Why mainstream companies are losing black talent

Going it alone.
Going it alone.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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On July 3 of last year, just in time for American Independence Day, I walked away from a six-figure content job to start a venture devoted to independent local journalism, a trifecta of assumed unprofitability and presumed failure. Why would a person of my good sense choose to forgo such a great living to stake her livelihood on such a seemingly risky venture?

The short answer is, of course, because I wanted to execute an idea I was confident in and couldn’t shake, the same impetus as many other entrepreneurs.

But I also opted out of working for others based on a calculation: I concluded after nearly eight years as an employee that building my own venture was the only way for me to maximize my potential, particularly given my entrepreneurial yen to create things.

As a young black woman working in the culture of a successful startup that was overwhelmingly white and male—particularly in the executive ranks—I found that no matter how well-founded my ideas, well-presented my proposals, well-executed my plans, and well-articulated my desire to build, I was often treated like a functionary, and not a visionary.

On occasion, I’d even tried taking the roguish prerogative to “ask forgiveness and not permission” and build things, without official sanction, that ultimately worked and accrued to my company. That tactic didn’t work either.

And when I collected my journalism degree and began pitching stories about my hometown of Newark, New Jersey, that varied from the police blotter-style coverage the city normally gets, I faced repeated summary dismissal for months. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., the actual “content” of my skillset, results, and insights were repeatedly overlooked when I had to convince others of my entrepreneurial worthiness.

I’m not alone. Today’s diversity conversation is not just about access—it’s also about the potential for people of color to create real impact. And when they find their ideas quashed, mentoring relationships scant, and opportunities for stretch assignments limited, more and more of them are choosing to build their own houses instead of continuing to bang futilely against glass ceilings.

In my case, I was convinced I could marry my journalism chops with my technology experience, and decided to stop pitching others and build my own platform.

The proliferation of less capital-intensive startup possibilities, and availability of more diverse financing options like crowd funding, have lowered the barriers to launching erected by people of colors’ documented lack of access to traditional capital. In light of that, we’re seeing a pent up supply of media voices, technologists, and entrepreneurs opting out of existing institutions, and creating their own opportunities. In doing so, they’re also filling previously untapped demand for the types of products and perspectives the audiences they represent want to consume.

Similarly, James Lopez, co-founder of the entrepreneur education company the Phat Startup, left the publishing world in part because he felt his impact suddenly plateau at a major publishing house. “I thought I was on my way up,” he said. “I wanted more, and I think maybe I was just too ambitious for them.”

As often happens in organizations with few people of color, Lopez couldn’t exactly quantify how much the general company culture, versus his race, was limiting. He said he found mentors at the company and felt well liked. The company was also a place, he explained, that didn’t put a premium on an upstart mentality like his, and where promotions were often based on longevity, factors that would frustrate any entrepreneurial person.

But he couldn’t rule out race as a factor in his career plateau. “In most of the higher positions, there were no persons of color,” he said. “I could read between the lines and say, ‘What are my chances of fitting in?’” He eventually left the publishing company and co-founded the Phat Startup with entrepreneur Anthony Frasier, who is black.

The Phat Startup invites successful founders to discuss how they built their companies. The pair asks questions that are particularly relevant to aspiring entrepreneurs from the communities they represent. The resulting interviews often produce insights about starting up that aspiring entrepreneurs might not get elsewhere, because Lopez and Frasier’s differentiated experiences inform their questions, which inform their interviewees’ answers in turn.

People of color are also using new media tools to gain visibility in the entertainment world, which critics have long charged with being disinterested in substantive diversity. Social media watchers have been paying ever more attention to the folkways and impact of “black Twitter,” an organic phenomenon on the social network that frequently sees Twitter users deploying hashtags to comment on everything from serious injustices to pop culture moments.

And in a recent flare-up involving diversity in entertainment, the television show, Saturday Night Live, was criticized when all eight new cast members were white, stoking criticism about the paucity of black women cast members on the show over the years; the previous class helped double the number of black male comedians—to two.

Although the controversy sparked by the snub initially focused on Saturday Night Live’s diversity record, which the show recently addressed by hiring a black woman cast member and two black women writers, it eventually came around to the broader and more elusive phenomenon: There actually exists a sizable pipeline of black women comedians working on independent projects, in the shadow of the mainstream entertainment world that largely ignored them.

A few notable projects have already emerged from that pipeline. Lena Waithe, whose YouTube-distributed movie Dear White People is currently touring the Sundance circuit, created the comedy series Twenties, which centers on the experiences of three black women. She became frustrated when networks read and loved her script, but passed on it because they thought there was no audience for it. Convinced she needed to execute her concept instead of simply pitching the idea, she secured funding from Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit, and produced a pilot presentation of key scenes from her script. Her goal is to convince television networks that the show could actually command an audience.

And actress Issa Rae created the YouTube comedy series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, a Curb Your Enthusiasm-like show that catalogs cringe-worthy life moments from a black woman’s perspective. Her work on the show, and the sizable buzz and audience she amassed, earned her an HBO production deal.

This points to a possible way forward for people of color without losing institutional impact: The success of independent execution helps decision-makers see the value of not only attracting diverse people into their ranks, but empowering them while they’re there.

To wit, my local journalism venture has not only made deep inroads with audiences, local newsmakers, and local businesses, it has also become an effective beacon and powerful professional calling card. Taking the risk to build what is essentially a monument to my skill as a creator has initiated meaningful conversations and professional regard. That was a lot more difficult to get when I worked on the inside.