4:00pm November 19, 2011

“Racism” in Silicon Valley? Probably. But, does it matter?


There’s been some brouhaha over venture capitalist and TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington’s comments on CNN’s Black In America for some time now.

At a recent screening of the documentary sponsored by Black Founders, some members of the NewMe Accelerator – and the subjects of the doc – sat on a panel and took questions from an audience comprised mostly of other Black entrepreneurs.  Before the screening, we were encouraged to move past the Arrington comment, and to think about the larger issues facing us as Black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. The questions for the panel mostly focused on successes, failures, lessons learned, and what we can do to help each other.

The audience was enthusiastic and we were all excited to see the documentary, which had garnered so much attention and caused so much controversy in the past weeks. At last, the mainstream media was focusing on diversity in technology and Silicon Valley in general. For the most part though, we wanted to understand what all the fuss was about.  Why had a sound bite created so much controversy as opposed to the show on a whole?

In my conversations with other tech entrepreneurs prior to the screening, the general consensus was thus:  No one cared how many Black entrepreneurs Arrington knew. We know we exist. We know that we’re here. Arrington does not validate us. His acknowledgement of us does not slow our roll nor does it affect our “grind”. We have been Black all our lives. We understand that we have to be better than everyone else just to be in the game. [Insert Like this one

In this clip, Hank Williams (NewMe participant) discusses with Soledad O’Brien, the BiA host, how race really matters and how much the term meritocracy means to someone who has no resources or support to move their idea from pen and paper to a viable product with a winning business model and a successful team. Williams is careful to state that the question and its answer are not as simple as yes or no.

We should remember that when we begin to have more of these discussions after the show airs.

Today, as an entrepreneur, I am constantly on the lookout for qualified African American engineers. On a team of 8 engineers, I have one female African American engineer. And she’s good — damn good. Every few weeks or so, I ask her if she knows any other Black engineers. We joke that she is a unicorn – one of a kind. We discuss her experiences as a Black engineer. How did she come to it? Did she find it easy? Was she well versed in math and science? Was she a geek? Everyone’s path is different but the fact that we joke about her being a unicorn makes us both uneasy. We want this to be the norm and not such a rare occurrence.

The documentary should be a starting point for those of us who are entrepreneurs and founders to identify those areas where we are lacking in resources and to achieve for others what we have done for ourselves.  Being an entrepreneur is more than having an idea. It takes execution, drive, ambition, and money.

So then, where are our Black angel investors? We need you to invest in our companies. Where are our Black reporters? We need you to get the word out about these founders and their startups. Where are our Black educators? We need you to push STEM education and help to educate our youth on the importance to science and mathematics. Where are our millionaire basketball and football players? Where are our Black churches? We need you to put your money where your mouths are and help us raise money to fund our ventures. We must perpetuate the idea that learning, technology, and entrepreneurship are cool.

Since I started my company, I’ve found an incredibly supportive community of Black entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. They come in all shapes and sizes and ages. But, they’re here. So, whether Arrington knows two or twenty Black entrepreneurs, doesn’t really matter to us. We have an opportunity and an obligation to move the discussion forward with real action.

Is there racism in Silicon Valley? Probably. Is Michael Arrington a racist? I don’t really care.

Sian Morson is the founder and CEO of Kollective Mobile. She is a digital veteran who has honed her craft over the years as a Project/Product  Manager for agencies from San Francisco to London. She’s worked on some of the top brands in the world and has a keen interest in developing mobile products to help small businesses.  Sian brings with her a deep knowledge of the interactive and mobile spaces and has written on these topics for AfroPunk, Politic365, and other journals.

About the Author

Sian Morson
Sian Morson is the CEO and founder of Kollective Mobile, a mobile development consultancy in Oakland, CA. She writes about technology with an emphasis on mobile development and small businesses. She holds a BFA from New York University and a MA from Middlesex University in London. Sian has worked for some of the top agencies in the world including Tribal DDB, Draft/FCB and McCann Erickson. She has a keen interest in bridging the digital divide and has written on the subject for Politic 365 and Afro Punk. She is the author of the forthcoming book: “Effective Mobile Strategies for Small Businesses”. Sian is also an internationally exhibited video artist. Her videos deal with issues of politics, femininity, and race. Follow her on Twitter: @xianamoy



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  1. Wm_Tucker

    Not only are Michael Arrington's comments (and the corresponding analysis about them in the chattersphere) immaterial to assessing the state of African-Americans in technology, the documentary itself trivialized the issue as matters of entrepreneurship and high finance for just one industry. Romanticizing about making STEM-related careers appear "cool" to influence more Af-Am kids' participation in the sector is equally misguided.

    There are multiple, overlapping explanations for the disproportionately low representation of Af-Ams in STEM. To Arrington's point, there doesn't appear to be much evidence to support active class-wide discrimination against Af-Ams is a prevailing factor. Allowing for the (diminishing) presence of latent, class-wide discrimination against Af-Ams indirectly affecting all American institutions simultaneously, there are other, more direct challenges Af-Ams can and should directly address, as your questions imply. Hopefully, those of us who are presently involved in technology or STEM-related careers will not let Arrington's comments or comments about his comments serve as a distraction.

  2. Sian: This is probably one of the most on point posts I have read since Arringtons comments were made public. To me a lot of us need to stop being naive about the situation and look at it for what it is. You have to take into account that there aren't many black engineers/techs and then you have to take into account, that out of those, how many are entrepreneurs? Just because they are engineers doesn't mean that they are a geyser of incredible ideas. In order for this to be a viable argument we know that we have to produce more engineers and techs. The situation to me is akin to playing ball in your neighborhood. If you are in your own neighborhood , on the court, and are playing pickup games with your "homies" , you know the level of talent that you are surrounded with and what they can or cannot do. Even if another brotha came from another neighborhood, you'll still give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to choosing teams. Now what if a white guy happens to step on the court. You and I both know that you are going to be reluctant to choose him until he proves himself. Now say you choose him after he sits out and he torches the nets, most likely you are going to want to choose him again, but thats just him. If more white guys show up it's going to take a while for them to gain your confidence as well. Now once this becomes a regular occurrence you won't have a problem with choosing them to be on your team. I see whats going on in SV in the same light. We must prove ourselves, and not just as competent engineers and techs but that the ideas that we produce are viable revenue generating ideas. But first we have to nurture and build a culture that produces quality engineers and that takes creating communities in which we help each other build, teach one another and mentor one another. Once we do that, once we are producing these quality people, SV will come knocking on OUR door.

    Greg Greenlee
    Owner/Founder of Blacks In Technology http://www.blacksintechnology.net
    "Bringing Unity to the Black IT Community"

  3. Paul

    What about IQ difference? Can it be an explanation?

    Whites are underrepresented in basketball? Is this racism against them? Is this discrimination?

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