Startup America Needs to Look More Like America

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 10.33.04 PM

Kalimah Priforce wonders: where are the startups of color?

Editor’s note: This post originally ran in 2011, and went viral at the time, unfortunately, the site where it originally ran has been taken down. Since then, several articles have pick up the premise of addressing the minority in technology ecosystems in areas like Silicon Valley. We are proud to reprint this important post by Kalimah Priforce here on The Good Men Project and feel the content is as relevant today as it was two years ago.

 

YOU 

I walked into the East Oakland school and wrote on the board, “You”.

As a new volunteer for the Citizen Schools’ program that places professionals in urban school classrooms to share their skills and insights with students from diverse backgrounds, each apprenticeship exposes students to the wonders of a particular industry, as well as giving them an opportunity to connect with individuals who can provide a narrative of how attainable and accessible a great career can be.

It is people, not professions who turn us on to what we end up loving for life.

I looked across a sea of black, brown, and yellow faces and proceeded with a provocative set of questions that even raised the eyebrows of the grown-ups in the room, namely a group of volunteers from Google.

Robotics-team-and-robot

I asked them to name some internet companies.  One by one they shouted, “Facebook,” “Google,” “MySpace,” “BEBO,” “Twitter,” and a few others.

I then went on to ask them how much they thought those companies were worth.  I started with my own guess of thousands of dollars just to rile up their interest.  Some kids are programmed to only understand the inherent worth of a thing based on its monetary value.

They shouted, “millions” and “billions” and the occasional “trillion.”   I laughed at the trillion, and told them that soon they might be worth that much but not at the moment.

Then I released the hounds…

“How many of the companies you’ve just mentioned were started by someone who looks like you?”

Silence….

The excitement on the faces of the Google folks was gone as well.

I continued, “How many of their CEOs, their company founders, those who are at the very top of the pyramid…how many of them are Black?  Mexican?  Vietnamese? Filipino?

How many of them came from the same neighborhoods you live in now?”

And lastly I asked, “Have you ever asked yourself – WHY?”

One kid, sixth grade Mexican student, raised his hand, “Because they are smarter than us?”

I smiled because this was an honest response that stems from a series of thoughts about identity and achievement that sits in the back of these kid’s heads.

My lifelong mission has and always will be to pluck these weeds from their mental gardens and help them replant their own genius seeds.

For the rest of that pitch, I was determined to motivate and inspire them into thinking that they will have to work harder, make bigger sacrifices, and be much more disciplined than others who can easily make their way to the top given their backgrounds.  More importantly, my message to them was that success is never beyond their reach, and that me and several others are concrete examples that the tech wonder is waiting for their trained minds to invent the newest and most creative ideas and that now is the time for their imaginations to be brought forth.

“Disruption” is fine as long as it’s caused by white, male, Ivy-league hipsters in skinny jeans.”

1101060220_400.jpg.scaled500

Lately, there’s been a lot of focus on the role of women leading tech startups – as there should be.  When I look through the “about us” section of emerging technology companies, it’s typically men that I see.  Women take up very little room in the formation of web startups and technology firms in general.  I’m always happy to see initiatives and communities like Women in Tech and others who are bringing this issue to light and who are inspiring a generation of women to re-analyze what their role is in the technology world and how they see themselves taking the lead.  There are now incubators programs just for women with leading roles in technology startups.  I hope this is more than just a trend, but instead a real movement in the right direction.

However, when we get to other minorities like Blacks, Latinos, Southeast Asians and others, where is the shifting of our resources and attention?  Why isn’t anyone saying anything about it?  Who’s doing something about the lack of minority-led startups in the tech startup industry

This missing link in the diversity chain starts even before we get to the startup founder.

Startups are typically evaluated based on the professional traits and accomplishments of the founders who are making the pitch to potential investors.  If they are a former Google engineer or worked on product design for Apple, then venturing out on their own makes sense.  They bring with them the work experience, contacts, and the synergy that they acquired while working for these giant companies.

So it’s a good thing when someone starting their own venture has worked with another company related to their industry or role and that company being a Fortune 500 behemoth.   That part we have sorted out…

But what happens when Apple, Google, Oracle and others in Silicon Valley don’t hire Blacks, Latinos, Southeast Asians, and others?

According to a Feb. 9th press release by the Black Economic Council, “no industry may have a worse record in California in the hiring of Blacks, Latinos, Southeast Asian Americans and women than Google, Apple and Oracle.”

This makes it difficult for minority startup founders to gain support and seed capital when the big companies never hired them in the first place.

“I see hundreds; maybe a thousand startups approach my firm every year, not once did  I ever encounter a Black or Latino man or woman.”

- anonymous venture capitalist & Silicon Valley insider

Maybe they do come across a stunning minority-led startup founder, but they are afraid of having their own Joe Biden moment by tweeting in a 140 characters or less, “I just met an impressive Black startup founder!  He was so articulate! #articulate”

3606144356_84e0875bf9.jpg.scaled500

This problem of minority-led startups gaining little support, if any, from the tech world isn’t just facilitated by Silicon Valley culture, but is also propagated by journalists and researchers who don’t seem interested in investigating the matter.  For any new report about the anti-female bias from venture capitalists that emerges, where’s the one about biases held against other minorities seeking investment by the venture capital community?

As one anonymous partner for a Silicon Valley firm told me, “I see hundreds; maybe a thousand startups approach my firm every year.  Not once did I ever encounter a Black or Latino man or woman.”  I’d like to see the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Huffington Report publish more stories about this phenomenon.

I hope that it’s the blogger community who write more about this issue by asking the right questions.  I hope human resource managers can identify how company hiring practices may not just be based on skill sets and personal achievements, but about social networks and friendship circles.  Is the reason minorities aren’t at the helm of startups is that the startup founders didn’t have any Black or Latino friends in college?  Is this really about competencies or a buddy-buddy club?

 

Startup America needs to look more like America.

After pitching at a co-founders showcase on Microsoft Campus a few months back, I vividly remember walking up to Lecole Cole, Founder & CEO of Skydera and sharing with him how proud I was and how empowering it was to see an African-American startup founder getting support and LOVE from the tech world.  Founder’s Institute took an educated chance on him and decided to give him a shot.  I recently submitted my application to Founder’s Institute because I was personally moved to see how much they have supported him, and that is a “connection” that the tech world continuously fails to recognize and nurture.

StartupAmerica_ccorg_feature_20110131.jpg.scaled500
As President Obama and the White House launched national initiatives like Startup America, incubator programs were lining up with their statistics and reports about how much they’ve launched the dreams and ideas of innovative Americans.  However, what they didn’t report, is how many of those innovative Americans emerged not out of a Harvard dorm room, but a community college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana or a makeshift garage/technology lab outside of St. Louis, Missouri.  Startup America needs to look more like America.

The social enterprise community isn’t far removed from this mindset as well.  How many startups with grand missions to help the poor are actually started by poor Americans?  It’s like Madonna going into Africa to adopt a baby and getting a lot of attention because of it.  When middle class to wealthy Americans from privileged backgrounds suddenly want to “save Africa” or “rebuild Haiti” their ideas are quickly funded because the “image” appeals to the romanticism of the “haves” helping the “have-nots.”  What about the “have-nots” helping the “have-nots?”  Has it occurred to anyone that those who have survived poverty, devastation, hunger, and institutional oppression have innovative solutions that might work more effectively?

There are critics who will cry, “Why is ‘diversity’ even important?  Isn’t it just about 0′s and 1′s that matter?”

Years ago I worked for a wines and spirits import and supplier.  There was a lot of talk about this internal push for the company to recruit people of color to fill empty spots on a marketing team for a brand that is mostly consumed by African-Americans.

 

This conversation is only just beginning…

I recall the “water-cooler” conversations about the issue and that there were employees who felt it was a form of reverse discrimination.  I listened to their arguments but also identified with the wisdom by those who made those personnel selections.  They understood that if a product was being consumed by a market with specific tastes and cultural affinities that may influence and shape their consumption of that particular product, that is was important that a similar makeup was represented in the management of that brand’s marketing strategies.

Not only is it a sign of good-faith by the company to its customer base that it was important to “hire’ minorities who bring their own insight into their multicultural strategy, but it was also a community-building initiative that fostered relationships with that customer base in ways that reflected well on their brand.  Just ask Tommy Hilfiger or Timberland how important it is to NOT ignore communities of color who are doing most of the buying of their product.

So if not for altruistic reasons, it is good business sense to diversify and hire, support, recruit, and invest in impressive people who have historically been marginalized from accessing valuable resources and opportunities that empower and enable their growth.  This in turn benefits their immediate communities.  Microlending has shown this to be true.

Yes, we have Tristan WalkerLecole Cole, and a few others sprinkled around, but if you can name startup founders from under-represented communities with just one hand – something is wrong here.  So what are you going to do about it?  Change it or ignore it?  A majority of folk in the tech world avoid discussions like these. “Disruption” is fine as long as it’s caused by white, male, Ivy-league hipsters in skinny jeans.

 

 

US

If I were to grab my smartphone and snapped a picture of you, yes, YOU, and showed you that same picture, who is the first person you look for?  YOU!

It’s natural, it’s human, and that is the experience that women and minorities are challenged with every day when they so eagerly want to be a growing part of a wonderful industry like the tech startup world, but rarely see themselves reflected in its leadership.

It’s why I have made it my personal priority to ensure that my team and advisory board at Qeyno Labs (formerly Careersters) is composed of highly-qualified women and professionals from under-represented communities.

This blog may fade into obscurity, but I don’t ever want to go down in history for having never written or done anything about this.  I owe it to those who have paved the way for me by paving the way for future leaders to pursue and accomplish their dreams, and all that their imaginations have set them out to do.

It’s Black History Month 2011, and this conversation is only just beginning…

premium-membership-button

Sponsored Content

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

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."

Comments

  1. Diversity is important when it comes to rival products but not to the CEOs behind those products

    Implying that a black or mexican man can’t start his own internet company because of his race is racist in itself.

    Nothing stops anyone getting on the internet and starting a company, there is not a race requirement when it comes to the internet since most of the time no one will know or give a damn about the skin colour of the founder of a website they use.

    The internet is a market that anyone no matter gender, age or race can benefit from, you imply otherwise

Speak Your Mind