The numbers are shocking: African Americans founded less than 1 percent of all technology startups, a statistic that was broadcast several times during Sunday night’s CNN program "Black in America: The New Promised Land, Silicon Valley."
The one-hour program shed a harsh light on the Silicon Valley startup community. Veteran news reporter Soledad O’Brien hosted the segment and interviewed a variety of bigwigs including Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, an online publication that tracks the technology industry.
During her interview with Arrington, O’Brien asked him to identify the most successful African-American tech CEO he could think of. Arrington shifted in his chair, mumbled and then turned the question on O’Brien.
“I don’t know; I don’t cover technology,” she replied.
The spotlight went back to Arrington, who answered that he "didn’t know one black entrepreneur"—and seemed ashamed of it.
O’Brien also spoke with Ron Conway, a highly influential venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. She asked if it was harder for African Americans to get funding.
“Yes,” Conway answered, who later said that venture capitalists don’t know where to find African-American entrepreneurs.
Changing the climate
The thesis of Sunday night’s program—the lack of African-American entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley—was conveyed through the eyes of eight individuals participating in the NewME Accelerator. Created by Angela Benton and Wayne Sutton, two budding tech entrepreneurs, NewME is designed to put African American entrepreneurs through a rigorous multi-week boot camp in preparation for a funding pitch.
The show highlighted eight individuals, all armed with business ideas, crammed into a small house in Mountain View, Cali., for a nine-week program. The group met with business leaders, venture capitalists and angel investors to discuss strategy. They worked night and day on their ideas.
During one particularly influential meeting, Vivek Wadhwa, an Indian-American entrepreneur and Duke University professor, came to the house to speak with the group. He told participants that while pitching his startup idea to investors, he was advised to hire a “white guy” to front his company. He did that and it worked.
The group turned silent, shocked by his words. Before Wadhwa’s talk, each entrepreneur was working independently. After he spoke, they decided to help each other succeed.
The NewME Accelerator program ended in a conference room on Google’s campus. Each entrepreneur made a 10-minute presentation to a standing-room-only crowd. They were nervous, but were later commended by the crowd for doing well.
Pius Uzamere, a NewME participant and co-founder of BeCouply, a social network for couples, was perplexed by the compliments.
“People are surprised by how good we were,” he said. “Why is that a surprise?”
The show was taped in August, and since then only a few startups from the accelerator have been funded.
The hard work continues.
What did you think of Sunday night’s CNN program? Why do you think there is a lack of African American-led technology companies?