In just under two weeks, CNN will be airing Black In America 4, about that rarest of breeds: African-American entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Already the topic has generated controversy with an interview of TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien. When asked if who his favorite black entrepreneur is, Arrington was stumped.
“I don’t know a single black entrepreneur,” stumbled the extremely well-connected blogger-turned-VC. From there, a heated online debate ensued — largely triggered by provocative post written by Arrington (“Oh Shit, I’m A Racist”) where he claims he was set up by CNN (whose parent company AOL coincidentally just fired Arrington over some conflict-of-interest aka politrix issues) and that his inner database isn’t racially indexed. O’Brien herself dove into the fray, claiming the interview was anything but a set up.
For longtime but still rare afrosomething new media executives like me, the discussion has been an intriguing change from the usual navel-gazing myopia that often characterizes much of tech journalism. It’s fascinating to see technologists like Mitch Kapor train their formidable sights towards a social issue that, for once, doesn’t involve unfriending or Like buttons.
While most thinkers like Kapor rightly admit one reason black geeks are scarce in Silicon Valley is because the industry is more a “mirror-tocracy” than a meritocracy, there is another side to this burdensome scenario: historically, African-American kids have been conditioned to aspire to becoming superstar athletes, platinum-selling artists and other role models far “cooler” than a serial entrepreneur or a PHP coder. Where being a brainy student among Asian, Indian and Jewish kids is not generally viewed as a negative, in too many black schools you’re viewed as a “pointdexter.” The situation wasn’t helped much by Hollywood whose past portrayals of atypical black males were too often represented by feckless fictional characters like Steve Erkle or Carlton Banks.
The good news is that, indirectly, Silicon Valley is already changing this scenario. In the past decade, technology itself has become “cool” thanks to ubiquitous breakthrough platforms like mobile tech (from the SideKick to the iPhone) and social networking — starting with MySpace and now with Twitter where a disproportionate percentage of users are African-American. Coupled with increasingly low barriers to entry, the fundamentals of network and application layers are being understood and embraced by young black America. It’s only a matter of time before the culture that produced bebop and hip hop discovers a profitable twist on new media much like DJs reinvented turntables. Any enlightened investor knows this.
And, as the obviously non-racist Arrington pointed out in his blog, good things are underway: “At Google Zeitgeist I sat with Will.i.am, Ron Conway, Larry Page, and others over lunch. Will.i.am was proposing an ambitious new idea to help get inner city youth (mostly minorities) to begin to see superstar entrepreneurs as the new role models, instead of NBA stars. He believes that we can effect real societal change by getting young people to learn how to program, and realize that they can start businesses that will change the world.”
In the meantime, Silicon Valley should not let itself off the hook and should instead continue to resolve this anachronistic lopsided situation. As the digital world becomes increasingly dominated by China and India, America will need all the diverse brain power it can get to compete in the global, electronic marketplace where no one knows you’re a dog, let alone a certain color. — MG