A year ago there was not a lot of talk about African Americans tech entrepreneurs in mainstream media. But then last year CNN aired its latest episode of its ‘Black in America’ Series entitled: “Black in America: The New Promised Land – Silicon Valley.” In it, host Soledad O’Brien, explored the reasons why only 1% of tech entrepreneurs are African Americans. That episode ignited questions who the leading African American tech entrepreneurs are and why aren’t their more of them. At this year’s SXSW Interactive, African American tech entrepreneur, and Soledad O’Brien herself, were at the forefront of extending the conversation of how to support the Black start-ups that exist and how to ensure the number of Black start-ups continue to grow.
It was fitting that CNN jump started the conversation at this year’s SXSW Interactive by hosting a panel aptly titled, “CNN Black in America/Silicon Valley: Aftermath.” In the television episode O’Brien interviewed Silicon Valley insiders including Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, and Ron Conway an early investor in both Twitter and Paypal. While Arrington flatly asserted that Silicon Valley is a “white and Asian world”, O’Brien also interviewed Navarrow Wright, the Chief Technology Officer of Interactive One and Mitchell Kapor, the founder of Lotus Corporation and partner in the investor fund Kapor Capital, who both were mentors to Silicon Valley’s first African American-founded accelerator program, NewME Accelerator. The SXSWi panel, which included O’Brien and three of the entrepreneurs featured on the show, Hank Williams, Hajj Flemings and Wayne Sutton, focused on how the show impacted the visibility of Black tech entrepreneurs and how impacted the entrepreneurs outlook on their careers. The panel discussion was full of good and honest dialog about why African Americans do not comprise a larger percentage of tech entrepreneurs. Williams elaborated by explaining, “It’s absolutely necessary that people are allowed to fail because it’s a part of the process, but in the Black community we don’t have the economic flexibility to absorb failure. We need to temper that with it being “okay to fail”. Flemings and Sutton agreed that the CNN special helped attract the attention and resources needed to develop pipelines for younger generations of African American aspiring tech entrepreneurs.
Black in Technology Committee and Inaugural Awardees
In addition to formalized panels that discussed the impact of Black tech start-ups, there was a reception and awards ceremony that represented established leaders and advocates in the field. Thursday evening, the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce hosted their welcome reception. The Blacks in Technology group hosted a reception and awards ceremony at the George Washington Carver Center in the city. Inaugural award recipients included: Tristan Walker of CNN, Baratunde Thurston author of How to Be Black, Wayne Sutton co-founder of GoKit, and Marcia Wade Talbert Tech Editor at Black Enterprise Magazine.
The momentum of interest in Blacks tech entrepreneurs garnered from the CNN special galvanized African American SXSW attendees to further their efforts to promote their individual projects while continuing to build systems that supported the efforts of minorities in technology fields. The panel, “Race: Know When to Hold and When to Fold It”, directly confronted the dual identity of being a minority and being a member of the tech world. While the group Black Founders, which is an networking organization in Silicon Valley held a panel called, “Pay-It-Forward: Building Successful Startups”. Their session not only dealt with challenges that they face in Silicon Valley, but highlighted the solutions of they had discovered along the way.
In a panel called, “Social Media for Minority Mindshare”, Ron Harris co-founder of the music submission website, Blazetrak, discussed how his company had successful found a revenue-generating business model. Not only did discussion about African Americans in technology focus on the entrepreneurial side, but Kim “Dr. Goddess” Ellis presented a talk, called“The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter”, which focused the disproportionate African American presence on twitter serves as an important vehicle for identity formation and affects broader popular culture. Lastly, the panel “Africa, Tech, and Women: The New Faces of Development” discussed how the rapidly growing mobile market is shifting how Africans access and produce media content and creating a growing number of African women tech enthusiasts.
If Silicon Valley is to be “the new promised land” for African Americans it will be because these tech entrepreneurs continue to build on their success and because venture capitalists understand the importance of having all the brilliant ideas available (regardless of from where they come) represented in the marketplace. As SXSW Interactive draws to a close, the feeling among many African American attendees is optimistic. That’s with good reason; the conversation about how to create a pipeline of African American tech entrepreneurs that goes from public school to successful business owners has started and people are determined to see it through to the end.