In a matter of hours, a huge debate broke out on Twitter after CNN released a soundbite from an interview that occurred between Mike Arrington, Founder of TechCrunch and interviewer, Soledad O’Brian, anchor and special correspondent at CNN.
Update: In response to Arrington’s new post today – The goal of my post here is to raise awareness of the issue, provide a platform for stories from Black tech entrepreneurs (who really do exist) and to inspire people by educating them about their options to get involved in movements to change the status quo. Arrington indicates that I didn’t know that Crunchfund was an investor in Bitcasa; yes I did. It’s a logical fallacy to expect people to believe because you “invest” in Black startups, you are in any way directly supportive of changing the status quo. That’s not how it works no matter how many Black musical artists you associate yourself with or how much rap music you listen to. Arrington makes a great point that we’re still waiting to see the interview transcript from CNN. But Arrington, let’s be real, this post was sparked by your words but fueld by your lack of awareness, denial of the issue and lack of action which contradicts your statements of concern if this were truly an issue you care(d) about. Thank you for not linking my name to a picture of a donkey in a hole like you did to Soledad O’Brian.
I will be seeing the screening “The Changing Face of Silicon Valley: CNN’s Black in America” tonight 11/3 in San Francisco.
I moved out to San Francisco last year. I was working with a startup I was passionate about and I wanted to be a part of their success. to continue working with a startup I was passionate about. To me, the world of Startups and Silicon Valley were White guys, through and through. I’m Black, Jewish, female and young.
We all know the big success stories by name; Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs and Steve Woziniak of Apple, Tom Anderson of MySpace, the Google guys and yes, of course, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. It never crossed my mind that there were Black people in the valley who were running things…until I moved here. Then an entire new world became apparent (and quite quickly).
I’ve attended TechCrunch Disrupt twice; 4 times if you count the two years I watched the live stream from Minnesota. If I were to select a single word to represent my feelings about this issue, betrayal would be the word I’d select.
So what happened?
The second paragraph in the article made me catch my breath:
Blogger-turned-investor Michael Arrington ignited a controversy with his comments about the visibility of minority-led companies. In the documentary, which airs November 13, Arrington talked about his difficulties finding African-American entrepreneurs to launch their ventures at his TechCrunch Disrupt conference — and suggested he would accept almost any black entrepreneur, regardless of merit.
and like many, I tried to sort through the fog of anger and disbelief and read on as he then likened the content of a Black entrepreneur he had on stage to that of a clown show:
“There’s a guy, actually, his last company just launched at our event, and he’s African-American. When he asked to launch — actually, I think it was the other way around. I think I begged him.”
but did Arrington stop there? Noooooo
“His startup’s really cool. But he could’ve launched a clown show on stage, and I would’ve put him up there, absolutely,” Arrington said. “I think it’s the first time we’ve had an African-American [be] the sole founder.”
And by the way Arrington said it, you would think he didn’t really know this “African-American” very well. What he’s not saying is this person he knew quite well; in fact for over 10 years. More on that later…
If you think about it, TechCrunch Disrupt was started as a way to give higher visiblity to startups that may otherwise not get a chance. Mmm, that sounds like a diversity effort if I ever heard of one. The conference was in response to the Demo conference which required startups to put up $15k to launch there.
Yeah, but don’t worry Arrington, I’m not waiting for dense guys like you to get the ball rolling. I’m making things happen by organizing and making my presence and intent known. We (Black tech entrepreneurs) are strategizing on how to promote, collaborate and be effective in marketing our companies and organizations. We’re creating opportunities and showing up at conferences. We’re networking and cross pollinating.
How does it work that Arrington’s memory so bad?
If we look back to September when TechCrunch Disrupt SF happened and the Tony Gauda, CEO of Bitcasa, pitched his company. I’m pretty sure he’s Black. Looking at Tony’s experience from his LinkedIn profile, I would say he’s certainly a technology entrepreneur. Bitcasa made it into the finalist round and got a good writeup on TechCrunch- With Bitcasa, The Entire Cloud Is Your Hard Drive For Only $10 Per Month | TechCrunch (Thanks to commenter Craig for encouraging me to mention Bitcasa).
The interview with Arrington happened this summer. TechCrunch Disrupt SF happened in September.
How will future Black technology entrepreneurs who pitch at conferences associated with Arrington feel?
Will Arrington continue to parade Black male musical artists on stage like Chamillionaire, MC Hammer and Will.i.am to ease his White guilt yet continue to not take any action?
The Great Black Tech Migration Has Begun
A client of mine out in New York recently introduced me to a book by Isabel Wilkerson called, “The Warmth of Other Suns” which documents the migration of Blacks from the South to the North starting in the 1930’s and lasting until the 1970’s as they sought better employment opportunities and a better environment for their families to grow up in. This story of human migration instantly reminded me of what I’d been seeing since moving to San Francisco; Black entrepreneurs interested in launching tech startups are moving from all over the country to San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
Chris Bennett, co-founder of Centrally, moved from Miami last year with the dream and desire to own his own company. He’s made great strides in getting the word out about Centrally and the product has gone through numerous iterations. Everytime I see it, I’m impressed all over again! Chris is one of the co-founders of Black Founders.
Hadiyah Mujhid is an engineer and software developer. She has a degree in computer science and an MBA. After working at Lockheed Martin (one of the largest defense contractors on the planet – security, aerospace and advanced government technology) for 10 years as a software engineer, Hadiyah decided it was time to launch a startup and co-founded Picture.ly. Hadiyah is also one of the co-founders of Black Founders. She’s originally from Philadelphia and you can read about her first year of living in the startup world here One Year in San Francisco as an Engineer Turned Startup Founder.
Kimberly Dillon founded House of Mikko and moved here last year from Atlanta. She has her MBA from the University of Michigan. Before launching her startup, she was Associate Marketing Manager at Kingsford Charcoal, a division of Clorox. She’s an active member in the startup community as well as Black Founders. While she is Black and female, she’s not keen on getting any sort of special treatment and explains why in a recent blog post What I really think about being a black female founder- Edit How I came to be a founder « Prettylittleceo’s Blog
Terence Craig, CEO and CTO of Pattern Builders, can be considered old school because he moved to Silicon Valley from Texas (and North Carolina) 23 years ago to launch his dream. Congrats to Terence for his new book on big data being published with O’Reilly! Terence decided to post his thoughts about this issue of diversity in the valley and I thank him sincerely for doing so What did he just say?! – Pattern Builders Blog
And yes, these entrepreneurs are creating organizations like Black Founders to bring together like-minded technology entrepreneurs and I’ve been loving these events as a way to network, collaborate and connect! I had the opportunity (Read created the opportunity) to interview Chamillionaire at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year on the subject of diversity at technology conferences and introduce him to Chris and Nnena who are two of the four co-founders:
Let’s talk about how hard this is to even talk about folks. You seen an issue but when you bring it up, you may get a response of dismissal. I liked how in Zennie62’s video he refers to the story of the Invisible man.
When Chamillionaire said on stage to Arrington in 2010 he didn’t see diversity in the TechCrunch Disrupt crowd, I heard him. I understood him. I felt his pain. Now my next step was how to take action. Let’s think about it, if you’re a woman and you want to talk to a musical artist, the slant is that you’re a groupie, right?
In a sense, it’s no different than what I saw last year at Gnomedex when Robert Scoble was being hounded by fanboys. I ended up not approaching Scoble for the interview I had wanted to do and one he had agreed to do.
Well, this time, I would have to process this discomfort and move past it. I decided on my strategy and approached Chamilliionaire at the conference. I acknowledged what he had said on stage was important to me and that it made a memorable impression to hear him speak up on the issue. He thanked me, we chatted a bit and exchanged business cards. I followed up by writing an email (a really long one) about the lack of diversity I was seeing at tech conferences and that I wanted to encourage more Brown people to attend, speak and participate.
That was last fall I didn’t know how to make that diversity happen but within a few months, my desire to change the status quo manifested a solution when I met Chris, Hadiyah, Monique and Nnena – the co-founders of Black Founders. Since then, I’ve taken an active membership role by attending , promoting, making introductions, helping to host and recording/streaming events. I’ve seen growth and interest increase as well as feeling a sense of satisfaction about my involvement. I don’t nearly have a big of a voice as Arrington yet I’ve certainly made a difference by aligning with a group of passionate people who want to provide opportunities for people just like them: Black, technology focused entrepreneurs.
That’s right. I’m not waiting around for TechCrunch or Arrington to do this.
Is it really so sensational that a statement about diversity from a White male blogger, entrepreneur, investor makes the front page of CNN.com?
Because things have gone so well this year in terms of being an advocate for the increasingly visible community of Black and female technology entrepreneurs, I decided it was time for me to speak about race and technology. I submitted my first ever panel on race to SXSW this year and it was selected! Now, I’ve spoken at SXSW twice before but it had to do with Sci-fi and technology.
I’m proud to share my panel was selected and announced last week in the first round of picks!
This panel seeks to change the conversation from “What can technology conferences do about diversity?” to “What can attendees do about diversity at technology conferences?”
The panel is composed of speakers who have each presented at multiple technology conferences on topics that did not focus on race or diversity but instead spoke on topics of sci-fi, electronic ownership of email and digital wills, the influence of mobile development via comic books, social media for youth and business automation lessons from Amazon. While the diversity of some major tech conferences has steadily improved over the years, geek culture – which remains overwhelmingly white and male – is still the norm.
This can be daunting for people who, despite being experts in technology and new media, don’t see themselves reflected in the marketing materials or content. For example, there are almost no people of color on sxsw.com home page. The panelists will share how individuals can contribute to making technology conferences more inclusive.
This panel will look at some of the cultural and economic factors that shape inclusion and exclusion and generate an action list for attendees.
- How can attendees get over the feeling of exclusion at technology conferences?
- How do I deal with feeling “invisible” in the crowds of white men that dominate technology conferences?
- What is the best approach to get panel submissions accepted that don’t focus on race and diversity issues?
- What problems are underrepresented technology practitioners trying to solve when they create their own events?
- How can underrepresented groups support each other to encourage attendance, speaker submissions and participation in technology conferences?
SXSW is March 9th – 18th, 2012 and I’d love to see you there and attend the panel session so register today! http://sxsw.com/attend
I was shocked and angry when I read the article.
- Why would CNN do this?
- What the hell was Mike talking about?
- Now he didn’t know who Clarence Wooten was?
- And Clarence had experience with clown shows?
- Did Arrington not remember sitting on stage with Chamillionaire at TechCrunch SF 2010 and hearing his guest raise the issue of a lack of diversity at Arrington’s conference?
Update: I found Zennie’s video to be a perfect explanation of my feelings:
Arrington posted on his Uncrunched blog explaining he didn’t know the topic was about race. Well, according to Wayne Sutton’s account below, he told Mike Arrington the same day that CNN was going to ask him about the NewMe Accelerator (which is focused on helping Black tech startups become successful in Silicon Valley). Arrington then acknowledged Wooten as someone he did know. I disagree that the solution to the lack of Black presence has anything to do with computer science degrees.
Can Arrington be any more cliche than this video clip from Office Space where Michael Bolton (played by David Herman) is seen rapping in his car during rush hour but turns down the music and locks the door when a Black man passes by?
You can read Arrington’s post here Oh Shit, I’m A Racist « Uncrunched
The comment about Will.I.am is strange on several levels and feels like an escape route for Arrington’s White guilt.
I was interviewed by Violet Blue for her ZDnet article about this issue and shared this quote:
The guy he had on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt NYC, he’s known for several years…and he basically called him a clown. Clarence Wooten sold his company, ImageCafe, for $23 million to Network Solutions in 1999, that’s over 10 years before Arrington sold TechCrunch to AOL for the same amount.
I’ve now likened it to Southern White male slave owner saying he has no idea why there are mixed babies cropping up on this plantation even though he damn well knows he’s been creeping down to the sheds at night.
In a video I posted to YouTube earlier today, I said Arrington’s statements explained why he had MC Hammer dancing instead of speaking at the conference last year.
There’s a great quote here by WDBZ Buzzincy on how Arrington could have responded but took the Marion Barry crack smoking defense instead:
After she humiliated him in public, Arrington struck back at O’Brien in a way that reminds me of the infamous “&*$@ you set me up!” statement made by Marion Barry when he was busted smoking crack in a hotel room many years ago. Rather than admitting that he made a mistake and could use this as an opportunity for reflection, Arrington responded with the arrogance of an entitled white male by arguing that O’Brien deliberately misled him during the interview and that he did nothing wrong.
One thing that had me pretty excited about this whole issue is that after Arrington posted, Soledad O’Brian tweeted that CNN would post the entire transcripts on Monday, October 31st! This would then support or destroy Arrington’s story. While I have not seen the transcript, O’Brien did blog about the interview:
“Arrington wrote a blog post — titled “Oh sh*t, I’m a racist” — in which he accuses me of bullying him in our 30 minute interview.
But the reality is very different. Our interview was pleasant, not the light-in-the-eyes third degree Arrington is now recounting in his blog. We were at an AOL office with the publicists who negotiated the interview.
Ron Conway, a major investor in startups like Foursquare and Twitter, listened in on the interview. Afterward, Arrington introduced us and encouraged me to interview Conway, which I did. Parts of that interview are featured in the documentary as well. Then Arrington invited me to a party.
In his blog Arrington says CNN “went to great lengths to hide the topic of the interview.” He posts an early e-mail from one of my producers asking him for a general interview about the tech industry.
He omits the second e-mail we sent four days before the interview that spells out that the documentary is about a “group of entrepreneurs we are following who are participating in the NewMe accelerator. The first accelerator of its kind set up specifically for entrepreneurs of color. Their inspiring stories will be the focus of this CNN Black in America documentary.”
I didn’t ambush Arrington and I don’t think he’s a racist. He’s a realist.
and shared her view on why the documentary and this issue around Arrington’s views are important:
What has everyone upset is that what he is saying is true — there are not many blacks entrepreneurs succeeding in Silicon Valley.
Fewer than 1% of funded tech startups are run by African-Americans.
The NewMe accelerator is partially sponsored by Mitch Kapor, a white entrepreneur who created Lotus 1-2-3. He believes that Silicon Valley is not a meritocracy. His views are included in our documentary, as are the views of Duke professor Vivek Wadhwa, a mentor to the black tech entrepreneurs in the NewMe accelerator, who encourages them to find a white man to front their companies.
Arrington later blogs that he didn’t have a “perfect sound bite” ready when he couldn’t name a black entrepreneur. He thinks the question was a set-up.
No, it was an honest question to which he gave an honest answer.
I think the reason all this matters so much to people is because the tech boom is integral to our economic growth. Silicon Valley is still minting millionaires while the rest of the country struggles. Blacks (and Latinos, and women) want in, and right now they seem to be on the outs.
The NewMe entrepreneurs are trying to change the face of Silicon Valley.
Michael Arrington says he is too. On his blog he mentions that he has supported will.i.am, who is proposing an “ambitious new idea to help get inner city youth (mostly minorities) to begin to see superstar entrepreneurs as the new role models.”
Others from around the web have contributed their thoughts, suggestions and reactions as well to the subject and are speaking from expereince in many cases, from all sides: entrepreneur, investor, startup, technology enthusiast, business owner, student, Black, White, men, women and everything in between:
Black Tech Entrepreneur Pitching at TechCrunch Disrupt
Let’s revisit the “clown show” comment.
Here is the actual presentation of Clarence Wooten’s app, Arrived, at the 2011 Tech Crunch Disrupt NY event:
There was a small write up done for Wooten’s app on the TechCrunch Disrupt website.
So what’s wrong with this picture?
- Arrington has known Clarence for 10+ years so his claim of “I don’t know any” doesn’t fly
- This product is Wooten’s 3rd startup. The first two did well.
- TechCrunch Disrupt is a technology conference so clowns (or entertainment) aren’t the main focus
- Clarence presented a completely interesting and viable mobile app called Arrived
- Modern media have portrayed the main role of Blacks in media as entertainers and performers
Who is Clarence Wooten?
I met Clarence Wooten this March at a Black tech brunch organized by Kimberly Dillion. Clarence seemed like a well put together guy, confident and focused. Since I was new to the world of startups and most of my new friends I had been meeting were also new, I made a blanket assumption we all were new. Thus, when I met Wooten, I thought the same of him. Wooten was already working on Arrived and gave us a glimpse of the functionality. I was immediately impressed by it because it looked polished and solved a problem I knew I had; how to tell people I would be arriving in a new city but do so on their terms whether that was email, Twitter, Facebook or SMS. Of course my only gripe was when it would be available on the Android platform.
After talking with Wooten, I realized he had been “in the game” a lot longer than us newbies. Wooten was gracious about my misunderstanding. As time went on, I encountered more of these Black tech entrepreneurs who had been doing big things in the valley for years like Terence Craig of Pattern Builders I mentioned above. So while I can slightly understand where Arrington was coming from, I look at my own experience and in San Francisco and have found it nearly impossible to avoid having Black tech entrepreneurs on the radar.
I realized that some people liked to operate in the background like I did while others craved the spotlight.
How Arrington Met Wooten
Let’s revisit how Arrington and Wooten know each other. This is an excerpt from a case study written by Kathryn F. Spinelli for Professor Stephen Spinelli Jr. for students at Babson College. This case study examines Wooten’s strategy and success in creating, launching and selling his first technology startup:>
Once Wooten had thoroughly thought through the concept and model of ImageCafé, the next critical step was to secure enough capital for its launch. Wooten had recently read The Burn Rate, which mentioned the law firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati (WSGR), one of the most powerful law firms in Silicon Valley.
Wooten believed that if he could become a client of WSGR, it would help give him the credibility needed to raise capital. WSGR practiced in the areas of Antitrust, Corporate & Securities, Employee Benefits, Employment Law, Fund Services, Intellectual Property, Litigation, Real estate/Environmental, Tax, and Wealth Management, and was known for its technology practice.
On the firm’s website, Wooten began reading the alphabetical the profiles of it’s attorneys. Wooten did not have to get past the “A’s” before he picked out four young associates close in age to himself that he hoped might be able to relate to him and his goals. He sent emails to these associates saying that he had founded an east coast based e-commerce Internet startup, and was not only looking for Silicon Valley based legal representation, but also venture capital funding.
Wooten’s plan worked—he managed to catch the attention of one such attorney, Mike Arrington. After reading ImageCafé’s Executive Summary and viewing the web-based prototype, Arrington was intrigued by the unique idea; he believed that Wooten and Forde would be able to obtain funding. Within a few short days of that initial meeting, Wooten and Forde had WSGR representation. Wooten had negotiated a package of legal services totaling $40,000, which would be written off if ImageCafé failed to receive sufficient funding.
Change is Coming
I want this article to be about helping people understand things are changing in the valley and that people like Mike Arrington are not a part of that change. I want you to hear it directly from people who are living it, breathing it and making it a reality, including myself.
One thing I’ve learned is that whining doesn’t get you very far. If you stand up and tell your story, no matter how painful it is, others will understand where you’re coming from, see your passion to be successul and align themselves because they to share the desire to realize their dreams. I’ve seen this happen countless times since moving west to San Francisco and it has caused me to step up my efforts and reach for my dreams.
First things first. We’ve heard a very old argument raise it’s head — People can get ahead if they want to. If they’re not getting ahead, it’s their own fault. — I don’t accept that or believe it to be 100% true because of what I’ve experienced and seen growing up. While in many ways I’ve had amazing opportunities in my career, my awareness regarding other people’s opportunities, or lack of them, has not dwindled. I know that my enthusiasm is contagious but the harsh reality is that I can see people judging, comparing and calculating me and others. The comments that have shown up on posts around the NewMe Accelerator (the whole reason there is a CNN documentary), this issue with Arrington and really anytime race comes into play around technology are disturbing. I see people so far removed that they wouldn’t probably dare step out of their homes and away from the keyboard. 4chan’ing at the desk but a coward face to face.
Second, I want to let you know you’re not alone in wanting change. Thankfully there are plenty people turning the wheels of change and this weekend was no different. A burden is certainly made lighter by others pitching in. I was happy to see several influential men in the technology, investment and startup space speak up quickly and strongly on Twitter. Two that spearheaded the conversation were Vivek Wadhwa and Anil Dash who alternated between stoking and smothering the flame. Tilak Joshi has a great write up of the Twitter fire storm on his blog:
@Arrington denied accusations of inequality in Silicon Valley and took a stance of meritocracy instead.@Wadhwa quickly rebutted with facts about the percentage of minorities and women holding positions as tech CEOs and drew comparisons from the past thirty years to now. A few minutes later, amongst facts, accusations, rebuttals, and profanities were thrown into the mix by all parties. The rapid-fire tweets set the tone for a classic Las Vegas fight night, very reminiscent of MGM Grand in the Tyson days. Crowd feedback roared as sidelined entrepreneurs and spectators started throwing in their “two cents.” Fierce punches were thrown, including words like “Racist”,”Bigot”,”Bullshit”, and “Ignorance”. Just as the civility reached the bare minimum, @anildash entered the scene.
Bringing something unseen in the rantings of the initial two parties, tact, @anildash approached the situation with the intent to gracefully difuse it. Kindly disagreeing with @arrington, and very discreetly agreeing with@wadhwa, @anildash advocated for acceptance of the existence of inequality in Silicon Valley while dismissing @arrington‘s defensive behavior as instinctual. He then furthermore encouraged discussions to broaden understanding.
Black Entrepreneurs in Tech Speak Up
I am going to use this section to share the stories and reactions from Black technology entrepreneurs. They may want to share an experience from the past, a reaction to the current situation, something that they’re participating in to create change…
- Wayne Sutton
- Anjuan Simmmons
- Erica Mauter
- Cheryl Contee
- Kimberly C. Ellis Ph.D. aka “Dr. Goddess”
- Zennie Abraham
- Terence Craig
If you would like to share your story, contact me.
Here Wayne share’s his thoughts on the issue plus his thoughts on Arrington’s motivations:
I know for a fact that Arrington did know “Black Entrepreneurs” before the interview, before his CrunchFund and before he invested into a few Black Entrepreneurs with his CrunchFund. Some may not be considered the traditional Entrepreneurs but I know that Arrington knows Charles Hudson, Clarence Wooten, Tristan Walker, Adria Richards (who has attended and reported from TechCrunch Disrupt, the last two years) and artist turned entrepreneurs Chamillionaire and MC Hammer, all Black/brown. Speaking of Hammer, when I first met Arrington I texted Hammer and was like, hey I just met your boy Arrington and Hammer replied Arrington is the man.
So did Arrington stick his foot in his mouth when he said ‘I don’t know a single black entrepreneur’ or did he say it to stir up controversy as some have suggested, or was he caught off guard and said what he really meant or was he being to some would say, Arrington being Arrington. I don’t know and only Arrington can answer that but that doesn’t mean at all that he’s a racist. Trust me, there were times in Silicon Valley where I was thinking/feeling am I the only one here? Heck there’s times like that in Raleigh, NC. So for Arrington to say he doesn’t know any “Black Entrepreneurs” is somewhat surprising being I know how many Black Entrepreneurs would love to have been featured on TechCrunch or may have tried to reach out, myself included. That still doesn’t mean he’s a racist or all of Silicon Valley is.
Still, I’m not saying I agree with Arrington and/or a lot of his comments about Silicon Valley but what I can say is that living in Silicon Valley for the summer it’s an entire different world. You can say there are not a lot of blacks in Silicon Valley or tech and be part right just like you can say that Atlanta is the black capital of USA and be part right based off of opinion, demographics and culture.
Sadly for Silicon Valley, Arrington is a loud, public figure and CNN knows that. I know that. But his comments and/statements do not represent all of Silicon Valley or Silicon Valley VCs;it also doesn’t mean he’s right. Just Arrington perspective. Media is media and always be careful what you say to media on camera and off. Some of my comments will be used not the way I like and it’s life. Lesson learned.
What I would like to see are the interviews from Mitch Kapor, Ron Conway, Jay Jameson and others who talked more about the need for the NewMe Accelerator..
I reached out to Anjuan and asked if he would respond with this thoughts on this issue. I’m grateful that Anjuan will be on my 2012 SXSW panel, Race: Know When To Hold It and Know When To Fold It At Tech Conferences. Thank you Anjuan for taking the time to share your insight on the issue!
On Anjuan’s blog, he questions awareness of White privilege as defined by Peggy McIntosh’s paper and challenges those who are completely unaware of their bad breath (ahem White privilege) to get real and ask somebody.
The technology world, especially Silicon Valley, is not a meritocracy. It’s a “know-ocracy” meaning that access to power is awarded based on who a person knows rather than that person’s individual talent. Since the industry has historically been composed of white males, this is the demographic that has reached the upper echelons of the industry, and they tend to hire, fund, and mentor the people they know: other white males.
Some point to the late Steve Jobs as an example of the meritocracy of the technology industry. After all, Jobs was of Middle Eastern decent (through his biological father), given up for adoption, and raised by middle class people. Yet, he founded one of the most valuable companies in the world in his parent’s garage. If Jobs can make it, anyone can, right? Well, let’s unpack the many advantages Jobs had. First, he was raised in Mountain View, California, with easy access to the companies that make up Silicon Valley. Second, even though it was a garage, it was in a nice suburban house which presumably had access to a kitchen with food and a mortgage and utilities that were paid by someone other than Jobs. Therefore, Jobs was able to start Apple with built in savings of tens of thousands of dollars a year. Finally, Jobs had the greatest advantage of all: white skin (despite his biological father’s Syrian DNA).
According to his recently released biography, Jobs, after dropping out of Reed College, “talked his way” into getting hired at Atari because the chief engineer of the company “saw something in him”. Maybe this “something” was a younger version of himself, or perhaps a reminder of a son or nephew. However, whatever this “something” was, I doubt that a Tyrone from Oakland, or a Jenny from one of the barrios of San Francisco would have possessed it. Therefore, members of underrepresented groups the chief engineer didn’t know would have been turned away where Steve Jobs was embraced.
Arrington himself benefitted from almost exactly the same privileges that Jobs enjoyed. That is why it’s always amazing to me when, as Arrington has stated, people of privilege say that they don’t see race or gender. Of course they don’t see race or gender because neither their race nor gender have ever hindered their access to the people who could position them for success.
In the same way that people with halitosis are incapable of smelling the foulness of their own breath, people like Arrington are incapable of understanding the way they aid and abet keeping Silicon Valley a place dominated by white males.
The lack of diversity in technology, especially among entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists who fund them, is bad for the industry. It limits the ability to generate innovative ideas because people from similar backgrounds often approach problems in the same way. It also limits the usefulness of products and services.
We all remember the webcam that HP released a few years ago that had “face tracking” that didn’t recognize the faces of dark skinned users. If HP had a diverse product testing team, then this defect would have been detected and corrected before it shipped. As minority groups continue to grow in this country and around the world (and increasingly become the majority users of technogy products and services), the technology industry’s diversity problems will soon have direct impacts on profits and losses.
The question is not “Is Arrington a racist?” nor is it “Is Silicon Valley racist?”.
The question is “Does Silicon Valley understand white privilege?” Until people in positions of power in Silicon Valley honestly answer that question, then the “know-ocracy” of the technology industry will persist in hindering the entrance of members of underrepresented groups that may have superior ideas but lack the proper skin color and genitalia.
Sometimes you meet people in your life who tell you that it is essential you try something new. You may know them very well or in my case with Erica, we’d met on Twitter but the first time we had coffee together, I was convinced her advice would lead me to success (and it did!).
Erica is unique in several ways; She’s an engineer, she’s biracial, she’s a great writer…and she’s also gay.
Sometimes there are jokes made about how many things you can throw together about a person to make them a “super minority” but Erica has never has fit the picture of someone who lives the life of a victim experiencing a constant state of oppression. Instead she’s focused, reflective and outspoken. She’s been an amazing person to know and was the one in introduced me to Peggy McIntosh’s paper on White privilege. Thank you to Erica for sharing her insights!
It’s one thing to know that you’re “supposed to” include people from underrepresented groups, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing to understand why. Because you’ll make more money or enhance your reputation for your charitable act is not the reason why. It’s because you, as a member of the dominant group, are helping members of underrepresented groups overcome structural barriers to participation. There are complex societal dynamics that have prevented underrepresented people from not just having these opportunities but being equally prepared for them when they arrive there. Even if you don’t understand those dynamics, know that they exist. People of color and (white) women will of course say they don’t want to be funded, promoted, etc., just because they’re POC or female, because they don’t trust that the white men in charge of making these decisions have the latter understanding. They’re afraid those decision-makers are still operating in “I know I’m supposed to have a POC or woman” territory and, sadly, many of those decision-makers still are.
This dynamic is why The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE, http://tie.org) exists. Instead of going through the VC gatekeepers, they created their own environment. What dominant groups view as self-segregation, underrepresented groups view as safe space.
As to whether or not Arrington’s a racist, a person can have racist thoughts and say racist things without being a racist. Very few people are intentionally racist. Just because you don’t mean to be offensive doesn’t mean you aren’t.
One aspect of privilege is the ability of the dominant group to set cultural norms. The fact that CNN went to him for an interview indicates that he sets cultural norms. So when he goes around saying he’d put any old black person on stage, qualified or not, that sets a tone implying that the black people you’re going to see may not be qualified. That’s a very powerful message.
This woman is my good friend, mentor and an outspoken person on politics, equality, technology and more. Cheryl is the founder of Fission Strategy and co-founder/blogger at JackandJillPolitics.com with Baratunde Thurston.
My personal impression is that while there may not be active discrimination in Silicon Valley, it’s definitely a blind spot. There’s certainly quite a lot of shrugging and saying things like “wow, we wish we could hire more black people but we don’t know where they are!” The fact is that Henry Ford, when he invented cars, didn’t wait for people to learn how to build his cars. He trained his workers to create the vehicles of the future. Black workers flocked to Michigan and eventually as prejudice subsided, car companies were rewarded with a loyal and talented workforce. SV companies should complain less about the dearth of trained people and observe the trends. If as many as 25% of people on Twitter are black and blacks and Latinos use smartphones, advanced internet and Twitter at a much higher rate than whites, it’s not a lack of interest or acumen holding back blacks from contributing great ideas to American technology — it’s a lack of access and opportunity.
Here’s some data on black/latino tech usage:
articles/digital_marketing/ asians_hispanics_top_ smartphone_penetration_in_the_ us/
* Do you know of an example of discrimination in SV that you can share?
I’ve written a blog post in the past about documented Silicon Valley hiring practices for minorities following up on the work of the Merc on this plus offering my confrontation of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt on their failure to hire more blacks and latinos here: http://www.
jackandjillpolitics.com/2011/ 02/google-apple-yahoo-the-new- jim-crow-in-silicon-valley/
* A common assertion about the lack of black leaders, workers and innovators in tech is “that’s just the way it is” based on the assumption that tech is a meritocracy – that there would be more black tech entrepreneurs if they had great ideas. What’s your response to this?
I think this is a lazy and dangerous assumption. Given the rapidly dismantling digital divide, it’s bad business not to include members of the group most likely to be early adopters of your technology (see data above) and America is diversifying ethnically at a high rate, why wouldn’t you want to make sure that you’re bringing new ideas that might make a lot of money to the table? We will not be able to maintain our strong hegemony of tech innovation into the future unless we are willing as a nation to commit to reaching into all corners of society to find the best and brightest minds — no matter their background — to build the tools of the future. Period. We need to find more people like Lewis Latimer, who happened to be black and who happened to work with both Bell and Edison on the phone and the lightbulb.
* Can you think of an example in American black history (or sexism) where the ‘discrimination doesn’t happen here’ line has been used?
Sure — I think the military is a great example — blacks were not considered smart enough to be officers for a long time. The Tuskegee airmen proved many wrong on the courage and ingenuity of African-Americans. Also of course, this has long been an excuse for the paucity of black coaches and general managers in sports such as football and baseball — blacks just weren’t interested or even smart enough — excuses that have since rung quite hollow in the ears of most Americans.
Kimberly C. Ellis Ph.D. aka “Dr. Goddess”
When I look back on people I’ve had the opportunity to get to know offline after meeting them on Twitter, Kim “Dr. Goddess” Ellis stands out for many reasons. She is passionate, deliberate, inspiring, creative and a completely fantastic human being. I’ve learned so much about myself from Dr. Goddess; You share an idea or issue with Kim, she cocks her head to the side to reflect and then drops a knowledge bomb on you. I absolutely love it! We’ve become good friends and have exchanged wisdom from our respective skill sets with each other…and had a blast doing it! Thank you Kim for weighing in on this issue.
Don’t have cash to go to the music school
No money for the guitar or the violin or the tuba
My Mom’s had a record player and a 45
I put the needle on the record and I kicked it, crazy live
Scratchin’ it up / catchin’ the breaks
The spirit within me had me do what it takes
Now, Grammys I win and once again
Like my Egyptian kin
It’s Africa, within
Makin’ somethin’ outta nothin’!
—– “Africa’s Inside Me” Arrested Development, Zingalamaduni
Black people and technology are a natural combination. We’re the people who gave you papyrus, the first clock in the form of a sun dial and the pyramids (and I don’t mean the ones in Egypt, as Egypt is Nubia’s daughter, younger and, perhaps, prettier according to the world).
So, you don’t know Black entrepreneurs? If that’s the case, you’re the one missing out. Don’t know Black people in tech? Well, we can help you with that. It’s not like we’re cultivated to mix and mash in equitable ways in this country, in any serious way, especially when it comes to shared resources and equity. So, it takes a willingness to take concerted efforts to make change. And I understand, because as a young, Black female professor who had taught at a variety of colleges and universities across the country, there is always that special joy I maintain when I walk in the class the first day and I witness the quiet shock (and sometimes pride) on my new students’ faces. And the academy used to say the same thing, “Gee, we just can’t find qualified Black people to teach here, where could they possibly be?” So, you know, we did things like help them, by introducing our friends and associates to the job.
Now that I live my life as a struggling entrepreneur who is also a scholar, artist and working on a tech startup, the environment is largely the same. I am still one of the few Black people, still one of the few women, definitely one of the few of the highly intelligent persons in the room (I kid, I kid… kinda!). But guess what? We share information with one another, we network, we encourage each other, we invite each other to different events, share hotel rooms and we break bread together. We attend SXSW (indeed, after having such a great time there and witnessing the disparity, I wrote a $20,000 grant for others from Pittsburgh to attend and just received notice that it was approved)!
We create the NewMe Accelerator, we go to Black Enterprise Conferences and we go to BlogHer, Blogging While Brown and Blogalicious. I would love to meet Michael Arrington and all of those cats. But, what I would most appreciate is mentorship, information, shared resources and, yes, some venture capital! Some investment! Why? Because I am the bomb! Because I know that if I have quality infrastructure and enough of an investment to play with the big boys, I will win. Now, if you think it’s due to Affirmative Action, I am not ashamed. I know my history, Jack. If you would invest because you think I’m inferior and you need a token on your sleeve, I will still take your money because, as I have shared, I am used to being one of the smartest persons in the room. Lucky for you, it will not be your loss. I’m on my way, Silicon Valley, so you’d better get ready—or step aside.
Now this isn’t to say they were the only people, the only men or the only people of color to speak up on what was going on. Zennie Abraham, a journalist I often see Tweeting and writing on SFGate, shared his story of getting to know Arrington an at a certain point felt that he had reached a turning point of feeling…like one of the guys.
Zennie also posted a video:
I don’t think that Michael Arrington is racist at all, but I do think Michael was, at one point in the past, that way. From what I’ve seen, he’s grown a lot, and for whatever reason. And I have seen this in his treatment of me as a personal gauge.
When I first met him, I was introduced via a mutual friend at a party in San Francisco during Web 2.0 in 2007. My intent was to talk with him about my company Sports Business Simulations, but Michael was so off-putting at the time, I didn’t expect a call from him, and didn’t get one.
See, the overall problem is that when a white person practices elitism, as Michael has done in the past, to many blacks it can come off as racism. That was true for me for a few years, until 2009 and I started a phase of hyper-blogging on SFGate.com and Zennie62.com that continues today, and also because I was showing up at tech social after tech social and being written up in blogs like ValleyWag.
So, with that, and just trying to run two Internet-based occupations, and an increase in blogging about tech as pop culture, I managed to get a press pass to my first TechCrunch event: The 2009 August Capital Party. That’s where I first interviewed Michael and Robert Scoble, and other people…
.and had a ton of fun. At that point, any issue of racism I may have had went away.
But even with that, I have felt invisible in the past. In the past. I don’t any more.
This changed for him as well when he read what Arrington said:
That’s why I was really hurt, frankly, that Michael would allow himself to say “I don’t know any black entrepreneurs,” because it brought back that outsider feeling I had in the past.
I am an entrepreneur. I’m black.
I think what this shows is that black entrepreneurs in tech are still invisible: not seen by the overall tech community UNLESS our existence becomes a news issue.
I met Terence this year at a Black Founders event. I then ran into him several more times and it has been a pleasure getting to know him, his journey and his perspective as someone who has been working, living and being successful here in the startup world. I look up to Terence. He’s been out there 23 years and has accomplished a lot. He’s willing to participate and make time for events to both learn and share business knowledge. A few months ago at an event, Terence told me that he had not seen a room filled with so many Black technology entrepreneurs…ever! Wow, that stuck. Below is an excerpt from a post Terence did about the issue of diversity in Silicon Valley and am very thankful he took the time to share his experience and post it publicly online:
The one weekend that I decide to abjure from all things electronic and hang out with my wife, famous tech blogger Michael Arrington (@arrington) starts a scrap with some incredibly ill-conceived comments while being interviewed for @Soledad_OBrien’s documentery Black In America 4which explores the black experience in technology. At first, as any intelligent person would, I thought, “I’m just going to stay out of this.” But as an African-American who’s been in the Valley as a programmer,entrepreneur, blogger, published author, and board member for over 23 years and who has lived on the 3rd rail of our collective discomfort with race as a happily married member of an interracial couple for the past 25 years, I thought it was worth giving my perspective.
The first thing that I have to say is that the Valley, by and large, has treated me and my family very well. By the time I was 28, I was making more $$ than my father ever had – even though he was a renowned plant pathologist whose opinion was sought the world over (including Apartheid South Africa who offered to make him an “honorary white person” to gain his expertise – and no, I’m not kidding).
The Valley and the software industry that it nurtured allowed me to do something that I loved – programming – in a T-shirt and jeans, surrounded by people who loved what they did as much as I did. And with an amazingly low level of racial BS.
But none of that precludes the fact that racism, sexism, and ageism are baked into the warp and weft of the way the Valley works—just like the rest of America. Sometimes unknowingly: at one company I worked at, HR had to explain to a senior VP that the layoff list that he had created that only included racial minorities, women, and people over 40, was a problem. And sometimes openly: Mike Mortiz’s depressingly candid and repeated comments about how he only wants to fund young entrepreneurs because “Mozart was dead by 35.” Or the discussion I had with a large investor at my previous start-up who asked me to resign as CEO. He said no investor who looked at me and then looked at our newly hired VP of Sales (white male) is going to believe you should be CEO.
I don’t think Michael Arrington is a racist. I’m sure that he doesn’t close the door and spew racial epithets. But I think the most revealing comment he made wasn’t the most controversial one. It was the simple comment that “I don’t think about race.” His lack of understanding that whether he thinks about race consciously or not; that who his neighbors are, who inhabits his social and professional circles are at least in part defined by their race, gender and age; that when he does “pattern matching” he and every other person (white or black) who was raised in a society as racially charged as the U.S. will include racial and gender assumptions (conscious or otherwise) in their decision processes.
What people are upset about most is not his ham-handed statements on the topic but his repeated assertion that it is easier for women and minorities to raise money, something that Vivek Wadhwa’s research (which was presented on TechCrunch when Arrington was editor) and the experience of every other AA entrepreneur that I know, disputes. I have raised several million dollars of external capital over the years and it’s hard for everyone—only a few companies will get funded, which is as it should be. There are people in the investment community that have been incredibly gracious to me and there have also been people where my race was a clearly a factor – that hasn’t stopped me and never will. But having someone who is not a woman or a minority make grand pronouncements about how beneficial being a woman or a minority is while raising money is patronizing, disturbing, and insulting. Doubly so if you consider how a minority founder that has been funded by Arrington must feel since many of his public statements seem to be designed to make them feel that they were bought on to feed some quota.
Just because he’s not starving, Arrington is claiming that everyone else on the planet is well fed. This is the height of hubris and he should stop it.
Update: I neglected to link to Soledad O’Brien’s reply to Arrington on CNN.com. Bad oversight on my part since her exhortation at the end to focus on doing something positive is something we should all take to heart.
What I Learned
Five things stood out for me about the CNN / Michael Arrington issue:
- It’s essential you tell your own story.
- The media will bait important issues with red herrings.
- There is disagreement on what entrepreneurs need to be successful.
- Network and remind people who you are and how you can help.
- White guilt is rampant the Internet.
I have learned that you have to be responsible for telling your own story. You must do this by capturing photos, writing up your experiences and using video to share the world through your lens. If you leave it up to other people, they can (and will) construct a story based on their perspective and interests. I half jokingly say to people when I’m snapping photos, “I’m just documenting we were here!”.
Arrington spoke about being misled by CNN in his blog post. I can relate to that. I ‘ve been thrown under the bus by a reporter. He made it sound as if I actively rooted out vulnerable websites and laughed in the face of people whose data was compromised. I won’t ever forget it. Now when I talk to reporters, I’m careful to understand what they’re looking for, what their angle is and how they plan to construct the story. I turn down a lot more interview requests these days. That said, I also had a completely upfront and positive experience around the same time so the lesson to take away is due diligence.
That’s where my understanding for Arrington comes to an abrupt halt.
At the startup I worked at (Zendesk), I was the only Black person. I didn’t say anything about it because let’s face it, growing up in Minnesota, I was used to being one of the few Black/bi-racial people in a group. The company was founded by some Danish guys who seemed pretty cool and innovative. The product manager made an off-comment about hiring more “minorities” so the company wouldn’t be accused of having diversity problems but I rolled my eyes. While I agreed in my mind there were a lack of women on the engineering and development teams, quotas should never be the focus. Diversity isn’t about quotas. No one wants a hand out.
Thinking back in my life, it wasn’t until I went to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in 2002 for a technology project that I realized it was possible to be surrounded by people who looked like me all the time. I loved it! I couldn’t believe there was a place on earth where nearly everyone was Black! Everyone seemed to be Black. Nearly everyone at the hotel, the restaurants, nightclubs and out around town. While there were White people who lived in St. Thomas, the biggest influx was related to the comings and goings of the cruise ships. It was an amazing thing to process and observe.
That was probably where I had my “Black awakening” and upon returning home to Minnesota after the project I began to feel unhappy about the lack of diversity in my workplace, neighborhood and circle of friends. I knew it bugged me but I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t until I joined Twitter in 2008 when things began to take a drastic, racial change for the better (see my article Black People on Twitter)
There are definitely logical fallacies to Arrington’s statements which sound like throwbacks to the civil rights era when Blacks marched for equality under the law.
Once I moved here to San Francisco, I realized I didn’t know a lot of Black people (or really that many people at all regardless of race!). A few I knew like Paul Richardson who had reached out to me on Twitter before my move offering to help me get settled into SF (Thanks again Paul!) and Cheryl Contee who I’d met at several conferences and had become friends with. She’s been out here in the Bay Area for four years and I was grateful to have her guidance and reassurance I was doing the right thing.
I decided the fastest way to start meeting other Blacks was to introduce myself at conferences and technology events. One of the first people I met was Cathryn Posey at Gnomedex in Seattle, Washington. I walked up and said,
“Hi! I’m a Brown female in technology and you appear to be so as well. I’m Adria. What’s your name?”
After that, it was a wrap. Cat and I became great friends and my first time stepping out of my comfort zone worked. I was hooked and have found myself to be a very effective connector! This is us pictured below last week when Cat was in town for the Web 2.0 Summit from Alaska. That’s right, my Black friend Cat lives in Alaska. I guess there are 25,000 Black people in Alaska. Who knew!?
What I represent to others is why I wrote this post. I inspire others. While I am not ready to launch a tech startup that is built with Ruby on Rails just yet, I can certainly be an active member of the community, promote events within that community and utilize my influence both on and offline to change the status quo.
For example, at TechCrunch Disrupt, I understood it was an expensive conference. $2,000 for a ticket? Sheesh! I explored and found ways to attend without paying the full ticket price for TechCrunch Disrupt. I explained how others could do the same and then made a direct ask to several Black tech entrepreneurs to participate in the hackathon. They did! They attended, they built, they pitched and earned their free passes!