Race and Silicon Alley

On the 13th, Soledad O’Brien premieres her special on black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley:

It’s already started a few tussles, as when Michael Arrington told Soledad O’Brien:

We have a conference … where 25 or 30 companies actually launch on stage … There’s a guy actually, his last company just launched at our event, and — and he’s African-American. When he asked to launch, actually I think it was the other way around, I think I begged him. It’s a cool startup, his startup’s really cool. But he could’ve launched a clown show on stage, and I would’ve put him up there, absolutely. I think it’s the first time we’ve had an African-American be the sole founder.

The series covers the work of an incubator aimed at black entrepreneurs called New Me.

The issue of diversity in tech isn’t limited to Silicon Valley, nor is it just about African-Americans. The ranks of women, Latino, and Black engineers, founders, executives, and funders are thin.

Here on the East Coast, “Silicon Alley” has spread well beyond its early boundaries, with major startups in Manhattan and Brooklyn. New York serves both as a hub for companies that started in the Valley, like Google, and ones founded in the city, including Gilt Groupe and Kickstarter. The paucity of African-Americans and Latinos is juxtaposed against the demographic makeup of New York City, where the population is 25 percent Black and 28 percent Hispanic (of any race).

Many successful startups are based on pre-existing friendships. (If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll probably need every ounce of the goodwill you and your partner(s) have built up to get through sleepless startup nights, disagreements over strategy and tactics, and generally lots of unpaid labor.) Making initial hires from your friend group can precipitate social replication, where new hires are valued for fitting in as much as for the work they do. That may sound like a positive way to keep everyone on-task at first, but as companies scale, the social replication often scales with it. That can lead to blind-spots in company decisionmaking, if too many people think alike. Social replication can also lead to a less-diverse outreach and hiring pool.

Companies that want a more diverse workforce at some point have to decide it’s a priority. They they have to make a change in hiring practices that expands social networks. As one technology recruiter explained to me, getting the top young black and Latino engineers, because of the lack of supply, requires waging a campaign of outreach and internships. It also requires some ramp-up time to see results. That’s just addressing the beginning of the pipeline. What about outreach to more experienced talent? Are smaller and fast-growing companies willing to make that effort for performance metrics they are not generally judged on?

    As I see it, you have a funnel effect:

  1. A lot of kids just aren’t prepared for advanced math and science classes when they hit college, if they even make it out of high school. That’s especially true for low income students of all races, and for students at predominately Black and Latino schools. The stats measuring whether 8th graders are at or above grade level in math show proficiency is over 80 percent of both white and Asian/Pacific Islander students, but below 60 percent for both Blacks and Latinos. Then in high school, the question often becomes whether there are AP classes and other advanced instruction. (Another Soledad O’Brien special, Don’t Fail Me, shows that even middle class white neighborhoods can lack advanced math/science course options in high school.)
  2. The funnel narrows in college. A recent article by Jesse Washington in the Huffington Post on the decline of blacks in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) professions notes:

    Black people are 12 percent of the U.S. population and 11 percent of all students beyond high school. In 2009, they received just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

  3. After you’re done with school, existing social networks become important tools for job seekers. And that brings us back to social replication, whether engineered consciously or much more often, done unconsciously.

Technology is, of course, both rising in social importance while simultaneously fading into the background of our consciousness. It’s baked into everything we do. Within the mourning for Steve Jobs was a realization that he was the father of cyborgs-at-play, the cyborgs being the millions of people now listening to their iPods or using another one of Apple’s devices. By making technology beautiful as well as functional, Jobs made it sexy and fun. But many more people know how to use the machine than give it commands, and the question remains how that affects society. In the speech that inspired his book Program or Be Programmed, Douglas Rushkoff argues that “I do believe that if you are not a programmer, you are one of the programmed….the users, or worse, the used.”

Rushkoff uses “programming” both in the sense of coding and in the replication and evolution of ideas. If we’re inventing the future right now, both in the memetic sense and the technological sense, then I think we need a diverse workforce in order to make long-term strategic shifts that broadly benefit the economy and society. But diversity is a longer engagement play, not a quick win. The business case for a long-term approach may be outweighed by immediate concerns. But if no foundation for a diverse workforce is laid in a company’s start-up and growth phases, then it really requires a massive effort to make changes once the enterprise has scaled.

The article by Jesse Washington quotes former astronaut Mae Jemison saying, “So many times it’s the diversity of thought and perception and experience base that starts to make the difference in the problems you research and the solutions you consider. It’s a much more robust reason for diversity that just the head count.” New York offers a rich panoply of cultural diversity. Is Jemison’s perspective shared by technology entrepreneurs and investors? And is there a by-the-numbers business case for diversity? I’d love to get more stats, stories, and perspectives.

Also of note: last year, the San Jose Mercury News ran a story titled “Blacks, Latinos and women lose ground at Silicon Valley tech companies.” The paper filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get data on local tech companies, and wrote of their findings:

  • Of the 5,907 top managers and officials in the Silicon Valley offices of the 10 large companies in 2005, 296 were black or Hispanic, a 20 percent decline from 2000, according to U.S. Department of Labor work-force data obtained by the Mercury News through a Freedom of Information request.
  • In 2008, the share of computer workers living in Silicon Valley who are black or Latino was 1.5 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively — shares that had declined since 2000. Nationally, blacks and Latinos were 7.1 percent and 5.3 percent of computer workers, respectively, shares that were up since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • The share of managers and top officials who are female at those 10 big Silicon Valley firms slipped to 26 percent in 2005, from 28 percent in 2000.
  • Wish I had the updated stats, and ones for Silicon Alley. If you have a reference, let me know…