It’s no secret that Silicon Valley has a problem with diversity. Apart from being male-dominated, most of its workforce is white or Asian, with whites disproportionately in leadership positions. Google and Yahoo disclosed in 2015 that their workforces were only 1 percent black – Facebook was only 2 percent black and Twitter was close to 0 percent. On average, according to the American Society for Engineering Education, most Silicon Valley tech firms have less than 2 percent black employees.
The problem is two-fold: at the educational level, getting young minority students involved in STEM fields, and at the institutional level, making sure those minority students are recruited, accommodated, and encouraged. The cultural barriers involved in integrating into a white-male-dominated tech culture can be intimidating: "I wish that tech leaders would just be honest and admit that they've made tech culture so exclusive and toxic... Ignoring the fact that underrepresented talent exists shows me that they don't care about diversity and they don't want us working in tech," Kaya Thomas, a black woman studying computer science at Dartmouth College, wrote last year.
However, a rare few have been able to break the color barrier, becoming successful African-Americans in tech and an inspiration to people of color everywhere. Here are five to celebrate.
Divine has one of the most inspiring stories in tech, period. Divine was a Brooklyn MC who was incarcerated for nearly ten years. While in prison, he read an article about Ben Horowitz, the venture capitalist who lives his life by hip-hop ethics, and made it his mission to meet Horowitz when he was released. Through Twitter, he was able to share his story with Horowitz, and soon after, he became VC powerhouse Andreessen Horowitz’s official rapper.
Divine has become a champion for African-American and urban interests in tech. In an interview with Forbes, he said: “There are so many systems in place that are wrong and need to be fixed, or eradicated altogether, to assist in solving the diversity problem. It’s an uphill battle. It’s people like myself and stories like mine – that’s what will bring greater awareness. I think the whole theme of diversity and inclusion is going to hit critical mass in the next five to seven years – hopefully sooner. The dialogue is much stronger than it ever was. But it’s still not enough, and that’s being realized more and more among those in tech at the forefront of trying to solve the diversity and inclusion problem.”
Anthony Frasier is a serial entrepreneur from Newark, NJ. A high school dropout, he was able to channel his love for video gaming into founding an award-winning gaming site, TheKoalition.com. Along with James Lopez, he founded the enormously popular The Phat Startup, a media company focusing on the intersection of hip-hop and tech. The Phat Startup offered a bi-annual tech and hip-hop conference, Tech808, as well as interviews with industry heavy-hitters like Alexis Ohanian and Gary Vaynerchuk. For years, they provided a space where minority entrepreneurs, freelancers, designers, and artists could come together and collaborate.
Brian Watson graduated college only four years ago, but has already served two years as an analyst at prestigious VC Union Square Ventures, and is currently a Senior Product Manager at VSCO. What makes Watson impressive is his young age and high competency, and incredible potential – he’s already been named one of the most important African-Americans in technology by Business Insider.
Kimberly Bryan is the Founder of BlackGirlsCode, a six-week program that teaches programming skills, robotics, and other technological concepts to young African-American women. The progress has garnered much recognition and praise, and Bryant is a powerful advocate – speaking to Fast Company, she said “[our organization is] unapologetically black. My goal is to make sure the girls understand there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. This is about taking pride in our culture and advancing our culture.”
Tech pioneer Ken Coleman, 69, is the oldest entry on this list, and was one of the very first African-Americans in Silicon Valley as an executive at Hewlett-Packard. He was also venture capitalist Ben Horowitz’s mentor (Horowitz called him “my personal guardian angel”) and remains outspoken on diversity within Silicon Valley today.
In interviews, Coleman makes a pragmatic case for workplace diversity. ”I don't think diversity should be a deficit model," he says. "It's an opportunity model. If I know something you don't know about the marketplace because of my staff, I will beat you. And that's something every company out there should be concerned about."
As part of its mission to promote diversity and acceptance in the workplace, TMC has launched a series of Workplace Excellence Awards, including the Tech Diversity Award, which celebrates the drive to a more multicultural work environment in the tech industry. If your company if one of the many that has already embraced diversity in the workplace, this program is a chance to highlight leadership toward workplace excellence.
About the author: Josh Althauser is an entrepreneur with a background in design and M&A. He's also a developer, open source advocate, and designer. You may connect with him on Twitter.
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