Last Sunday, 22 football players suited up and took the field to play in the NFL’s 50th Super Bowl. Like any given Sunday, a large percentage of the players on the field were black. In fact in 2014, 70 percent of NFL players were black, but until 1946 black players were shut out of professional football completely.
The year that color barrier was broken, talent of all colors flooded in and changed the face of the game forever.
Fitting then, that the 50th Super Bowl took place in the heart of Silicon Valley. The home of technology has been waging a very public battle to remove color barriers of their own.
Since longtime civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson first began demanding release of tech diversity data in a run on shareholder meetings in early 2014, many companies reversed their previous position of claiming that their diversity data was a trade secret and instead many including Google, Intel and Facebook have started to publish their numbers.
What came to light wasn’t pretty. Many of the tech giants have hired fewer than 2 percent black employees, far below the 12 percent that black Americans represent of the population.
Companies like Apple have resisted efforts to diversify their board, claiming that it is an undue hardship and despite a tech talent crunch, Silicon Valley hires only half of the young black engineering grads with newly minted diplomas each year. Venture funding for and by black people is similarly grim, with only 1.5 percent of funders and 1 percent of founders identifying as African-American.
However, this color barrier in tech — the product of implicit and explicit bias and a valley phenomenon known as ‘pattern matching’ coupled with long time systemic issues of educational and economic access in black communities — is starting to collapse.
Early success stories like Google’s chief counsel David Drummond, Intel corporate VC Lisa Lambert and early Zappos investor Erik Moore are being joined by new rising stars like tech and rap world darling Tristan Walker of Walker & Company and hair Mayvenn Diishan Imira.
This intergenerational growth in diverse founders and investors is starting to have network effects.
Devo Harris, founder of Adventr, explains that “having investors and champions of color, like Kanye West and John Legend, who want you to succeed has been powerful for opening doors with investors and clients.”
And Venrock venture capitalist Richard Kerby notes that, “the black tech community is getting stronger in number and in quality everyday and groups such as Stealth Mode are reinforcing the strength of the community of blacks in tech in the Bay Area and beyond.”
As the number of black investors and founders grows in tech, so to do the ways that they are able to help each other win.
According to Maci Peterson, CEO & founder of On Second Thought, “The black tech network is a strong, stealthy machine.” And members of this informal team assist each other in ways big and small.
It’s not the first time a minority group has been able to help each other succeed in tech. In the infancy of the first tech boom, when most of Silicon Valley was farmland instead of office parks, Indian expats made their mark on technology with companies like Sun Microsystems — and that foothold has led to an informal Indian tech ‘mafia’ that leads many top companies and investment funds.
The effect in the black community is starting to be seen by the founders just now starting out in the valley — as seed stage ecommerce brand Good Counsel has observed firsthand. “The black network has been extremely influential in our development and in giving me the tools needed to be successful in the Valley,” says Good Counsel founder Rudy Thomas.
“It’s imperative that I help in creating an ecosystem that allows more black entrepreneurs the guidance and resources to be successful out here,” he continued.
The more diversity in the ecosystem, the more it proves the value of diversity as well.
“The black tech network has proven that there is valuable talent in the minority pool. And, the recent success of black founders underscores the size and validity of the opportunities that exist when we are able to tackle problems we know best and disrupt industries that disproportionately affect black people when, and if, given the chance,” says Lauren Maillian, Founder and CEO of LMB Group and host of upcoming Oxygen TV’s Quit Your Day Job.
Of course, navigating the world of tech, with its unspoken dress code of hoodies and cheerily enforced ‘culture fits’ isn’t always easy for those coming from other worldviews.
‘‘Anyone who understands team sports recognizes that there is often a difference between the written rules and the unwritten rules that dictate how the games are officiated. I have found that the technology community has been very supportive in general, but I have relied on the Black Tech Community to help explain the nuance between the written and unwritten rules of success. I, in turn, try to pass along what I have learned as well,” says Denmark West of Connectivity Ventures Fund.
Much as championships aren’t won in one big play, nor will success and an eradication of the color barrier in tech happen all at once. But the ball is moving down the field and we keep moving the chains to an eventual win.