The numbers are staggering. According to an analysis of Racial Diversity in Tech published on Silk: Only 2% of leaders at major tech companies are Black; African-Americans and Latinos make up only 4-5% of the overall tech workforce; and only 2% of major VC firms have more than one Black investor. As if those numbers weren’t dismal enough, according to CB Insights Data from 2010, only 1% of VC-funded startups were founded by Blacks. Those numbers define how we tell the stories of the past when we talk about Blacks in tech.
In the present, tech giants like Intel, Apple, Google and others are implementing plans and putting up significant dollars to increase the number of Blacks within their ranks. The picture at major VC funds is slowly changing, becoming more diverse and including women and people of color. And more Black founders are getting funded, like Ali Abdullah of Claimit! and Diishan Imira of Mayvenn, who’ve raised $2 million in seed funding and a $10 million Series A (with $13 million in total), respectively. As well, given how easy it is to launch an app or website nowadays, we’re hearing of more and more Black tech entrepreneurs who haven’t been trained in tech.
But what does the future look like for Black tech leaders? For Black History Month, AOL Build put together a panel of Black entrepreneurs, including moderator Wayne Sutton, co-founder of Tech Inclusion; Aisha Bowe, CEO and co-founder of STEMboard; Kevin Hagens, founder of Topik; John Henry, managing director of Cofound Harlem; Sian Morson, CEO of Kollective Mobile; and Rod Robinson, founder and CEO of ConnXus to discuss Black leaders in technology.
While the panelists talked about the importance of finding a mentor, immersing yourself in your passion, and giving back to others, here are five other important lessons gleaned from the talk for future Black leaders in tech.
Black Tech Leaders Have a Responsibility to Set an Example
“As Black tech leaders, people are looking to us to see how we lead, but they are also looking to see how we respond in difficult times. You often see the successes and the output, but there’s a lot of hard work that goes into it. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears and we need to share those stories. Being a leader is setting an example.”—Rod Robinson, CEO of ConnXus
Don’t Allow Others to Define What’s Possible for You
“I was never considered a high performer. It wasn’t until I was in community college that I began to feel this real sense of fear. I didn’t have any sense of confidence. My high school guidance counselor suggested I become a cosmetologist and I got a C in Economics. It was my father’s encouragement, as he saw more in me than I saw in myself, to start my engineering degree with Pre-Algebra. That lead to a snowball of small accomplishments. And I started to write the most ambitious goals I could think of: ‘I’m going to study aerospace and I’m going to work for NASA.’ Those things happened. And eventually I worked up to, ‘I want to do more. I want to invest in technology and I want to invest in community. I want to have an impact.’ And that’s what led to my starting STEMboard.”—Aisha Bowe, CEO and co-founder of STEMboard
Celebrate the Uniqueness of Your Blackness
“One of the biggest challenges I had was not the access to capital or the lack of a network. It was really battling my own preconceived notion I had of what it meant to be Black in this space. Because I’m entering this space with a chip on my shoulder, I feel I have to try extra hard. Once you realize that you as an individual have certain expertise and an outlook on the problem that your White counterpart—or Black counterpart—wouldn’t necessarily have, once I started valuing my own sense of self, then things started to align for me.”—John Henry, managing director of Cofound Harlem
Refine Your Ideas
“I look at it like clay to a sculpture. You come up with an idea. Now take a knife and go around and around and around over again until you have a much simpler version of what you’re doing. That’s going to make it much easier for you to explain it to people. It’s going to make it much easier to build it. And it’s going to set you apart from competition that has millions of dollars to do the same thing. So if you refine it simply, that’s probably the best way to start. For me myself, I said I’m going to make storytelling easier, period. I focused on that and refined it and refined it until I came up with a very unique product.”—Kevin Hagens, founder of Topik
Entrepreneurship Isn’t for Everybody
“Being an entrepreneur is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most rewarding. There’s been a lot of glorification that, ‘Hey, you can start your company today!’ Not enough is being talked about in terms of the risk associated with it. It’s not an easy path. And this is not to deter anyone from being an entrepreneur, but if you chose the path, you have to be prepared for highs and the lows as well.”—Sian Morson, CEO of Kollective Mobile
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.