There’s no single answer for how to make the technology community more inclusive of black entrepreneurs. But it will require better science and math education for minority students, more effort from companies to hire a diverse workforce, and a willingness among venture capitalists to invest in people of color.
Those were some of the ideas put forth during a pair of panels last Friday at Technoir, the first in a series of discussions and networking events created to examine the challenges and opportunities unique to black entrepreneurs.
Conceived by District-based digital marketing firm Ghost Note Agency, Technoir may be a first step toward inclusion in and of itself, founders said. It’s common for technology events to be a sea of largely white and male faces. Technoir, however, brought a predominantly black audience to D.C. start-up hub 1776.
“There are lots of situations where you’re in a room and you’re the minority. I’ve been in that situation for most of my life. We need to find a way to create events where it’s more balanced,” said Brandon Ellis, the co-founder and CEO of Ghost Note.
Harry Wingo, CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, addresses the crowd as Erin Horne McKinney, the tech and innovation sector manager for the D.C. government, looks on. (Photo by Steven Overly)
Convening an audience of black entrepreneurs is just one hurdle to overcome.
Clearly Innovative chief executive Aaron Saunders, one of the night’s panelists, co-founded a summer camp and academic program at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science called Startup Middle School that gives youngsters experience solving problems with math, science and technology.
When Saunders first started the program, none of the students had met a software engineer. If young people aren’t exposed to people working in technology, Saunders said, they may not even realize those careers exist or how to pursue them.
“These are the things that make a difference,” Saunders said. “These are the things that move the needle.”
While preparing the next generation of software engineers and Web developers is important, panelists observed, diversity at large tech companies is a problem today. The industry’s lack of women and people of color has been well documented, most recently in demographic data companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have disclosed about their workforces.
The second panel of the evening,” The New Face of Black Innovation,” featured local entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts who discussed challenges unique to black entrepreneurs. (Photo by Steven Overly)
“A lot of these top firms, their diversity is in my opinion shameful,” said Justin Maddox, the chief executive of CrowdTrust, an identity verification service for crowdfunding sites. “It’s extremely lame in 2014 for you not to be able to reach outside your demographic and grab somebody of another gender or another race.”
Start-ups founded by women and people of color are also funded in lower numbers than those founded by white men. While studies have shown there are a number of reasons for the disparity, several panelists said the fact investors often look within their network for the next big idea contributes to the problem.
“If you have a great idea and somebody believes the only people who have great ideas are white males, then how are we ever going to create an economy that outperforms those economies like China?” asked Talib I. Karim, executive director of the nonprofit STEM4US!. “We have an advantage in our diversity.”
Crowdfunding offers an opportunity for minority entrepreneurs to get their start even with that disadvantage. The practice of start-ups raising small sums of money from a large network of people means entrepreneurs no longer need deep-pocketed investors to get their ventures off the ground.
“Everyone in this room has the capacity to be angel,” said Toya Powell, vice president of operations at the National Black Chamber of Commerce. “You could, in your own sphere of influence, invest in each other.”
Chika Umeadi, left, the co-founder of TipHub, smiles as political analyst Jamal Simmons speaks to the crowd gathered at District start-up hub 1776. (Photo by Steven Overly)