After CNN correspondent Soledad O'Brien’s installment of "Black In America: The New Promised Land, Silicon Valley,” many people were upset by the reporting that revealed a dearth of black American leaders in the tech industry. According to O'Brien's report, the reason was simply that there weren’t many opportunities open to the population.
“We knew the numbers that we had seen were roughly fewer than one percent of companies that are funded are run by African-American tech entrepreneurs," O’Brien reported. “There aren't that many, and they're not the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. Until you create a black Mark Zuckerberg, or that person who can really be the face of black success in Silicon Valley technology, you're going to not really be able to necessarily inspire people."
The report started a much-needed dialogue. We spoke with Charles Hudson (@chudson), a venture partner with SoftTech VC and the CEO and co-founder of San Francisco gaming company Bionic Panda Games, about the reality of homogenous Silicon Valley and how to potentially break away from that mold.
"At a community resource level there aren’t resources to support black entrepreneurs in the tech industry," says Hudson, himself an African America. “There are umbrella organizations, but they don’t necessarily correlate with the needs of technology. To make something happen here for a black population, you have to have enough people in the area. We’re just starting to get together on our own, we’re [in the] very early stages of creating a centralized community tool for black entrepreneurs in this space.”
While Hudson is part of the minority, his work experience is part of the majority of people who work hard and collaborate with various companies and later reap the rewards of such professional adventures. His experience includes a former position as VP of business development for Serious Business (later acquired by Zynga) and positions at Gaia Interactive, Google, IronPort Systems and In-Q-Tel. Here’s what Hudson suggests to fellow black entrepreneurs looking to enter and conquer the technology space.
Your Background Plays a Role
Accept that while the demographic hasn’t yet changed much in Silicon Valley, neither have the requirements for what attracts investors to investing in new ideas, so listen up.
According to Hudson, the teams that get funding are those that are already working on a tech problem and get discovered while working within the space at an established startup.
“We like people who have the technical capabilities to solve the problem,” says Hudson. “Engineers who come out of Facebook and then want to build a social application, or Google, who want to do something involving advertising space. Those are the kinds of companies that attract us. We love the two engineers who worked at a startup that had a good outcome. The presumption is they are smart and know how to build a company. We’re more inclined to fund two recent Stanford or MIT grads. That is a model that historically works and allows for less risk.”
Surround Yourself With Like-Minded People
Success and drive have no gender or race, so find people who subscribe to the religion of good ideas and excellent follow-through. Consider moving to Silicon Valley to find that dense population of idea and deal makers.
“You’ve got to be there to network your way toward opportunities; many aren’t made public,” says Hudson. “The best way to get into starting a startup is to get into working at a startup. If you’re here in Silicon Valley, you meet individuals at semi-social and semi-professional opportunities. These are the opportunities that don’t make it to websites, but are filled on a referral basis. It works for all races and backgrounds and you can come in as relatively unknown. In six to twelve months you become plugged into the community and can establish some pretty good contacts and access to employment.”
Don’t Be So Over-Protective of Your Ideas When That’s All They Are
If you want support from people, you can’t leave them guessing what you need. Let go of that feeling, particularly in the early idea stages when you’re looking for help developing the idea into a reality.
“I often find people who are looking for support but then are hesitant to share their ideas,” says Hudson. “It’s not that ideas don’t have merit, but people need to know your ideas so that they can actually figure out how to help you if they are able to. If they can’t help you, they probably know the right people who can help you as well.”
Learn to Ask for Help
Don’t fake it if everything is not A-OK; admit where you are challenged and need help. Pride doesn’t make you CEO of your own business. A good idea, great execution, and hard work does—along with the ability to recognize your limitations. Don’t worry about letting people know things aren’t going well if you’re dedicated and working passionately on your goals. Silicon Valley is a destination of connectors. It’s full of people who like to show off how helpful they can be with the understanding that there is always a chance for some reciprocity.
“It’s a mistake when people don’t admit to any of the challenges they are grappling with while in the process,” says Hudson. “You never ever know who can help you with a problem until you share what you need, especially here in Silicon Valley. Once you’ve dedicated the time and worked yourself into the community, you find there is always someone who knows someone who knows someone who might be able to work with you and help you.”
Learn From Those That Came Before You
Embrace the work of people who did it the hard way before you as work they did for you. The tech industry didn’t start yesterday, so superb and terrible ideas have been incubating for enough time where you can find someone who has the experience to answer most any challenge out there.
“In every community there is someone who is always ahead of you in forming a company,” says Hudson. “There is no reason for you to learn every lesson from scratch. If you are trying to grow your company from 10 to 20 people, you are by no means the first to do this. Go right to the people that just did and ask for the best way to move forward.”
Remember That the Odds Are Low for Everyone
In Silicon Valley, there are companies that make it and a lot more that don’t. There’s a third group of people Hudson emphasizes that O’Brien didn’t touch on.
“What about the people that are quietly succeeding out here? There are people focused on working hard and creating a great business, raising money and growing, but not craving the limelight and visibility of those better-known tech leaders. The best way for the black community to change the face of technology is to build a really successful company. Let’s get five or ten black entrepreneurs to successfully build a company that gets acquired and goes public for a meaningful sum of money, then we are reaching those milestones.”
Would you relocate to Silicon Valley to pursue your tech idea?
Photo credit: Courtesy Charles Hudson