Silicon Valley's Race Problem

CNN's Black In America documentary ignites issues of "pattern matching" and shocking sentiments about race in Silicon Valley.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

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.

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