Two Young, Black Entrepreneurs In Tech Open Up About STEM Diversity -- And Why It Matters

03/24/2015 01:37 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2015
André Walters/Yuno

The industry of STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- is no more diverse today than it was more than a decade ago.

President Barack Obama announced on Monday that more than $240 million in new private-sector commitments are going toward inspiring and preparing more girls and boys to pursue STEM careers.

But despite efforts to get young people interested in STEM, ethnic minorities appear to still be missing from the equation. While the number of African-Americans and Latinos in the U.S. has increased, their presence in STEM careers has remained stagnant since 2001, according to a February 2015 report from Change the Equation, a group of Fortune 500 companies focused on increasing STEM education.

So, what do young minorities working in STEM -- especially those few minorities who hold leadership positions in the industry -- think of this diversity disconnect?

Meet Rodney Williams, 31, founder of the Cincinnati-based mobile tech company Lisnr -- which has developed a communication protocol called inaudible smart tone technology that sends data over audio -- and André Walters, 35, founder of the Charlotte, North Carolina-based social commerce company Yuno -- a shopping Web app that rewards users for sharing information about their everyday purchases with others.

The two men recently sat down with The Huffington Post for an interview that touched on everything from why diversity in technology is important to lessons they've learned along their entrepreneurial journeys.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You two seem to have bonded over facing similar challenges along each of your respective entrepreneurial journeys -- and one of those shared experiences is being a minority in the tech industry. Have you both noticed a lack of diversity in the technology arena and how has it affected your experiences?

Rodney Williams: There’s absolutely no diversity in technology -- there just isn't -- in the technology that we’re doing. We’re creating a technology startup, which we hope to be a technology company that will create high value and high growth. That’s a very different aspect. I think diversity hasn’t touched that market.

There are groups like "Blacks In Tech" and black professionals at technology companies -- but there is a complete lack of diverse tech founders. Technology leaders that are taking on an industry, taking on a vertical, building a product, launching it, gaining interest from investors and being on the forefront of technology. That’s where the current lack of diversity is.

I’ve been in the Valley, I’ve been in a couple other different markets. Our company is three years old, and I probably can mention all the other top technology companies that are led by a minority. It’s a small number.

André Walters: You look around and you don’t see a lot of diversity in tech. I think, as far as how it’s affected my journey, for me it’s really motivating. I look at it and I say, here’s a chance to break down some walls and open the tech game up just like other areas of our world and country have been opened up, whether we’re talking about sports or another arena.

So, how would you respond if someone asked why it is important to have diversity in tech?

AW: Tons of studies have confirmed this, but diversity makes organizations better. I came from the NBA, for example, and the NBA was really leading the charge in diversity in sports. You know, you look across the board and you have diverse people leading organizations -- women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, all across the board. And I believe that the league is much better because of it. I think having diversity is a benefit because we get different perspectives, people come from different places, and coming from those different places, they bring great thoughts and ideas that you may not have otherwise thought about if everyone came from one particular background.

RW: If you just look at technology, especially social media, adoption among minorities, African-American [users] over-index. There are top technology platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook -- a little bit less on Facebook, but Twitter and Instagram especially -- where African-Americans over-index and were the influencers and were the drivers. A lot of them are entertainers. Long story short, we tend to be the users of early social platforms and technology platforms... mainly because of our need to connect with others like us.

"If you just look at technology, especially social media, adoption among minorities, African-American [users] over-index… It’s funny that we tend to be the first users but we’re not the creators."

It’s funny that we tend to be the first users but we’re not the creators. There’s a gap -- we want something, we just don’t know how to do it, then someone else figures it out and we become the first to use it. If we can help become the beginner or the leader that actually creates some of the things we know our market would use, I think it’s a core insight for the entire general population and there’s case studies that have already proven that.

How did you learn to be the creator? What sparked your interest in tech to begin with?

AW: The possibilities in tech are really endless. They’re unlimited, in terms of what you can create, what you can do, the value that you can put out there and how you can impact people’s lives.

As far as the entrepreneurial side, it’s in my blood. My father is an immigrant from Jamaica. As far back as I can remember, I remember helping him with his cleaning business -- his payroll, for example, the paper stuff. He would literally work during the day and go clean buildings at night, and that was really the beginning in terms of entrepreneurship for me. I saw it firsthand. And so it was just something I’d always been attracted to, to sort of control your fate. I think that I’ve always been very interested in it and I found an opportunity to do it with Yuno.

RW: First, at Lisnr, there are two things I immediately say to anyone who comes into the company. I always say, number one, we’re not entrepreneurs, we’re innovators. We’re going to completely disrupt a market with our technology. And number two, I've always said we’re not a startup. We’re going to create a technology company. My goal, when I left Procter & Gamble three years ago, was to do that.

The No. 1 attraction for me was that I thought I had an idea that could potentially change the way we interact with a device. I thought I could be impactful. I personally had a need that I wanted to be impactful.

If you could go back in time and give yourself advice just moments before beginning your journey in the tech industry, what would that advice be?

RW: I would say "go faster." I see a lot of my colleagues tend to take their time and strategize. I always say, in the span of the entire time my company was created and launched and there now, Uber became a $40 billion company. What I learned from a lot of other entrepreneurs that are really successful is that they go fast. They build. They completely change. They build and repeat. They prove out a model. And I think my minority group tends to want to prove and strategize and we spend a lot of time with details. I would tell myself, I would tell my counterparts, to just go. Jump! When we jump, we will then begin to figure out how to fly. It’s happened with me, it’s happened with André, and everyone I know that’s jumped and completely dedicated themselves -- it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.

Hear more from Rodney Williams in the HuffPost Live interview below, which was conducted at last year's South by Southwest festival.

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