THE BLOG
06/11/2013 11:36 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

A Modest Proposal: Thinking Outside the White Male Box

I have a modest proposal that could easily quadruple the inventive capacity of the country. It's simple, yet powerful, and with the right funding, it could be a game changer.

The idea: let's completely remove the shopworn expression "think outside the box" from circulation for retooling. With a bit of clever engineering, perhaps backed by DARPA or a progressive Silicon Valley venture fund, we then carefully graft the words "white male" to the phrase before reintroducing it back into the system as Version 2.0.

The result: "Think outside the white male box."

Just imagine it: by carefully inserting those two small words, we could immediately shift the national psychology towards harnessing the 70 percent of the country's inventive capacity that now goes mostly untapped.

There are, of course, challenges to updating hundreds of thousands of books and papers and seamlessly updating vast numbers of web servers. But the massive productivity upside would be well worth the effort because the current situation is grave.

According to research firm CB Insights, for the first half of 2010, only 1 percent and 8 percent of the founding teams of venture funded early-stage Internet companies had even one black or female member, respectively. Latinos were not even measured, but in my experience they are even less well represented than blacks. In short, the vast majority of demographic groups, defined by gender and ethnicity, are almost completely missing from our innovation economy -- precisely when the country needs as many minds as possible focused on issues that really matter.

The endless flood of location-aware/social/e-commerce apps certainly suggests that we need fresh ideas from outside the current technology monoculture. It's hard to dream up solutions to problems you have never experienced, or perhaps even thought about. Challenges like renewable energy, crushing consumer debt, crumbling infrastructure, and a failing educational system will require fresh thinking from fresh quarters.

It isn't news that a monoculture precludes a diversity of thought and creates an inbred ecosystem. Two prestigious European institutions recently published studies showing that not only do diverse teams create unique ideas, but they result in a more productive workplace.

A Latina girl from East Harlem working in tech will see problems and envision solutions that may be invisible to her white, male counterparts who grew up only a mile away on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. If we want to bolster our ailing inventive output, she needs to be in the room. Only good comes from dramatically increasing the proportion of our 314 million citizens participating in the innovation economy who come from underrepresented communities.

To be clear, the innovation economy has two parts. Beyond the entrepreneurs that come up with ideas are the venture investors who fund them. And as you might imagine, that field is even more homogeneous. It's not that the elite business schools aren't producing significant numbers of black, Latino and female graduates who qualify for at least entry-level venture investor positions. But somehow these top graduates rarely make it past the velvet ropes of the industry, which operates more like a myriad of small private country clubs than one of the most important engines of our economy. Not to belabor the obvious, but homogeneous investors invariably lead to homogeneous investees.

And while lower numbers of engineering school graduates is often cited as the cause of the problem, the truth is more complex. Minority and female technology-related graduation rates are not where they should be, but they are significantly higher than their presence in the technology industry would indicate. Sometime after college, many of these graduates opt to pursue different career paths. It's no surprise that research shows subtle and not-so-subtle biases make the workplace less appealing and create a sense that those career paths are limited.

What makes this so unacceptable is that there are endless brilliant, inventive, entrepreneurial individuals within these underrepresented groups. Sometimes that talent is untapped; other times it is just invisible. We must showcase the current inventors and the pioneers that exist outside the white male box to help repair the skewed perceptual filters employed by the gatekeepers of industry and to inspire new would-be participants.

The good news is while the problem may seem complex, ideas, words, and images are powerful, and sometimes changing just a few bits can indelibly shift perceptions and change actions. I therefore submit my modest proposal for your consideration. The engineering dollars required to renovate one of our most popular, though now hackneyed memes, would be returned many times over in vastly increased national productivity.

In service of this effort, I and a group of committed supporters have spent the last year organizing a non-profit conference called the Platform Summit that will take place July 12-14 and be hosted at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The summit is modeled on TED and designed to highlight talent from underrepresented groups and to inspire and support the next generation of more diverse innovators. If everything comes together, we also hope to announce funding for our modest engineering proposal. With your support we are confident our goals are attainable.