A Fiery Debate Breaks Out
CNN’s “Black in America 4: The New Promised Land — Silicon Valley” hasn’t even aired yet and it has already ignited a fierce debate about whether or not tech start-ups succeed based on a pure meritocracy or the culture is tainted by racism like the rest of society. The documentary posits that Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs are mostly young, white and male and follows eight Black entrepreneurs who live together for a two-month immersion program called the NewMe Accelerator.
Online War of Words
As a largely African-American audience watched a screening of the documentary at the Time-Warner building in New York City October 26, a Twitter feud between two tech entrepreneurs featured in the program broke out. The debate started when an audience member tweeted that she wondered what TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington would think of Duke University scholar and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa’s advice to the group that they hire white men to front their companies.
Both in the theater and on the internet, people expressed displeasure with statements Arrington makes in the film. He says, for example, that he doesn’t know a single Black entrepreneur and that he was so eager to promote diversity that he would have put a Black guy onstage at a tech demo event he hosted even if the guy presented a “clown show.”
CNN fanned the flames with an article about the debate on its website Friday and Arrington followed with a response on his blog accusing CNN and journalist Soledad O’Brien of deception and gotcha’ journalism.
“Maybe now some of you can begin to understand why I never wanted to be called a ‘journalist’ at TechCrunch. It is a shameful profession,” Arrington said.
O’Brien fired back today with this measured response:
“I didn’t ambush Arrington and I don’t think he’s a racist. He’s a realist. What has everyone upset is that what he is saying is true — there are not many blacks entrepreneurs succeeding in Silicon Valley. Fewer than 1% of funded tech startups are run by African-Americans.”
In the Time-Warner Theater
While the internet debate raises interesting and important questions, the discussion that O’Brien hosted after the screening is worth recounting.That discussion included one of the entrepreneurs from the documentary, Hank Williams, “digital lifestyle expert” and NPR contributor Mario Armstrong, CNN producer and New York University journalism professor Jason Samuels, and Interactive One Chief Technology Officer Navarrow Wright.
Highlighting a Cross-Section of Black Entrepreneurs
Samuels said he was fascinated by the idea of featuring eight African Americans who represent an economic, social, and educational cross-section of America.
What stuck with Armstrong from the documentary was a statement by tech investor Ron Conway, who said he didn’t know how to recruit Black entrepreneurs. Armstrong wasn’t alone in his response.* The room erupted in indignation and laughter when Conway made this statement on screen.
“I can tell you kids right now that want to be future technologists, but they don’t get the exposure, they don’t have the access, and they don’t have the role models like we’re trying to present. … It’s an inherent problem with the mindset of people holding the purse strings when they say, ‘We can’t recruit; we don’t know how,’ ” said Armstrong.
Helping African Americans Navigate Silicon Valley
Wright was an advisor to the NewMe entrepreneurs and said he focused 60 percent of his time on helping them navigate the race issues they would face in Silicon Valley.
“I had a unique perspective in making them understand the unique challenges they had as African Americans in the valley. Understanding that merit is one thing, but you kind of have to navigate. You have to be ready for the VC [venture capitalist] conversation when the VC brings up, ‘Hey, I’ve watched “Martin,”’ to create a commonality between you in the meeting, because he’s as uncomfortable as you are,” said Wright.
Williams, the oldest and most experienced of the entrepreneurs featured in the documentary, compared his own efforts to those of an nineteen year old Israeli entrepreneur who received $5 million in funding for an undeveloped idea.
“That’s not my experience. I’ve never been able to go and convince somebody to give me money based on a dream. It had to be the train leaving the station,” said Williams.
Consumers, not Creators
The most passionate and vocal member of the panel was Armstrong. He argued that African Americans were early consumers of tech products and made them cool, but said they have generally not been creators.
“It’s not that we don’t want to create. Clearly that’s not the issue. We know how to hustle. We know how to pitch our ideas. We know how to wear multiple hats and be effective in that realm,” said Armstrong.
The technology gap, as he sees it, is because the so-called “digital divide,” focused on everyone gaining access to technology at the expense of asking how it would be used.
The Skill Gap
A budding tech entrepreneur in the audience wanted to know how to make up for a lack of programming skills.
“Get a partner or get a book. Literally, you either have to learn how to do it yourself or have to be the business guy and find a technology guy to partner with to build your company,” said Williams.
Armstrong concurred, advising the young man to learn enough coding to earn the respect of programmers and to gain the knowledge necessary to avoid getting ripped off by them.
“When you hear Michael Arrington talk about the meritocracy and how everything’s equal, they use data and they use those things to keep us shut out, but we have to own the fact that to a certain degree we shut ourselves out,” added Wright. “The reality is if you want to be in this business, you have some onus that there are skills you need to have to gain entry. …Today the barriers are lower than they’ve ever been.”
Armstrong likewise expressed irritation with Arrington, saying, “Out of these eight people, that damn Michael Arrington needs to answer that question and get one out of this so he doesn’t have to say, ‘I don’t know where they are’ anymore.”
Waiting to See What Happens
We weren’t shown the conclusion of “The New Promised Land — Silicon Valley,” so I’ll be watching when it airs November 13 at 8 pm ET on CNN.
How about you? Will you be watching? If you have any thoughts on the debate, please share them with us in the comments section.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed this statement by Mario Armstrong to Jason Samuels.
Go to page 2 for our bonus interview with Soledad O’Brien.