Black In America Series Says Race Matters In Silicon Valley

I don’t usually watch the Black In America series, but I will tonight because one of the entrepreneurs in The New Promised Land- Silicon Valley episode is Angela Benton, a dynamic woman from the East Coast who used to pay me to write for one of her websites a little over a year ago. As Benton points out early in the show, “for whatever reason, African-Americans tend to be consumers of technology and not really creators of technology.” She is looking to change that with the NewMeAccelerator, an immersive residential tech startup accelerator that focuses on helping minority business onwers navigate the vagaries of launching a technology startup.   


The story of how Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, decided to open an internet business came to mind after doing a little reading about the experiences of the participants in this Black In America special.

“The wake up call was finding this startling statistic that web usage in the spring of 1994 was growing at 2,300 percent a year. You know, things just don't grow that fast. It's highly unusual, and that started me about thinking, ‘What kind of business plan might make sense in the context of that growth?’”

Jeff Bezos Interview for the Academy of Achievement

Even though I live in Atlanta, there is only one person among my circle of friends who has recently launched a technology startup that is focused more on harnessing the power of a trend than selling a specific product, the way Bezos did. This is partly because my circle of friends are all approaching 50, and partly because a disproportionate amount of the entrepreneurial energy in the African American community in Atlanta gravitates towards starting ventures oriented towards the music industry.

There is no entourage when you are pitching a technology startup. No glamour. No perks. Curtiss Pope, CEO of AisleFinder, puts it this way:

When I created AisleFinder the hardest part was finding data. There was none. I found out that people that tried what we were doing in the past, but gave up because this was the “hardest” part. Persistence helped us get where we are.

For minority startups, we can’t get where we want to go with what we got. Not yet. But I believe we can get there, by focusing on the following:

  • Look inside ourselves and be critical. Not negative, but scrutinizing.
  • Over-perform on each facet of your business. Know more about the history of the industries that you want to take over.
  • Out-innovate, not just for innovations sake, but find innovative ways to solve problems.
  • Break all the rules, every one of them. People that believe there are rules, or a formula to startup success, will live by them. The ones running things are not following anything but their instincts.
  • Make people smile when they hear about your product. Simple goal, the more smiles that you see when you describe your product/service, the more you know you are solving a real issue, as opposed to building a feature.
  • Build your prototype. Today. Even if you build one main feature. Do it however you can. This will build your confidence in what you are doing, and you can learn more, if you let people “play” with you app/website.
  • Of all the things I want to leave you with, it’s these words:

    Just be better.

    How black entrepreneurs can succeed in Silicon Valley

    The best thing about this particular Black In America special to me is that it breaks new ground in exposing the venture capital process to African Americans who have aspirations of being the next Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos and showing just how the system actually works.

    Back in the 90’s, I was working at the Atlanta branch of a small brokerage firm that did 4 or 5 tiny IPO’s a year when a college friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his, a black Florida A & M graduate who wanted to provide detailed home valuations for realtors online. He came to our Buckhead office to pitch my manager. Our corporate office wouldn’t even look at his idea. He kept pitching, though, and eventually found the millions in funding that put RealEstate.com on the map until the internet boom went bust.

    This guy didn’t fit the profile that Silicon Valley venture capitalists have honed for the last two decades to decide who to back and who to turn down. But he knew his product and his target market cold, had a financial and statistical background that allowed him to communicate effectively with investors, and was poised to dominate an entire industry.   

    It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and demonize the technology industry because it doesn’t have many minorities among its ranks. But I'm going to be brutally honest for a minute. Would we be ready, as African Americans, if technology companies and venture capitalists decided overnight to triple the number of minorities they hire and quadruple the number of minority ventures they fund?   

    I think those influential African Americans who can have a direct impact on how resources are allocated in our community should do more to redirect some of the dollars we are already spending on training programs that teach the skills needed to run the infrastructure of the internet—the databases, the content management systems, and the programming languages that every app and website relies on to function—towards getting many, many more African American youth ready to compete in a technology based world.

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    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.