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The Next America | Employment

Breaking the Status Quo of the Startup Scene

How former NAACP president Ben Jealous plans to diversify Silicon Valley.

Former president and CEO of the NAACP Benjamin Jealous was the youngest-ever national leader of the organization.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

March 13, 2014

Silicon Valley boasts the most thriving startup scene in the country. But the unconventional companies hawking the latest and greatest in apps and software also display a serious lack of diversity.

Former NAACP President Ben Jealous wants to change that.

He recently accepted a position with Kapor Capital, an Oakland-based venture capital firm that wants to bring more people of color from underrepresented backgrounds into the tech world.

 

"Frankly, I'll be helping to spread the gospel of how we can build a stronger, more inclusive marketplace in this country," he said during a recent phone interview with Fusion, "by embracing companies that expand the social good and expand the pipeline to ensure that all people in all communities around the country ultimately have real opportunities to contribute to the tech economy and the future of our country."

The pipeline of talent into startup companies that Jealous referenced is currently a narrow one.

Less than one percent of the founders of venture capital-backed startups in 2010 were Latino or black. Just six percent of U.S. workers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are African-American and six and a half percent are Hispanic, according to Census data, even though they make up 10 and 15 percent of the country's population respectively.

As Kilimanjaro Robbs, a product and marketing strategist and a co-founder of the Hidden Genius Project, an Oakland-based program with backing from Kapor aimed at getting young men of color into tech, pointed out during a recent interview, why would a startup founder who is strapped for time and cash spend valuable resources looking outside places like Stanford or Santa Clara University for talent? Right now, there's no incentive.

Clearly, Jealous has his work cut out for him. But he bristles at the idea that his job will be to diversify the tech industry.

That's an "oversimplification," he said.

He's not trying to diversify the workforce at Facebook or Google, he said. Instead, he's looking to foster startups born from unique experiences.

"It's really about expanding support for startups that promise to have a positive social impact," Jealous said, adding that "this is as much about diversifying the idea pool as it is the talent pool."

He pointed to startups like Pigeon.ly, which was founded by a former inmate and allows prisoners and their families to share photos and phone calls, and Regalii, which was founded by a young man from the Dominican Republic and helps immigrants send money to their families.

"Silicon Valley is really good at solving problems they can identify," Jealous said, "but there are many problems they can't identify if they're not connected to that experience."

"Our conviction is that at the end of the day, the companies we back are more likely to succeed both at making the economy stronger and the country stronger in part because they're willing to go looking for ideas that are too often too easily dismissed or not even considered by the status quo investor," he added.

The trick is convincing a broader audience, specifically investors, that there is a need for such products and the potential for profit.

Kapor is ahead of many other venture capital firms in that it's keeping an eye out for such startups. And Jealous will travel to places not typically associated with the startup scene to locate them.

He'll begin with a six month "listening tour" that will involve meetings with tech companies but also historically black colleges that graduate qualified computer scientists that have been left out of the college-to-startup pipeline, and organizations that encourage young under-represented minorities to pursue their startup dreams. He'll attend the National Council of La Raza's annual convention, which brings together Latino civil rights activists and community organizers, and he'll show up to hackathons in Harlem.

"We've got to start building a broader, deeper, wider pipeline," he said.

Frank Carbajal, author of Building the Latino Future and founder of the Silicon Valley Latino Leadership Summit, hopes Jealous will devote some of his time to coalition building with other minority leaders.

"What Ben will run into...you can be the most experienced hands-on grassroots person in the nation, but when you look for VCs and when you look for CEOs in Silicon Valley that are Latinos and blacks, it's a small handful. It's not large pickings," he said.

Few of Silicon Valley's tech companies boast truly diverse workforces, particularly at the executive level. Venture capital firms are overwhelmingly led by middle-aged white men, and most venture funding, which can make or break a startup, goes to slightly younger white men, meaning the tech world doesn't currently get to see the diversity of startup ideas that tapping into a broader pool of innovators would bring.

Carbajal pointed out that the purchasing power of the Latino community has been well-documented and discussed. But young Latinos, and other underrepresented communities, need support as designers and inventors of products, too.

Jealous' job with Kapor will focus primarily on the end of the pipeline, on the idea producers themselves. But Jealous acknowledges and is excited about encouraging young people to pursue tech careers, particularly those facing steep challenges.

While the firm can actively look for minority tech entrepreneurs to fund, the nation needs to do a better job of creating them in the first place.

Youngsters in Silicon Valley who come from disadvantaged, minority backgrounds face some of the most significant obstacles to entry into the tech world. The San Francisco Bay Area houses some of the most severe income inequality in the nation, according to a recent Brookings Institution study.

As overwhelmingly Caucasian and Asian tech workers have flocked to San Francisco, enticed by private buses that take them south to their jobs at campuses like Google or by companies like Twitter that have taken advantage of tax breaks to stay in the city itself, neighborhoods have gentrified and housing prices have soared. So have tensions.

Some lower-income residents have been forced to seek more affordable housing outside the city, which could have long-term impacts on everything from neighborhood to school diversity.

As Alan Berube, the author of the Brookings study, wrote, "[The city] may struggle to maintain mixed-income school environments that produce better outcomes for low-income kids. It may have too narrow a tax base from which to sustainably raise the revenues necessary for essential city services. And it may fail to produce housing and neighborhoods accessible to middle-class workers and families, so that those who move up or down the income ladder ultimately have no choice but to move out."

Those mixed-income school environments that Berube writes about? When those disappear, so does low-income kids' access to AP computer science classes. Schools with low-income kids are disproportionately less likely to have such classes and to be well-equipped with fast internet and devices like iPads. If a kid has no concept of what computer science is, how can we expect her to want to pursue it?

Many of the kids who do manage to overcome such long odds face another obstacle closer to home. Their parents, who very often have not attended college themselves, want their children to pursue what they see as stable careers in fields like medicine or law. The idea of their kid trying to launch a startup that is every bit as likely to fail as it is to succeed seems far too risky.

Kurt Collins, one of the founders of the Hidden Genius Project, said it's partially a perception battle. People see tech as a volatile industry that caused the stock market crash, he said. The industry needs to convince these parents that the skills required to launch a successful startup are easily marketable and transferable, he said, noting that "everything is moving toward tech."

Jealous thinks that if he and others can showcase flourishing startup founders as "beacons" of success, parents will understand the risks can pay off. After all, many parents support their kids' football dreams because the success stories of the athletes who have "made it" are highly visible. But very few young people actually grow up to play for the NFL.

"We need to start making tech founders from the hood," he said, "heroes to young people in the hood."

This article is published with permission from Fusion, a TV and digital network that champions a smart, diverse and inclusive America. Fusion is a partner of National Journal and The Next America. Follow the author on Twitter: @Emily_DeRuy

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