Silicon Valley's Race Problem

Silicon Valley's Race Problem

Summary: CNN's Black In America documentary ignites issues of "pattern matching" and shocking sentiments about race in Silicon Valley.

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November 13 is the premiere of CNN's documentary Black In America 4, which focuses on the experiences of black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley; specifically, the NewMe Accelerator.

The doc's pre-screening has revealed Silicon Valley's race problem, which blends a pyrophoric mix of denial and a new kind of racial profiling.

CNN appointed TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington as spokesperson for startup culture's ruling class.

UPDATE 10/31: See page bottom for update.

What Arrington said about black people and discrimination in Silicon Valley, and continued to say after his interview clips hit the internet, is shocking for all the wrong reasons.

Bizarrely, when the on-camera discussion turned to racial diversity in startup culture Arrington said, "I don't know any black entrepreneurs."

Not surprisingly, a lot of people are taken aback.

Organizations like Black Founders are ready to meet the new call for a much-needed change in startup culture. Co-founder Monique Woodard immediately Tweeted,

@arrington Ridiculous. But I'm willing to be forgiving. Come to a @blackfounders meetup and you'll meet plenty.

In the CNN clip Arrington now-famously said, "There's a guy, actually, his last company just launched at our event [TechCrunch Disrupt], and he's African-American. (...) But he could've launched a clown show on stage, and I would've put him up there, absolutely," Arrington said.

Like many black entrepreneurs here in the Valley, tech consultant and speaker Adria Richards was livid upon hearing this statement. Having covered a number of TechCrunch's Disrupt conferences, she reacted saying,

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.

It's easy to get the impression that people like Arrington have a hard time finding black founders. NewMe's Wayne Sutton told me, "Depending on what circles, side of the globe you live in there are a lot of black leaders, workers and innovators in tech."

CNN didn't hesitate to throw gas on the fire. But this issue didn't need accelerants because a) there is actually a problem that people are afraid to face, and b) Arrington just kept talking about it in the way that he does.

Not surprisingly, Arrington is eager to get the spotlight off of him and with comments closed on his post about the matter, is exuding a palpable 'move along, nothing to see here' vibe.

Yes, There's A Problem

This deserves a much closer look, especially as Black Founders and other orgs get ready to have Black In America screening parties.

Arrington was quick to respond to the Twitter backlash writing in defense that there is a non-issue here. It is a non-issue for his world because he claims that Silicon Valley is a pure meritocracy and, "there's zero race or sex bias in silicon valley."

It's all about merit, there's no bias. Any questions? Arrington, framed in the "Black In America" conversation as one of the most influential men in Silicon Valley just doesn't see any imbalance.

Highly successful founder, CEO and engineer Kurt Collins points out,

Vivek Wadhwa put out some stats on Techcrunch (of all places) over a year or two ago saying that women accounted for ~25% of the tech population and blacks account for less than 2%. That's a problem.

Silicon Valley Is The Color Of Meritocracy

Monique Woodard of Black Founders knocks aside the assumptions behind why Silicon Valley might make it look like white guys simply have better ideas than anyone else. She explains,

Young white men don't have a lock on tech innovation, but if you look around Silicon Valley and evaluate the faces you see, it certainly appears that way.

There are black entrepreneurs with great ideas, but they're not getting funded. And certainly not at the rate that even mediocre ideas from other groups are being funded.

If black-led startups are never funded, then they don't succeed. Allow these businesses to die on the vine, then of course it looks like there are no innovative black startup founders.

NewMe's Wayne Sutton tells me that when someone says merit equals startup success, there should be more than a few caveats attached to it.

It's a meritocracy to some, not everyone. But sadly still in 2011 for some entrepreneurs as we know who need access to capital, or introductions to the right people or marketing/pr help or awareness no matter of their ability if they're not getting the same opportunity as others based on their race or gender which happens a lot. Then meritocracy is thrown out the window.

Just today I had a conversation with two black tech entrepreneurs of a startup in NC and they told me stories about how at various times they would be stopped at the door and mistreated when trying to set up meetings. It's not that they don't have a good idea, or a great team, or a working MVP for their startup. They just want the same treatment and opportunity as everyone else.

Enterprise technology consultant Anjuan Simmons redefines Silicon Valley's meritocracy as a "know-ocracy" saying,

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.

Kurt Collins concurred saying, "Nothing in this world is 100% meritocracy. I do believe that tech is better than most other industries when it comes to the overall thought process; but it's not a meritocracy."

A common assertion about the lack of black leaders, workers and innovators in tech is "that's just the way it is" - that there would be more black tech entrepreneurs if they had great ideas in a business culture that's based on pure merit. The same standard gets applied to women and other underserved racial demographics.

Silicon Valley cultural writer, Bnet Gadget Guy and popular African-American publisher Damon Brown illustrated to me just how patronizing this viewpoint is:

It suggests that the white and Asian males dominating SV are somehow superior when it comes to innovative ideas. How patronizing!

There are no meritocracies in America, if not in the world. We all consciously use our connections to move forward and, more importantly, subconsciously give more time, opportunities, and patience to those with which we identify. It is the very nature of networking, and Silicon Valley was built on this idea.

Other areas, such as science and mathematics, historically had the same "that's just the way it is" bias towards minorities until a wider discussion occurred, and we recognized and, more importantly, began to correct the systematic barriers to diversity. Arrington's awkward commentary on race is a symptom, not a problem, of Silicon Valley's arrogant assumption that it is above the fray.

Michael Arrington Is Not A Racist - Just Arrogant?

Arrington's wider response is that he was a victim of CNN trickery. His interviewer for the segment Soledad O'Brien responded saying that, "Mr. Arrington is not being truthful."

UPDATE 10/31: See page bottom for complete update: CNN has published proof that Arrington did in fact know about the topic prior to the interview.

Reaction in social media was strong on both sides, with influencers either taking sides to call Arrington out for his comments or to rally in support of what Arrington says was a mischaracterization and an "ambush."

Arrington's explanations about the state of diversity and discrimination in Silicon Valley provide a window into Silicon Valley's race problem. In a follow-up post on his personal blog, Arrington elaborated his response and explained he was set up by CNN to look bad, and that in business and in life, he is color blind.

Collins explains why Arrington may not be a racist, but his perspective is not a hallmark of a culture that's friendly to racial diversity:

I honestly don't think Arrington is racist. Racism implies a forethought and a malice that I don't believe is there in his case. In this case, I honestly think people are confusing his extreme arrogance and overall disdain for all things not Arrington for racism.

With that said, the only people that have the opportunity to be truly color blind are those who don't have to worry about their own color and societal stature in the first place. As a black man living in America, I do not have the opportunity to be color blind. I have to be very conscious of how other people see me; even if what I'm trying to do is make it easier for white males who cling to their colorblindness to achieve that when interacting with me.

Through his experience as a black Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Collins explains exactly why we need to see skin color and not pretend it doesn't exist:

Being Black is part of who I am. The fact that it makes people uncomfortable enough to want to not see it shows just how far we have to go in this conversation regarding race.

I have some part to play in that as well. In many situations, as I mentioned, I actively strive to minimize my "blackness" in order to forward my own goals (i.e. getting funding, talking to partners, etc). Unfortunately, that's often part of what I feel I have to do out here in order to move forward. No one wants to see that I'm black: they're more comfortable seeing that I'm a smart techie.

Damon Brown elaborated that tech is especially reluctant to talk about race, and why that's a much bigger problem than any crunchy investor with personal accountability issues:

It reflects a bigger problem: Silicon Valley is reluctant to discuss anything outside of burgeoning IPOs and new tech. The majority is quiet because to them racial inequity doesn't have an obvious effect on their business, while the minority is reticent because they want to work with the majority holding the purse strings.

What took me aback was how asking about diversity within a field is being considered an out-of-bounds question, or, to use Arrington's word regarding his CNN interview, an "ambush." We seem perfectly comfortable wringing our hands about the lack of, say, black teachers or female mathematicians, but discussing the very real problem of technology entrepreneurial diversity in Silicon Valley is taboo.

Woodard of Black Founders put it perfectly: it's not really about Mike Arrington. "If there were no Michael Arrington, we would still have this problem. We would just be talking about some other guy in a position of power who earnestly believes that there are no barriers to women and minorities even though when he looks around, he sees no women or minorities."

Pattern Matching: Inverse Profiling

Throughout the interviews conducted for this article, the theme of "pattern matching" came up with every entrepreneur I talked to.

"Pattern matching" is seen as something that applies to investment; investors look for players that match the winning profiles and moves of those that have previously succeeded. Generally, VC's invest in those that have made money before, have gone to Stanford, and are like everybody else in startup culture.

Kurt Collins explains the direct effect of pattern matching on his experience as a black entrepreneur to me saying,

The problem in Silicon Valley is pattern matching. I was lucky: I went to a private high school and then followed that up with MIT. Add to that the fact that I dropped out of MIT and there are ways investors can see a pattern in me that they recognize.

However, Blacks in this country don't often fit in to the necessary pattern. The necessary pattern for potential success is being a white male, college dropout from an Ivy-league or Ivy-level university. VCs and other investors recognize that pattern.

There's no doubt that pattern matching is a standard. Collins continued,

I know a Black entrepreneur out here who moved here from New York after being widowed and losing his brother in gang violence. Add to that the fact that he's an orphan and had a very tough life. What's an investor supposed to think about or do with that kind of story?

They have acknowledged they do pattern matching. What I would like for them to do is not just acknowledge they do this, but also acknowledge that pattern matching is just another term for bias. It may not be specifically racial bias, but it's bias nonetheless.

We all have bias, though. It feels like the "we're a meritocracy" claim is just another way to feel better about the "pattern matching" we do out here.

Bad For Business

I personally think that saying SV is a meritocracy is a bullshit excuse for something that's poisoning its business culture. Interestingly, Simmons told me via email,

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.

Let's not forget the untapped markets. Collins told me,

I definitely think being "colorblind" leads to lower innovation. There are untapped markets we, as entrepreneurs, could be targeting. For example, Kimberly Dillon is starting a company called House of Mikko; it's a beauty company targeted at Black women. It can serve a potentially huge market.

Why is it something that's just being started now? Why wasn't this started years ago? This problem has been around for a while and the technology to do it has also been around for a while; but female entrepreneurs haven't been around for a while in the numbers they are today.

I personally think that casual disregard for Silicon Valley's racial (and gender) diversity issues is culturally dangerous. It's also bad for business, leaves money on the table and might be playing a significant role in what I see as our current crisis of innovation.

UPDATE 10/31: CNN has published proof that Arrington did in fact know about the topic prior to the interview.

On his blog and throughout his Tweets Michael Arrington claimed he did not know what that subject of the interview was going to be (that he was "ambushed"), and as proof he published a pre-interview email from CNN that did not show indication of the topic.

Today CNN has published a second email revealing that Arrington knew very well that the topic was the NewMe Accelerator and questions were to be about black entrepreneurism.

I simply do not understand why no one covering this is calling out Arrington for such blatant behavior in this situation. To say he was "not being truthful" is simply too nice.

To me, it entirely changes assessments of his character in regard to race - and everything else. It calls into question what other highly public and serious situations he might have done this with.

Here is the email in full:

From: "Babbit-Arp, Kimberly" Date: Mon, 25 Jul 2011 11:41:10 -0400 To: Kelly Mayes Subject: CNN Interview on Friday, July 29, 2011

Hey Kelly,

Thank you again for setting up this interview with Michael for Friday July 29th. Soledad has set up her schedule to fly from the east coast to meet and chat with Michael - so we are very much looking forward to this opportunity.

As we indicated in our earlier email for the past several months our team at CNN been working on what we think is the first major broadcast news documentary to focus on the 'accelerator phenomenon' and the booming start-up culture in Silicon Valley. In this culture, Michael Arrington is God and TechCrunch is the bible.

The main thread of our story, reported by Soledad O'Brien, will be the experience of a group of digital entrepreneurs who are spending the summer in Silicon Valley chasing their startup dreams.

The group of entrepreneurs we are following 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 and various profiles produced for Money.CNN.com.

Obviously Michael is extremely knowledgeable about the valley/start up culture and the rise of accelerator programs, as chronicled minute by minute in Tech Crunch. We would like Michael to share some insight into the allure of tech entrepreneurship... Is now a good time to be a tech entrepreneur? What drives people to pour their blood, sweat and tears into these startups? Who succeeds? Who fails? and why?

This CNN documentary is scheduled to air in November.

Any last minute questions - please let us know.

Thank you for everything!! Kimberly

Kimberly Arp Babbit Producer CNN In America with Soledad O'Brien

Image by Andrei Prakharevich under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license, via Flickr.

Topics: Start-Ups, Hewlett-Packard

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122 comments
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  • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

    Great job covering all of the angles, Violet.
    jbrotherlove
    • Does NBA have a diversity problem?

      Do we have one specific race dominating the field and supplying far more number of players than other races? Yes. So shall we do sth about it? Maybe an Affirmative Action in NBA?

      While I personally have no problem with it at all b/c that's the way it is, I cannot help wondering if our dear so-called "fair and balance" liberal friends would advocate a fix for racial imbalance in NBA. I'm not gonna hold breath for that tho.

      I find it intriguingly amusing that liberals are all radio silent about racial patter in NBA while it's so obviously out of whack with the racial pattern in the general public.
      LBiege
      • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

        @LBiege Apples and oranges really. The NBA (or most sports for that matter) is the true form of a meritocracy. Those who are talented will be successful regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or national origin. If you are a talented player, you will play. Period. In the post modern era, there is no evidence of someone being denied a roster spot because of race or other "minority" status. In fact, the opposite is true. How many times have we seen the media hype white players of above average (not great) talent?
        lotisb
      • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

        @LBiege yeah you know like Tim Tebow vs Cam Newton... HYPE VS RAW TALENT
        DRAMA990
      • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

        @LBiege Nobody's talking about "liberals". Sadly, you appear to have an us-vs.-them worldview, and in this worldview, any fact that runs counter to it (in this case, that there's "no problem" with racial imbalance) you can attribute a "liberal" conspiracy theory to it and dismiss the evidence. You knew lotisb's answer before you even wrote this, yet you still chose to wrote this, which is the sad thing. At some level you understand the difference between Silicon Valley's "pattern matching" and the lack of any such phenomenon in the NBA, but you were afraid to change your worldview that dismisses white privilege so you wrote the above instead. :-(
        jgm@...
      • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

        @LBiege

        I would tend to agree with this comment. I note someone below has indicated sports are based on merit, but that is a self-serving argument.

        The game evolved into a certain physical type, and therefore the machine that feeds new players supplies what the market thinks it needs. It is interesting that NBA teams, or teams of NBA players don't automatically dominate when playing against players of other countries.

        That's really no different in business. If all the science/tech guys in school are non-black, and these are the guys that founded the first few generations of startups, then it makes sense you are going to get a closed loop of new graduates of a certain type perpertuating things.

        The problem isn't that there aren't more tech entrepreneurs that are black, the problem is students of all races aren't encouraged to think along those lines while in High School. And to the original point, that directly impacts the NBA. Who is to say the game wouldn't be better or more dynamic with a wider range of players and races in the game?
        croberts
      • The NBA used to keep blacks out of the NBA until a few teams hired blacks.

        @LBiege
        zulu753
      • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

        @LBiege Why is it the "liberals"? Your use of that word completely disqualifies your argument on the basis of your ignorance.
        Now if you had simply made your point without being so stupid, more people might have listened to you.
        easysoul
      • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

        @LBiege

        Humm not black - doubt if you can understand what it is like to have all of your scholarships yanked because some white female did not what to have your picture in her graduating class, so all the hard work and the money you put into a BA goes down the drain.
        How about being late 1 day and I do mean 1 day and get a reprimand while the white guy is late every single day goes to lunch early comes back late and then leaves work early and does not hear a peep from management.
        Frankly since I am 55 I can go on and on and on and anytime you'd like to hear I will provide you with my e-mail address and phone number. Not to mention all of the studies that back everything that I say up (can you read Freakonomics).
        Racism in America will continue because of people like you that live far removed from any reality but your own. From your point of view slavery wasn't all that bad (after all we were all sitting around with banjos singing do-da do-da) and the institutional slavery of Jim Crow was just to keep things neat and tidy not to mention that all so popular entertainment of lynching, so sorry you got cheated out of that show.
        Really...
        kah9932
  • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

    Excellent! Racial animus must be exposed in order to fix the problem.

    Eric Sanders, Esq.
    http://www.thesandersfirmpc.com
    TheSandersFirmPC
  • The Problem is the Pattern

    It's more than just race and gender. It also locks out older entrepreneurs as well as others who don't fit the pattern like those who didn't attend a top school or have the right connections.

    What it's done is create a largely inbred system where new ideas are rare and innovation is giving way to sameness.
    ancientprogrammer
    • Successful sameness pays well

      @ancientprogrammer
      Like most modern entrepreneurial funding (viz TV), VCs want sure bets (which is a conflict of terms really).

      So, something that continues a successful formula is preferential, next is something similar to that formula.

      Let's face it, starting from scratch is woefully expensive, and RISKY.

      The only VCs who want disruptive technologies are those who don't have any successful ones!
      Patanjali
      • The Sequel Syndrome

        @Patanjali - That's why we don't have innovation not only in tech but on TV and in movies. That's why we get dozens of lame Angry Bird, WoW or Farmville clones. It's why we get season after season of lame reality shows rather than another Firefly.
        ancientprogrammer
    • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

      @ancientprogrammer Thats capitalism baby. Of course you will help your college buddies before anybody else. This is not a race problem, this is a social level problem.
      DickCheney777
  • Tell the truth

    How many black people are at the top end of the class in major math and science programs? Is it a coincidence that people of Asian origins do so well in school and in business? If discrimination against non-whites is really to blame, why are other ethnic groups so successful? Maybe the issue is more that some cultures place a greater emphasis on educational achievement than others, and reap the corresponding benefits.
    levieuxmagicien
    • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

      @levieuxmagicien Even if that were true, it doesn't actually consider the problem. Let's say we're only talking about one black person who does fit your criteria of valuing education, working hard, and was the top of his or her class in school. According to your logic, that one individual who is doing all the things you've indicated should make him successful, should have the same opportunity to succeed as anyone else. Right? <br><br>It sounds to me that if this person were to walk into your office tomorrow - you've already made some assumptions about his character and work ethic, because of his or her race. Despite their personal accomplishments.<br><br><i>"Maybe the issue is more that some cultures place a greater emphasis on educational achievement than others, and reap the corresponding benefits."</i><br><br>Again, even if this were true, it wouldn't apply to <strong>all</strong> anymore than you can say all members of another ethnic group behave the same.
      jongos
      • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

        @jongos -- Excellent point. It should always come down to the individual.

        Unfortunately, I think all of us are guilty of prejudice in one form or another. Prejudice in the sense that I think most people feel that they can predict what another person is about based on a the few bits of information they might have about this person.
        mbrogdon
    • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

      @levieuxmagicien

      Denying racisim is the act of a racist.
      NoAxToGrind
      • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

        @NoAxToGrind - A useless and inflammatory comment. You may believe that racism is always present, and I may agree with you, but if someone is honestly questioning whether racism is present or not, it really doesn't help bring them to understanding to brand them a racist.
        renns
    • RE: Silicon Valley's Race Problem

      @levieuxmagicien Asians are simply superior to us in math related disciplines. So are girls superior to guys in most college level jobs. Good thing is that they are unreliable (pregnancy).
      DickCheney777