Black businesswomen vie for a seat at the tech table
Fortune magazine released its annual “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” list for 2013. As in recent years, there were three African-Americans on the list: Ursula Burns, Xerox Corporation Chairman and CEO; Rosalind Brewer, CEO and president, Sam’s Club, a division of Wal-Mart; and Shonda Rhimes, creator and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.
Ms. Rhimes replaced Oprah Winfrey on the list at number 50 this year.
One out of every five executives on the list lead technology companies, including Ms. Burns. Technology continues to play a huge role in our lives and the economy, but why are there so few women of color leading these companies?
The Fortune list is not an anomaly.
According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women comprised 25 percent of computing occupations in 2009. When broken down by race, African-American and Hispanic women comprised 2 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively.
Exposure, access to capital, networking, and mentoring are some of the issues that keep women and especially African-American women from being in the tech talent pipeline.
Looking for the Next Mark Zuckerberg
“Girls from African-American and Latino communities do not have a lot of role models,” said Kimberly Bryant, founder of BlackGirlsCode. “There are many black women in tech, but not many Ursula Burns.”
“The cross section of gender and race is the biggest issue in tech today,” Bryant said.
“The whole tech ecosystem must be disrupted.” She said this starts with K-through-12 education and ends in the board room.
“Tech has a serious marketing problem,” said Kathryn Finney, founder of digitalundivided, a group that seeks to increase participation in tech by women in urban communities.
Finney said we must create a pipeline that is logical and organic to black women to increase our participation in the tech industry. She said there are plenty of black women working at companies such as Microsoft and Facebook, but “we’re not in power positions.”
“The current way tech works isn’t all that organic to anyone that is not a 25-year-old white guy in a hoodie,” Finney explained.
The tech sector thrives on startups. However, the startup environment typically requires seed money, often raised from family and friends, Finney explained.
“Historical wealth is fairly new in the black community. Rarely does wealth go back more than two generations,” Finney said.
“Very few of us have families that can give us $250,000 and not really worry about payback,” she said.
Leveraging Your Network
Networking is vital for success in the tech industry.
“Having a beer or hanging out still plays a role in deal making. How would you know of an opportunity if no one tells you it exists,” Finney said.
Bryant said women of color do not have broad networks in tech right now.
“The tech industry is touted as being a meritocracy, but it’s really about who you know, your network,” Bryant explained.
Once in the door of a tech company mentoring becomes even more important.
“[Facebook’s] Sheryl Sandberg and Ursula Burns both benefited from having connections with higher ups in their company,” Bryant said.
“Women need to know how the game is played.” Bryant said women of color tend to flounder without mentoring.
Publicly Traded Company or Start Up?
Finney said leading publicly traded companies is important, but black women should also focus on creating their own businesses and opportunities.
She predicted we are five or six years away from having a billion-dollar sale of a tech company led by a black woman.
“We want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs,” Finney said.
Shartia Brantley is a producer and on-air reporter at CNBC. Follow Shartia on Twitter at @shartiabrantley