Silicon Valley’s excuses for not hiring more African Americans

A sad state of affairs.
A sad state of affairs.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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Lack of diversity in Silicon Valley isn’t just a cultural issue, it’s an economic one.

This year, African-American buying power is set to hit $1.1 trillion. Just look at the areas that are dominated by African-American consumption: TV, shopping, and financial magazines. African-American spending alone makes the acquisition and training of minority talent extremely valuable for companies that need an authentic perspective on their customers. But this is especially true for startups working to disrupt the above markets.

Despite this fact, less than 2% of African-Americans currently working in the tech industry are employed in meaningful, skilled roles; the percentage of black founders accepted in the country’s top accelerators is equally dismal. In January, Y Combinator announced that 4% of the founders in their massive 114-company winter batch were African-American. Though this percentage is low, it represents growth from years prior and shows that the program is diversifying its participant base.

I have been most impressed by the efforts of the team behind Code2040. Since 2012, they have created several programs that connect everyone from students to founders with top employers and investors. More recently, Code2040 partnered with Google for Entrepreneurs to pilot their Entrepreneur In Residence program in three cities and launch free training programs for 5,000 black and Latino college engineering students.

As diversity has become trendy, everyone has a theory on how to bring more African-American talent to Silicon Valley. Here’s my take on what’s really going on:

Are investors to blame?


Angels and VCs are the traditional sources of capital for startups in the early stages. However, according to a 2010 CB Insight study, black-led companies represent less than 1% of venture capital raised in the US. Further, African-Americans only fill 1.5% of positions on investment teams at US funds. This unequal representation is a well-known problem within the industry and has halted the development of a sustainable investment infrastructure for the black tech community.

VCs of all sizes can help repair this problem by hiring more African-Americans in influential, significant positions on their investment teams. Doing so will assist in widening the communication pipeline between investors and the black tech community, for increased minority-led dealflow and investments.

Black computer engineers are scarce?

USA Today reported in October that top universities are graduating African-American computer science and engineering majors at twice the rate that companies are hiring them. In fact, African-Americans represented approximately 4.5% of all new recipients of bachelor’s degrees in computer-science related majors last year. Despite these data, companies are still using this excuse as their primary reason for team diversity deficiency.

Though these numbers are minimal compared to statistics on how many white, male students graduate annually, it eliminates the excuse for a company to employ only one or fewer than a handful of African-Americans in skilled tech positions.

Does the media affect tech diversity?

Without a doubt.

When major media outlets write about the startup world, the founders they highlight are almost always white males. Even during the rare occurrence where an African-American is featured, journalists seem to have a pre-selected list of individuals they choose to cover.

These individuals are more than deserving of the exposure, but this limited, exclusionary coverage hurts the tech community by perpetuating the idea that there is only a select group of African-American leaders in the industry who have stories worth sharing.

Forbes published their annual 30 Under 30 issue in January. In this issue, a group of journalists profiled 682 people within a wide range of industries—including education, healthcare, and technology. Approximately 7% of the people covered were African-Americans. In the tech industry, the numbers were depressingly lower, with only one African-American highlighted on the Venture Capital list, none on the consumer tech list, and one on the enterprise tech list. Forbes did, however, happen to highlight 20 African-Americans across their music, Hollywood, and sports lists. How cliche.

Publications can help improve diversity in technology by forcing their writers to cover a broader range of African-American founders and startups across the country. Done properly, this shift in coverage can have a tremendous impact on awareness and diversity growth in the industry.

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