(Photo by Brian Dzenis)
When TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien ‘I don’t know a single black entrepreneur,’ the snippet of the fourth installment O’Brien’s “Black in America” documentary set off a firestorm of debate about race in the cradle of America’s tech community, Silicon Valley.
In Philadelphia, among some black entrepreneurs in and around technology, Arrington’s comments were not a surprise.
“Something could be so normal or commonplace that you don’t even know something is wrong,” said Tayyib Smith, the founder of two.one.five magazine and Little Giant Media. “I don’t begrudge him for saying that because that’s how he feels, it just proves the lay of the land in Silicon Valley, so it was a good thing and it got people talking.”
The documentary, which originally aired on Nov. 13 and was screened locally soon after, followed eight black entrepreneurs: their struggles and perspectives in developing investment and user interest in the competitive world of high technology.
“Personally, I think it’s an accurate depiction of what the technology scene looks like, especially here in Philadelphia,” said Bruce Marable, the co-founder and chief marketing officer for Northern Liberties web development shop Defined Clarity. “When I go to any local organization meetings, happy hours or anything going on within the technology community, it’s primarily young Caucasians, some Asians and maybe an Indian person. There’s hardly any African Americans.”
“There’s a lot of times when I’m the only African American around,” he added.
While the documentary posed questions as to whether or not Silicon Valley was a true meritocracy, Marable said there simply is not enough black presence in the tech community of any city to determine if institutional bias exists one way or the other.
“Honestly, I don’t know if there’s enough African Americans who aspire to be technology founders or aspire to create technology startups,” Marable said. “As far as I’m concerned, outside of myself, my partners and other individuals that I know, I can’t say there’s been any bias, especially within one race.”
There have been efforts to address what is seen as a relative lack of black entrepreneurs, particularly in a city of 1.5 million, half of whom are African American. University City incubator DreamIt Ventures has piloted a minority entrepreneur program funded by Comcast Interactive Capital. Since 1989, the Enterprise Center in West Philadelphia has quietly connected minority business leaders with capital and business planning, and the City of Philadelphia, like other municipalities, has committed to boosting its use of black-owned businesses. Locally, other examples persist of success among black entrepreneurs, including the ever-growing SEO-shop SEER Interactive led by Wil Reynolds and niche cable provider Wilco owned and operated by a black father-daughter pair. (Women, too, have gotten into the act of welcoming faces other than the white male norm.)
When it came time to start Defined Clarity, Marable and his co-founders had made enough connections from past work experiences that they more easily overcame many obstacles familiar to low-income and minority entrepreneurs.
“The industries we came from were predominately white, so we came in knowing a lot of people. We didn’t feel like outsiders trying to get into a club. We were leveraging a lot of relationships we already had from working with previous organizations,” Marable said.
But not everyone in the African American community is as inclined toward tech entrepreneurship as Marable or Smith and both said education is a good place to start for bridging the digital divide.
“I think it needs to start in the K-12 process, there’s a large initiative now to teach students regardless of their race, about science, engineering, mathematics and technology,” Marable said. “With that being said, if African Americans focused in those areas, I think honing in on those skills, they would be more prone to starting a technology startup.”
Last week, the Technically Philly series State of STEM focused on the shortcomings of the city’s public education system around science, math and technology offerings — something that disproportionately affects black youth, who make up more than half of 150,000 public school students.
“You need more engagement in terms of giving opportunities with tech and our school system just to open the door,” Smith added. “There definitely needs to be a concerted effort in the United States to offer more tech opportunities to a socioeconomically diverse group of people, because I think that gets lost a lot in the discussion of race.”
It is not just a matter of focusing more on math and science, but doing so in a manner that is more engaging to young people. One example Marable gave was asking students if they knew who made Facebook or Twitter and starting from there.
“Some people would say a developer or programmer, some may say ‘I don’t know, it’s just some guys who built it,’ you could say ‘do you know what they need to understand?’ They need to understand math and this is why it’s important and you need to engage these students in learning more about these subjects,” Marable said.
There also needs to be role models in the tech community for youth to follow.
“I think we need to represent a lot more of the pie. There needs to be more African Americans [in the tech world] and the ones that have succeeded, they need to be highlighted more and I can’t necessarily say it’s the media’s fault because there’s tons of white startup founders that you’ll never know,” Marable said. “For the African Americans that do become successful in the tech startup world, they need to come out and glamorize it and say ‘look, this is cool, I can do this and you can do it too.'”
Watch below a video report that accompanies this story.