For the past two years I've been spreading the message that people of color are missing out on the technology startup revolution. In an era where companies can be founded and within a few years can surpass the market-caps of companies that have been in existence for decades, and companies that are created in a weekend can go on to raise millions in funding and create jobs and opportunities for success for others, we are notably absent. It's a topic that almost no one wants to touch. Technology conferences brush over the concept by focusing their "lack of diversity" panels on low numbers of women leading startups rather than tackle the almost complete absence of African Americans and Hispanics as founders in the space. Or they highlight minority celebrities that have taken an interest in the space to make a passive attempt to show, "Look, they are here." Now let me quickly say that I agree that there needs to be more women creating startups and the fact that entertainers are seeing the value of broadband internet is great, but neither addresses this issue. As the president is pushing his plan to usher every American into the digital age by making sure they have broadband and wireless access, we now need to address the chasm that currently exists. The president's Startup America plan has brought the start up opportunity into mainstream focus, and as we move through yet another Black history month where we reflect on where we've been, we need to look more prominently on how we can change the future.
I actually don't blame any particular party for this problem. I believe more that it is a systematic problem that has been birthed from various areas that need to be addressed and reworked to create a new stream of activity in the space.
Our education system does not promote science and mathematics in general and promotes them even less in minority and urban areas: if children have parents who promote the importance of these subjects at home they are truly fortunate because the focus has all but disappeared in many public schools. When science is taught from rolling carts and "discovery math" concepts are introduced instead of real problem-solving, those children are already at a disadvantage.
We have a value proposition problem: I wrote a blog post about this topic over a year ago. Minority children today are led to believe that it is easier to be an entertainer or a pro athlete than it is be a startup entrepreneur. From the media making it seem like all they need is their "shot" to the lack of examples in the startup space, they have been led to not even see the possibility of them being involved in this space. Yes, they are on Facebook but aren"t creating an app on Facebook; they are first in line for the iPhone and IPad but don't see how easily they could position them selves to create an app on them. At the same time you have white teenagers taking advantage of the low barrier of entry to this space daily. Startup entrepreneur Kalimah Priforce wrote one of the best articles I've read in a long time about this, "Startup America Should Look Like America: The Minority-Led Startup Gap," which was the final piece of inspiration I needed to write this post (you should go read this today!!) Tristan Walker of Foursquare posted this piece on Quora to generate discussion around this topic there. One of the many parts of his post that stuck with me was when he talked about speaking to children in the Oakland school district about why they thought there was a lack of Blacks and Hispanics running tech companies. A Mexican-American sixth grader answered, "Because they are smarter than us?" This mindset also is part of the reason why broadband adoption is so low in African-American and Hispanic households. The relevance to how it can change their lives is just not there.
Those are two of the more glaring issues that speak to why we don't see a new crop of budding young minorities aspiring to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg: because a lot of them don't think they are supposed to be. I can say from firsthand experience that the startup environment can be one of the most engaging, life-changing experiences possible. It can put you in contact with smart, energetic people whose energy is infectious and will quickly have you feeling like no problem is too big and you can change the world. As I reflect, on my personal experience I realize how powerful those things would be if they were introduced into the minority community the right way. That leads to what is the next part of the problem. The current startup ecosystem will never bring on huge amounts of minorities in its current structure. I believe that the following areas are the cause of that but also where the biggest opportunity lies.
The current incubator system does not address the problem: Over the past few years technology incubators such as Ycombinator, Techstars and the founder's institute have created a pathway for budding entrepreneurs to get develop their ideas, get valuable feedback and then present their concepts to the investment community. These programs have seen huge success but would also admit (even if it was reluctantly) that that amount of African Americans and Hispanics that come through the program (or even apply for that matter) is low to nonexistent. I don't believe at all that this is through the intention of the programs but because all of these programs make several assumptions. The first is that minorities know they exist, and I can tell you that they are not aware of them at all. The second assumption that all of the programs make is that everyone coming in has the skills and knowledge within their team to start building their idea, which shuts a lot of minorities for the reasons I mentioned earlier even if they may have a great idea. For some time now I've said we need slightly different structured incubator to bring minorities into the field where initially they are taught programming and startup business concepts and mentored on how to get their idea to a point where it can start to be created. I believe there are advantages to this for all the tech startups out there that are hungry for new talent as well. Tristan Walker told me about a great program that Etsy started with the tech training site Codelesson, where they are offering a free class on basic Web programming centered around their own API. This is a great step, and I hope companies like Facebook and Twitter will do the same, but imagine this being paired with a process that gave minorities exposure on how to start companies.
We need to connect venture capitalists and minorities: When I've given talks with young people I've started off by saying that there was guy in a college dorm who used free software to create a company and is now worth more than P. Diddy, Jay-Z and Russell Simmons put together. That immediately gets their attention, but they need that from the people who drive the ecosystem. I'd love to take a panel of dynamic venture capitalists, angel investors and entrepreneurs to HBCU's to show that they are a wanted part of the equation and it will give birth to a new batch of ideas from totally different vantage point which the investment would welcome much more than another Groupon clone.
Tech conferences need to bring the issue front and center: People pay thousands to hear the best and brightest talk about issues that are shaping the industry and a conference needs to be bold enough to address it head on. There are numerous people you can have address who are in the space from Tristan Walker and Michael Siebel to Angela Benton of Blackweb20.com, who focuses on this issue daily. And there are some others. The point is I'm urging (actually challenging) one of the conferences to address the issue head on and start the dialogue so that we can work on solutions.
This is a key time in our history and there is an opportunity to affect the lives of the next generation by making steps towards those changes now. There are benefits for all involved . The greatest impact will be on the minorities whose ideas will come to fruition. Who knows America's next Bill Gates may be from Harlem. LeBron is just one kind of superstar that can come from the ghetto....there are technology superstars waiting to be discovered. All one has to do is see Waiting For Superman to understand the urgency of this issue. The time truly is now.
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