur) in attendance.

Although tech wasn’t mentioned, California was brought up a lot. To understand the history of social inequity in education is to accept that Silicon Valley isn’t in Atlantis. Silicon Valley is in California, the state that brought America Reagonomics:

‘Nuff said.

Back in the 1960’s, when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were starting elementary school, California classrooms were still ranked nationally among the best.  Then, along came Proposition 13,  which cut state financing of public schools by two-thirds almost overnight. California is now ranked 48th nationally.

Proposition 209, passed in California in 1996 and amended the state constitution from considering race, sex, or ethnicity under any circumstances.

Moreover, Prop 209 didn’t just cut off state funding to programs that promoted diversity in schools and the workplace; it also eliminated support for any publicly-funded data collection to be used that would include demographic information such as race, sex, and ethnicity. (Healthcare managed to get a slight exception because of pressing health issues specific to minority communities.)

Want to know how to improve conditions for black and brown kids in school? Don’t count on any state aid. Want to help girls pursue careers in science? The state government won’t help, and you can possibly be sued by Anti-Affirmative Action proponents for violating public policy.

Palo Alto’s neighbor to the east, East Palo Alto, remains one of the nation’s biggest ghettos (the movie “Dangerous Minds” was based in East Palo Alto). Thanks to the research of Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade (one of the keynote speakers at the Summit for Courageous Conversation), I learned that in the last five years, over 1,000 murders occurred in specific areas of Oakland that don’t include the predominantly white upper-middle class “Piedmont” (go to here and check out the area of Piedmont), a township within a town—another example of poverty in the face of extreme wealth.

California is stuck in a rut, failing to create a more equitable education system. And in the process, we are failing all our kids. Silicon Valley, however, has the power to disrupt education. But to do this, Silicon Valley needs to stop clinging to the absurdity of meritocracy and start building on the idea of equity.

There are edtech products that can close equity gaps, and then there is edtech itself, which can widen those gaps. Equity-focused edupreneurs want to build technology products that (1) raise the achievement of all students while (2) narrowing the gaps between the highest and lowest performing students and (3) eliminate those predictable factors (i.e. race, sex, income, geography) from getting stuck in the lowest achievement categories (Singleton and Linton 2005).

The last Startup Weekend SFEDU was the most diverse startup weekend I had ever seen, but still, very little emphasis was placed on products that, for example, (1) achieve racial equity in the classroom, (2) close the gender gap in under-represented fields, (3) increase accessibility for differently-abled students, (4) lowering education costs for students, (5) strengthening communities for schools, (6) mentorship, and so on.

A child’s zipcode should never determine their educational destiny.

According to a recent EdSurge newsletter, Newark mayor Cory Booker, and LinkedIn founder, Reid Hoffman, spent an evening listening and questioning Imagine K12 startups on whether their startups were actually a technology-in-demand such as increasing teacher effectiveness, reducing costs, providing personalized learning, or teaching kids to set goals.  They also focused their questions on low income students, and where their betas were being trialed.  A child’s zipcode should never determine their educational destiny.

Most edtech startups aren’t looking to close equity gaps in education. A few may have started with an equity focus, but from what I’ve learned, they were encouraged by the Silicon Valley investment community to pivot away from solving big problems, and instead to build products that directly benefit private school students, higher-income bracket learners, and that maybe, just maybe, the technology will “trickle down” to the lesser privileged. Anyone else notice a theme here?

On the recently produced edtech map by the New School Venture Fund, many of these technologies-in-demand aren’t presented:


Being an equity-focused entrepreneur means believing that the world can change. Being an equity edupreneur is knowing that change starts in the classroom, not just in the home. When Silicon Valley embraces race, sex, and the experiences of others as vehicles for change, we’ll move toward creating a more equitable, anti-racist tech ecosystem, not just for this generation, but for the next wave of innovators.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be profiling several equity edupreneurs making a difference in tech and in the classroom. So will the real equity edupreneurs please stand up? It’s long overdue and our kids need you.

—Photo christian.rondeau/Flickr

About Kalimah Priforce

"Kalimah Priforce is a madman on a mission to transform children's lives as co-founder at Qeyno Labs---which works with local schools and partners to make "career day" an everyday experience for the millions of students that cannot afford private college and career guidance. He is also an educator-in-residence for the Oakland-based "Hidden Genius Project", a program that trains black male youth in entrepreneurial thinking, software development, and user experience design. He can be reached at @priforce on twitter."


  1. RIchard Aubrey says:

    When Reagan’s policies started to work, he said the proof was “they’re not calling reaganomics any longer”. And his administration never used the term “trickle down”.
    How does diversity maximize profit? Is there a black calculus which is superior to white calculus? Try talking to teachers about this.
    Prop 13 reduced skyrocketing property taxes based on skyrocketing housing prices that were putting many ordinary folks out of their homes. Once a home was on the market, the next owner paid the inflated tax rates, but he knew them going in, as part of the sales process. The swiss army knife of bogus excuses.
    And 209 isn’t designed to reduce diversity, but to reduce the inequity of passing over qualified students for grants in favor of the less qualified, based on race. Nobody’s turning down qualified minority kids.

  2. This is an on point article and the fools in the comment section have COMPLETELY missed the point.
    The current meritocracy that runs the education system is not a true meritocracy. It is a system that dishes out “merit” based on arbitrary measures that are biased towards those who already have an abundance of capital. It is in fact such a “meritocracy” that is responsible for our rapid slide into extreme inequality and mediocrity. We are only as strong as our weakest link and as our most underprivileged are further marginalized we will only slide further into the Hades of our own making. Equity is the solution. Programs based on equity are the MAIN reason that we have a middle class, the reason we can focus on innovation rather than spending all our resources on managing externalities, the reason we can afford to (at least pretend) to have a democracy.
    Without equality we wouldn’t have the freedoms we take completely for granted. For the past 30 years we’ve begun to ignore our project to achieve equity and this, in part, accounts for our current failings as a society.

  3. Wirblewind says:

    So… businesses in USA should abandon meritocracy in favour of Political Corectness ? Wow, if you do so in all meaningful sectors (those that actually generate wealth, instead of leeching of on it) then US is really finished. And that would actually be bad ’cause you know, results would be unpredictable.

    • What’s the point of generating wealth if it only benefits a few? In fact, recent events have shown that those sectors that are supposedly generating the most wealth are in fact the biggest leeches

  4. I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for 20 years. Take the Reaganomics picture, above, and replace the 8 white guys in the picture with 3 Indian guys, 3 Chinese guys, and 2 white guys, and you will have a more accurate picture of the current movers and shakers in high tech.

  5. I remember growing up in Merced, California when I went to a charter school, and I have to say it was the only time in my elementary years that I found learning meaningful. I attended there only from kindergarten through third grade then my family moved to Sacramento. Aside from switching classes in the morning at my charter school, which often occurred in several schools across California, the entire student body received free short story books and novels from a large collection, hence my love for reading derive from this. Not only that, the books were filled with colorful, yet interactive visuals as oppose to my younger siblings’ learning materials which consist of dull stapled pages of print out stories.

    Education in the classroom does play a major role in students’ learning because if the teacher doesn’t have the right teaching materials, the students’ learning capabilities are undeniably limited in the classroom. There are underprivileged students who requires accommodations and extra support that their families may not be able to provide. Furthermore, if these students are not given an opportunity to be exposed to the wide variety of education out there, they cannot advance to higher education or truly appreciate and understand the significant impact that higher education has to offer them.

    It doesn’t help if learning at home is limited as well; considering my parents were immigrants and their English were not adequate enough to provide the boost I needed to fully comprehend the learning materials at home. The achievement gap between the over-achiever and under-achiever is far from dissolving because there are some students who are less fortunate when it comes to receiving help. A teacher can only do so much. The rest is up to the students and their parents. Similarly, black and brown students, including the less represented, in Silicon Valley definitely need the boost that will definitely enhance their learning through better learning resources.

  6. Actually, in education, white people are the disadvantaged. Everybody gets the same grants and loan opportunities, but minorities have minority scholarships on top of that. Also, take ANY football or basketball team in the NCAA and tell me who is receiving the most scholarships there. My school is over 50% black, but the engineering programs are only 20% black. If they don’t want to be engineers, then how are people suppose to hire them?

    • HAHAHAHA!!!
      You can’t be serious? Do you think only football and basketball are the only sports that get scholarships and PLEASE, most football teams and basketball teams have significant number of white players. Most student athletes are white.
      And that’s BS about the minority scholarships whites are still more likely to get scholarships than minority students even when controlling for GPA: http://laist.com/2011/09/09/study_shows_white_kids_are_getting.php
      There are also scholarships for white “ethnics” such as Jews, Irish, Swedes, Italians, etc.

  7. Where did the Silicon Valley companies get all this money that they can now invest in racial equity in education? From such misguided attempts at supporting a meritocracy, without much government regulation. (I’m not a free market zealot, but Silicon Valley seems like a pretty good success story of a very competitive free market, survival of the fittest kind of place. At the same time a cautionary tale about runaway urban sprawl.)

    Also, “whites” (whatever that means) are not the only people “over-represented” in high tech companies. There are large populations of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, including people from India and the Middle East. If the IT sector is somehow too focused on white people, why are there nonwhite groups who seem to be more successful than others?

    If we looked around and discovered that the education system was actually doing a good job, think about the damage that would do to the billion-dollar education consulting and “edu-” prefixed industries. The “innovation is good” capital would have to go elsewhere.

    By the way, “Silicon Valley” is not an institution or an actual group of people, just like “Wall Street” is not an actual organization or specific group of people. Asking “Silicon Valley” to cough up money is no different than asking the Rocky Mountains to cough up money.

  8. I lived in the valley and I thought it was a meritocracy. I am brown, not white. I don’t agree with any of the assumptions or ideas in this article. I say keep the valley as is. It is a success story.

    I also agree with the commenters. Home life, in particular whether one comes from a single mother household is a bigger predictor of educational achievement than anything else. The problem with Black families is the dominance of single mother households.

    Solve that problem and you will solve the education problem.

    • Home life, in particular whether one comes from a single mother household is a bigger predictor of educational achievement than anything else”

      Perhaps, but this is why we nee Edtech products that benefit poor minorities from single mother households because they are probably not getting access to all the educational resources necessary to compete. Investing in this population will be a benefit for all as leaving this population behind will only result in bigger costs down the road.

  9. I grew up in Silicon Valley. I’ve seen every color imaginable working in tech there. It’s true that race was often correlated with success or failure. But I never saw, among my successful or unsuccessful friends, a healthy and educated and supportive home environment which didn’t generate a reasonably good student and, later, a successful adult. The home has dramatically more ability to influence a child than a school. We had Apple IIEs (long-obsolete, even in 1993) when I was learning to type. Yet somehow all my classmates from these home environments became successful adults. Those who failed typically were less fortunate in their home circumstances. This doesn’t mean it’s not noble to try to help driven students in crappy circumstances; it just means that if a student doesn’t want those circumstances overcome you are extremely unlikely to succeed.

    Trying to narrow the gap between the high-achieving and low-achieving is foolish and misguided. It becomes about “equity” and thus the goal simply becomes narrowing the gap, not turning the non-achievers into achievers. It’s easier to keep an achiever from achieving by manipulating circumstances than to turn someone’s personality around and make them start achieving. And keeping the achiever from achieving will, in the end, narrow the gap.

    Silicon Valley, in particular, is an extremely meritocratic place. That’s why so many of the Valley’s companies are great places to work: they still believe that a talented individual will contribute more than a bunch of drones hired to fill an office. I find the idea of a talented, experienced person of any color not being hired by a successful company in SV, as a consequence of his race, to be laughable.

  10. What a silly and self-serving article. There have been lots of attempts at eliminating achievement gaps, but none have been too successful. I have little confidence that making Mr. Priforce rich would be the magic pill.

    This bit was particularly egregious:

    “Back in the 1960′s, when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were starting elementary school, California classrooms were still ranked nationally among the best.  Then, along came Proposition 13,  which cut state financing of public schools by two-thirds almost overnight. California is now ranked 48th nationally.”

    Proposition 13 has nothing to do with it. California’s schools were ruined by demographic change. Back when Gates and Jobs went to school California was overwhelmingly white (although Gates did not go to school in California). Now whites are a minority. If you look at NAEP scores, you’ll notice that each race/ethnicity scores very similarly across states. What determines the success of schools is their racial composition. California’s schools are well-funded, but that does not keep them from failing, because it is good students, not money, that makes good schools.

  11. J P McMahon says:

    “…Silicon Valley needs to stop clinging to the absurdity of meritocracy and start building on the idea of equity.” I had to read this a few times to make sure that it wasn’t a mistake or written in jest. What industry in the world would buy into this? Silicon Valley is all about manufacturing new and better products, and making money. Having the best and brightest people helps them to achieve those goals. How does achieving “equity” become their responsibility? Every attempt at enforced equity in this country in the last 40 years has only proven that when you start looking at anything beyond merit in hiring, all it does is help certain INDIVIDUALS, and hurts others. I don’t see any proof that a Silicon Valley company will not hire a genius kid simply because their skin is a certain color. I find it hard to believe that there are not a whole lot of minorities in the Valley’s workforce, it’s just that most of them are of Asian descent. If a kid cannot sit down and read a challenging book, and remember, understand, and synthesize the information from that book, then they will have no place in Silicon Valley no matter what electronic doo-dad the schools stick in front of them. It looks to me like Mr. Priforce is waving the bloody shirt of racism to try to sell his products.

    • “How does achieving “equity” become their responsibility””

      As the supposed leaders in innovation it is. Innovation is maximized through diversity.

      “Every attempt at enforced equity in this country in the last 40 years has only proven that when you start looking at anything beyond merit in hiring, all it does is help certain INDIVIDUALS, and hurts others”

      This is just not true. It’s a falsehood carted out in order to discredit any new efforts to achieve equity of opportunity.

      ” If a kid cannot sit down and read a challenging book, and remember, understand, and synthesize the information from that book, then they will have no place in Silicon Valley no matter what electronic doo-dad the schools stick in front of them.”

      First, a “kid” does not belong in Silicon Valley period, unless there a supergenius. Kids who can’t read challenging books can LEARN to read challenging books. No one is born knowing how to read challenging books. Most kids who can received a significant amount of scaffolding, while those who can’t did not. Mr. Priforce’s point is that the geniuses in SV can perhaps do some good by creating products that provide that scaffolding that these kids would not normally get at home and the classroom.

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