Angela Benton is living proof that one person can make a significant difference in the world. If her name rings a bell, it’s probably because—like me—you were captivated by CNN's Nov. 13 broadcast of Black in America. According to the program, African Americans launch less than 1 percent of all technology startups.
The plight of the African American entrepreneur was told through the eyes of those participating in the NewME Accelerator, an incubator for minority-led startups co-founded by Benton. Entrepreneurs crammed into a house in Mountain View, Calif., for an intense nine-week curriculum where, at the end, they pitched ideas to real investors. The broadcast shed light on Benton’s personal background as a 30-year-old single mother of three daughters with a fierce drive to change the dynamics of diversity in Silicon Valley.
As the program then dove into the lives of budding technology entrepreneurs, I stayed fascinated with Benton. What is her story? How did she get to where she is? What lessons has she learned?
Hungry to find out, I called her up.
Q: Could you tell me a little about your background?
A: I grew up in Northern Virginia and had my first daughter when I was 16 years old. Everything has really been on hyper speed since then. Thanks to advanced and honors classes, I graduated high school in three years. I had my second child when I was 19 and got married when I was 20. Throughout that time, I went to school and worked in a variety of roles ranging from McDonald’s jobs to sales jobs to staffing positions.
I graduated from American InterContinental University in 2004 with a degree in fine arts and digital design. I had my third child when I was 25 and got divorced when I was 27.
Q: How did you get interested in the technology industry?
A: I had moved to Charlotte, N.C., and was working at The Business Journals. They asked me to redesign their website; it was my first foray into consumer internet technology. If you look on their site now—that is the layout I worked on. I also worked for a variety of dot-coms in Charlotte.
Q: How did you get interested in helping African Americans enter the technology industry?
A: I was working at LendingTree in Charlotte and they started work on a site for African Americans. While I was doing research for the project, I looked into other technology companies working in this space. I couldn’t find any African American technology entrepreneurs.
After realizing that there really wasn’t a community for the African American technology space, I launched Black Web 2.0. It was August 2007.
Q: What is Black Web 2.0?
A: It’s kind of like a black TechCrunch. It is the only place online where you can find information about African Americans as it relates to technology. You can find articles on entrepreneurship, what black celebrities are doing in the digital space—anything relating to that.
I was working on Black Web 2.0 when I was laid off from a startup. I’d been working on the site for a year and I had to decide if I would try to get another job or take a leap of faith. I decided to dive head first into the site.
Q: How did Black Web 2.0 make money?
A: We made money in various ways. At one point we made a lot of money off advertisements. We also did custom campaigns and consulting and research.
Q: How did the NewME Accelerator come about?
A: Back in May 2010, we had a NewME conference. I invited entrepreneurs from all over the mid-Atlantic region and several high-ranking people in government and public policy. We had panels and breakouts to discuss why there are not more successful African Americans in the technology industry.
At the end of the summit, we had a brainstorming session and one of the things that came up was to start an accelerator for minorities. Earlier this year, Wayne [Sutton, co-founder of NewME Accelerator], someone I knew through Black Web 2.0, brought up the idea of doing a startup house. That is when the idea started coming together.
Q: How did you decide on the structure of the incubator?
A: When we were doing research, a lot of entrepreneurs said they felt disconnected from Silicon Valley, so that’s when the idea for a residential component came into play. From there, we added the education and mentorship part of it. We ended up putting the whole thing together in three months.
Q: What was it like living in Mountain View with the founders for nine weeks?
A: It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was a lot. There was always something to do, and it was somewhat unorganized. For example, when we were scheduling in advance of the program, we had been using Google Calendars on East Coast time. We had to fix all of that when we got out to California. And then there was the trash. Adults produce a lot of trash, so we had to get extra trash pickup.
Q: Did you discuss the reasons for why there aren’t more African American entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley?
A: That wasn’t really part of the curriculum. We focused on moving forward and what to do about it.
Q: What’s been the reaction of the CNN special?
A: What’s really interesting and a blessing is that so many people are talking about it now. I think people were aware of the lack of diversity beforehand, but now people are open to real solutions, which is great.
Q: Is Black Web 2.0 still around?
A: Yes and I have a great editor managing the site. She is better than me at finding stories.
Q: What do you think the future looks like in Silicon Valley?
A: I think the whole industry will be more diverse in coming years.
Q: What is one lesson you’ve learned on your business journey?
A: I’ve learned that work-life balance looks different for everyone. I think it looks a little more like organized chaos. Every day is different. I think if women can change the way they think about balance, they can be more successful business owners.
For more on this topic, check out "Is Silicon Valley A Racist Community?" and "The Real Story Behind Being Black In Silicon Valley."