Stiffed by investors, ignored by recruiters, these Black people in tech create support for themselves and others
In a field that intersects with so many others, Black people are underfunded and underrepresented. Mentorships and other programs seek to change that.
The numbers reflect a stark reality — venture capital drives technology and Black entrepreneurs are just getting a pittance.
Venture capital funding for Black start-ups hit $1.8 billion during the first half of 2021, a figure that looks impressive but hides a more concerning fact.
That’s a drop in the bucket when you consider, according to Crunchbase, VCs awarded $147 billion in total funding during that same time period. In other words, start-ups by Black entrepreneurs received just 1% of the VC monies.
Venture capital remains the lifeblood for technology firms, which receive about 62% of VC funds on a global basis. Those fortunate enough to get those funds can grow and expand businesses in a sector valued at $5.2 trillion in the United States alone.
Black people in that sector, underrepresented and in some cases underappreciated, have a message: We can do this, too. And we’re moving forward without your help.
The issue of Black people in tech has become prominent recently as lawsuits and allegations of discrimination hound the industry. A group of Black former employees sued Google in March, claiming discrimination, saying they were relegated to low-level roles in the company.
A lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleges Tesla subjected Black employees to racial slurs and discriminated against them in job assignments, promotions, and pay.
The problems go far beyond hiring. They permeate a financial investment structure that doesn’t include Black people, a still mostly segregated networking system, and large organizations with dismal hiring records.
Black people continue to be underrepresented in the major U.S. tech companies, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times. Facebook, Slack, Salesforce, and Microsoft have workforces that are less than 5% Black. Twitter’s is 6% Black.
But trying to create your own tech company presents challenges. A 2017 study by the Harvard Business School shows there’s very little diversity in money. Less than 1% of venture capitalists (0.3%, to be exact) are Black and the numbers aren’t much better for financial consultants (9%) and investment bankers (6%).
And stats for self-starters are worse. At the time of the 2017 study, Black people made up 12% of the population but 1% of entrepreneurs, which the report defines as company founders.
Technology jobs stand out for their high pay and growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects jobs in the technology sector to grow by 13% over the next decade, more than the average job category. The median wage of $91,250 is just about $50,000 a year more than the median wage for all occupations ($41,950).
Several subcategories within the field have median pay well north of $100,000 annually, For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects computer and research information scientist jobs to grow by 22% over the next decade. These positions, which solve complex computing problems, carry a median wage of $127,000 a year.
That’s why, all over the country, organizations, podcasts and online groups continue to pop up – all with the goal of helping Black people make the connections they need to thrive in tech. It’s not easy.
“Unfortunately, I think, for some of our counterparts feel we have to prove ourselves,” Deena McKay, a technologist and the host of the podcast Black Tech Unplugged, said.
“A means, not an end”
In 2012, five men founded The Hidden Genius Project, an Oakland, California-based group that mentors Black males in entrepreneurship, technology, and leadership.
Brandon Nicholson, the project’s founding executive director, said, “There’s a lot of young people here, especially Black boys and young men, who could benefit from more engagement, to be able to elevate their potential and realize their potential” in the technology field.
So far, the group has reached about 8,200 young men with various community programs, including some 400 through its 800-hour program component. The intensive component teaches computer science fundamentals, entrepreneurship, and leadership. The program also offers the support mentees need to graduate from high school and assistance with college opportunities.
“Doing whatever we can to help them achieve their goals,” Nicholson said, “This is about empowering.”
This type of mentoring has tremendous benefits, according to the National Mentoring Resource Center. Mentors have a positive effect on Black male youths’ grades in school, relationships with others, and prevention of risky behaviors.
“Tech has to be a means, not an end,” Nicholson said. “It’s got to be a means to something greater. And so when we look at why we’ve selected tech, it has to do with how do you equip people with as many skills and networks as you can to put them in a position to pursue their interests and passions, to grow their network, or grow their awareness of who’s around them and build relationships.
“There are so many opportunities that tie into all the things we do,” he said.
That’s what Nicholson drives home to his students. Tech isn’t just computer software, IT, and programming skills. Tech has an infinite range of possibilities limited only by the imagination.
“Tech helps bridge that gap, where we can help expand the imagination for all of us,” he said. “You can use tech skills in sound engineering and work in entertainment; use analytic skills to work in sports; you can leverage influencers in creative ways.”
That’s what happened with Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors. BamBam, a K-pop performer from Thailand who serves as the Warriors’ team ambassador, tweeted that Wiggins should make the NBA All-Star team and — roughly 72,000 likes, 38,000 retweets, and more than 3,400 quote tweets later — Wiggins was on the team.
“Sometimes you just got to be able to use it and get paid,” Nicholson said.
That’s what Angela Brown did — used tech to start a nationwide frenzy over a fast-food offering. In 2019, her succinct tweet in response to a competitor started the Popeyes chicken sandwich mania.
That tweet from Brown, a social media strategist for an Austin-based agency, received more than 292,000 likes and 76,000 retweets. This was a case in which a Black woman reached out to Black customers on Black Twitter to help fuel sales and success.
Nicholson has a broader view of tech that goes beyond code and computers. He looks at tech as a tool to get you where you want to be.
“As adults, we’ve got to be able to be creative, disciplined, compassionate, and assets-driven in how we really inspire young people. If we put these limitations on them, if we said, ‘Why aren’t you building the tech?’ Well, we don’t need to. If we have more people who happen to be in marketing and social media marketing, that we’re already doing this, and people are basically taking our stuff and selling it back to us, that’s a great place to start.
“And that’s how you inspire people to become the creators, right? It can’t just be the vision we have for them.”
“There’s lots of assumptions made for women of color”
Black Woman Talk Tech has another vision — to help Black women interested in technology and entrepreneurship come together and get the help and support they need to build their business.
The founders, Esosa Ighodaro and Regina Gwynn, come from a place of passion and persistence — passion because they love tech, persistence because they know what it’s like to be dismissed for being a woman and Black.
“We intimately understand how it feels,” Gwynn said, “to be in a room where you’re the only woman, let alone the only Black woman, trying to navigate this tech ecosystem.”
Those who try remain few and far between. Some 25% of women have jobs in tech but just 3% of them are Black.
Ighodaro and Gwynn have each founded their own company. Nothing in the tech world has been easy.
They’ve had to overcome being ignored, dismissed, and greeted with skepticism. Efforts to raise capital, find talent, and even just get in the right room with the right people proved trying.
“I remember coming to an investor meeting and introducing myself as the founder of the company,” Ighodaro, the founder of the image recognition company CoSign, said. “When I introduced myself, they’re like, oh, ‘OK, have a seat there. We’re just waiting for the founder.’ And I was just like, what’s happening? I just think sometimes they don’t believe.”
Gwynn, the founder of the virtual beauty consultant app TresseNoire, said she could hear investors “tuning her out” over the phone.
“I have plenty of examples of times in which [people believed] being a woman founder meant that I was working on something that was frilly, not necessarily valuable,” she said. “It wasn’t real tech. There’s lots of assumptions made for women of color that are trying to build a technology business.”
And there’s another big issue — getting a meeting so someone can fill a diversity box. Meet with a Black woman, and you get to cross off two criteria.
But the meetings don’t matter if businesses don’t get a check — and Black tech start-ups simply don’t get one, not with any regularity.
Venture capital funding for businesses with Black founders hit $1.8 billion in the first half of 2021, according to Crunchbase. That seems like a big number, but it’s not — that equals just over 1% of the $147 billion in venture capital awarded during that time.
It’s even worse for Black women founders, whose companies raised $494 million in the first half of 2021 — just 0.34% of the total available in venture capital funds.
So Ighodaro and Gwynn started Black Women Talk Tech in 2014. The group’s website contains a job board with positions like fullstack big data developer, senior software engineer, and user experience researcher. It offers a course that’s an introduction to working in tech and an on-demand webinar for tech founders.
Its big event held each June, Road Map to Billions, brings in experts to discuss everything from fund-raising to accounting, productivity, and more.
But it also provides women with a safe place to ask questions without feeling embarrassed.
“The word that we hear over and over every year is that it’s safe here and that’s something that is intentional,” Gwynn said. “It is by design and we are very focused on making sure that that experience stays consistent across all the programs that we do and across all the events that we have.”
Deena McKay has another focus — using her podcast to tell the stories of Black women in the technology field. Black Tech Unplugged’s nearly 60 episodes have featured talks with industry heavyweights such as Celestine Pressley, the first Black and first female chief information officer at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative .
McKay started the podcast after she realized that other Black women may need help navigating the tech world.
“I was working at a job and I didn’t have anyone that looked like me to help me navigate situations that were coming up in my career,” she said. “I had an amazing network of individuals outside of the workplace, and it dawned on me: If I’m having these issues at my job, that makes me think other people are having these issues.”
So she started the podcast, first by sharing it with her friends and eventually into a larger network. “We all probably need a little bit of help,” she said. “We’re all lost in this game, especially if we’re in tech and we’re one of the only ones in the room.”
Study after study shows mentors play a valuable role in guiding their mentees toward the right career paths, making introductions in their field, and acting as a counselor during difficult times.
In addition to groups like Hidden Genius and Black Women Talk Tech, there are a growing number of groups that offer support and mentorship opportunities. CIO, the digital technology magazine, lists more than a dozen organizations, for example.
Meeting and commiserating with other Black technologists — who each understand the pressures they face — can offer, at the very least, a support system. But it is critical to expand the network to include others who may have more power in hiring and decision making.
“It’s also really just a natural progression of you tend to navigate towards people that you can relate to, right, because networking is all about relating to people,” McKay said.
“Networking is a huge part of being in the tech industry,” McKay said. “So from a networking standpoint, I do think sometimes we need to diversify our network.”
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