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.
National Journal
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Emily Deruy, Fusion
March 13, 2014, 8:34 a.m.

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.

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“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 Pi­, 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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