While most of the controversy surrounding the kerfuffle between Michael Arrington and Soledad O’Brien has died down, the issues remain salient. And the recent airing of CNN’s latest “Black In America” documentary, focused on Black Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, might bring it back up.
So quick, let’s get in some meaningful conversation before it heats up again into another Internet flame war.
I’m speaking, of course, about the maelstrom stirred up by a promotional clip released in advance, a controversy covered by UrbanFaith’s own Christine A. Scheller. In the clip, Michael Arrington, former head of TechCrunch, admits to host Soledad O’Brien that he doesn’t know any Black tech entrepreneurs. Later, Arrington and his supporters decried this as a setup and accused O’Brien of “gotcha” journalism. Meanwhile, Black folks across the blogosphere and the Twitterverse, many of whom have been lamenting the dearth of diversity in Silicon Valley for years, see this as just another example of a White dude who doesn’t get it.
I’m generalizing, of course. Many people have weighed in with a variety of perspectives. But most of the responses seem to fall on a continuum of responses in favor of either O’Brien or Arrington, as if one’s credibility as a member of either the African American community or the creative tech community depends on attacking one and defending the other.
And most of us, especially those with backgrounds in creative technology who identify as Black, know that’s not true. We know that it’s not about taking sides. And we don’t like to throw around the R-word. We just want to see people understand the underlying issues. We’re on the side of people who get it.
Round One to O’Brien
Which is why, if I had to pick a side, I’m starting off with Soledad O’Brien, and not just because she was gracious enough to give UrbanFaith an interview. The facts are the facts. Michael Arrington DID say that he didn’t know any Black entrepreneurs, he said it on-camera, and as far as we know he wasn’t under the influence of any mind-altering nano-robots. Arrington’s protests of an ambush were quickly rebutted by O’Brien herself on her CNN blog.
So round one went to O’Brien, for sure.
But before we use Arrington’s ill-timed words to judge Silicon Valley for its sins, we also have to remember who’s doing the talking. Michael Arrington has always been something of a loose cannon. There’s a reason why he’s no longer at TechCrunch. Michael Arrington can no more speak for all of Silicon Valley than Metta World Peace can speak for the whole NBA. His viewpoint is just that, his viewpoint.
And in defense of his viewpoint, I will say that there are several things that he said right. When he said that he doesn’t think of people that way (meaning as members of racial groups), he was being very candid and forthright. And when he speaks of the tech ecosystem of entrepreneurs, coders, marketers and venture capitalists as being a meritocracy, where what matters most is the strength of your ideas and the amount of innovation you bring into your particular field, there is a lot of truth to that. The consumer tech market is certainly a meritocracy, because consumers don’t care what a product’s creator looks like, as long as it meets their needs and fits their price range.
In the same way, as African American entrepreneur Stephan Adams tells O’Brien in the video clip below, investors will quickly forget about race if you present them with an idea that they believe will make them a lot of money.
In this sense, Michael Arrington was mostly right — and so was Herman Cain. Racism isn’t always the thing that holds people back.
Bias in the Making
But as Hank Williams pointed out in his tech blog, Arrington and others in his position miss critical nuances with that argument. The market itself may be a meritocracy, but the market makers — the venture capitalists, the hiring managers, the relational gatekeepers, the journalists and their editors — all the people who help shape the public perception of who is or isn’t an innovator, of who’s hot and who’s not, of who’s on the cutting edge and who’s lagging behind, and most importantly, whose ideas are worth investing in and whose aren’t … these roles are filled by human beings with specific cultural biases.
These biases, while not being actively racist, artificially reduce the field of qualified applicants into narrow profiles that match certain patterns, patterns that are more culturally palatable to the people already in charge, a vast majority of whom are young adult White males.
(This is why, for example, there were hardly any Black people in The Social Network, despite it being primarily set in an Ivy League institution like Harvard, where diversity is supposed to be a core value.)
So the questions remain … how can these truths be communicated in meaningful ways? What will it take for the status quo to change? In what ways is it already changing? And how can people of faith respond?
I’ll attempt to address these questions in my next column, but in the meantime I welcome any critiques or observations that you might have regarding this issue or the CNN special. Please chime in below, and then stay tuned for Part 2.
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.
“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.”
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.
CORE VISION: Steve Jobs understood that a true, passionate commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment does not diminish innovation -- it enhances it. (Photo by Dai Sugano/Newscom.)
Steve Jobs has long been celebrated as a hero for middle-class, geeky white guys. But he was also deeply concerned about bringing more minorities into engineering, and into his own company. I know, because he told me. Even better, he hired me to help him do it.
Little did I know, God would allow my life path to intersect with that of Steve Jobs, the late cofounder and CEO of Apple. I met Steve four years ago and continued to interact with him until this past spring.
Since 2004, I’ve taught computer science at Spelman College, the historically black school for women in Atlanta. In December 2007, I took the SpelBots, Spelman College’s all-women robotics team, to Stanford University to give a presentation at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, which included an open showcase to the community. The SpelBots represent undergraduate female student trailblazers and role models who are paving the way for younger female and African American students by competing internationally against graduate-level engineering universities in RoboCup humanoid robot soccer competitions. RoboCup represents the closest we have to an international “Olympics” of robotics and artificial intelligence research.
After the SpelBots’ visit to Stanford, we did a tour of Silicon Valley, stopping off at Google for breakfast and Apple for lunch so that our students could see these world-class technology companies firsthand. During our lunch at Apple, my friend Scott, who was an employee there, told me not to look over my shoulder. “Steve Jobs just walked in with Jonathan Ive,” he whispered. I immediately recognized Steve, but I had no idea who Jonathan Ive was until Scott explained that he was the chief industrial designer for Apple, the man who had designed such gadgets as the iPhone and the iMac.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Steve was both revered and feared at Apple, and that it was not a good idea to go up to Steve and try to talk to him. So, I went over to Jonathan Ive instead. I introduced myself and told him how much I liked his designs. We were having a nice chat when, suddenly, Steve Jobs came over to us.
I introduced myself, innocently including a little backstory as well: “Hi, I’m Andrew Williams, from Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta, and Apple supports our robotics team.”
Steve quickly asked, “Do you have an engineering program?”
“We have a dual engineering program with universities such as Georgia Tech and Michigan,” I told him.
“Can you help us hire black engineers?” he said. “Do you know how many black engineers we have?”
Before I could say anything he shared a shockingly low number and confessed how poorly Apple was doing in finding black candidates. I’ll skip the full exchange, but suffice it to say, I got an intimate peek into Steve’s passion and energy. He was seriously upset at Apple’s efforts in that area. His last words to me that day were, “If you have any ideas on how we can hire more black engineers, send me an email.”
King of Silicon Valley
Having grown up in a small Kansas Army town, living in a two-bedroom trailer with my African American dad, Korean mom, and five siblings, my path to overcoming poverty and earning my Ph.D. in electrical engineering was not always clear. But there I stood that day, amazed at how God had given me the opportunity to meet the greatest innovator of my lifetime.
I recalled reading in the Book of Proverbs, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He shall stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men.” I had taken those words of wisdom to heart while pursuing my education, and now I was realizing them.
While working at GE Medical Systems in the early ’90s, during the first dot-com boom, I grieved the fact that there weren’t more African Americans going to Silicon Valley and making a difference in the new technological era. I understood that many underrepresented minorities lacked the connections and education to become computing entrepreneurs. But now, there I was being asked by, in my view, the ultimate computing entrepreneur for help in getting more African Americans to work for his world-renowned Silicon Valley company.
Challenging Steve Jobs
In 1995, I earned my master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Marquette University while I was at GE. I then left GE to work on my Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Kansas. I received my doctorate in 1999. Ever since, my passion has been to help underrepresented students reach their full educational potential in computing, so that they can play a productive role in our world’s changing economy and perhaps aspire to become “the next Steve Jobs.”
After my encounter with Steve, I went home and thought and prayed about what ideas I would give him about recruiting more black engineers at Apple. Then I composed an email that would change my life.
I began by explaining why I did what I did, including how my wife, Anitra, and I decided after reading The Purpose-Driven Life that I would leave my tenure-track faculty position at the University of Iowa so that I could fulfill my purpose of helping underrepresented students. I even attached a picture of my wife Anitra and my children, John, Adrianna, and Rosa to the email.
I also told him about the positive things I observed Apple doing to encourage and expand diversity. Apple, at the time, was building relationships with Atlanta University Center schools. I told him about my wife’s experience with her retail position at the Apple Store in Atlanta and how I could see growing diversity there. I bragged about how my Apple friends Scott and Denise were doing great with improving Apple’s diversity in both its university relations and retail. Denise, by the way, is an African American woman who at the time was Apple’s director of human resources for global retail.
I told Steve how important it was for students to see other underrepresented and female role models at top positions at Apple including its board of directors. I suggested he needed to make efforts to recruit at non-traditional “Apple” elite schools, such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and women’s colleges. I told him that our current SpelBots captain would make a great intern at Apple. I mentioned that it’s important to consider the importance of family when dealing with African American students in making career and education decisions. I also let him know that I admired Apple and that it was one of the few companies for which I would consider leaving academia.
After I sent the email, I waited and didn’t hear anything for several days. I think my Apple friends were concerned because few people dared to confront Steve and tell him what he should do. Yet I saw him as a fellow human being who was concerned with helping underrepresented students make his company continue to be great. A week later, I received a phone call from Scott, and later a copy of an email Steve had sent internally about how he was “sooooooooooooo happy” about what I told him about Apple’s recent diversity efforts and that he wanted to hire me to help “hire black engineers.” He had read my email so thoroughly that he pointed out that I had hinted I would consider working at Apple.
I soon found myself taking a yearlong sabbatical from Spelman College to become a full-time Apple employee. I was named Apple’s first Senior Engineering Diversity Manager.
I won’t divulge all that I did and saw at Apple, but I did witness positive changes being made at levels that were way above me that could only have come from Steve. I was able to directly influence the hiring of more African Americans, women, and other minorities as interns and eventually full-time Apple engineers.
SPELBOTS COMETH: The 2011 SpelBots team (from left) Coach Andrew Williams, Christina Sparks, Amelia Henderson, Tyler Davis, Jonecia Keels, Jazmine Miller, Naquasia Jones, and program manager Angela Church. (Not pictured: Breoshshala Martin, Daria Jordan, Chanel Johnson.)
I was especially proud that I played a role in helping one of my students become the first Spelman grad to work as a full-time engineer at Apple, after she had obtained her initial internship through my contact with Steve. I’ve met African American engineers at Apple who helped design the iPad; one of my former female students from the University of Iowa works with Jon Ive’s group; there are African Americans intimately involved with the App store; and the list goes on. There are now literally dozens of engineers from underrepresented groups who are making a contribution to the development of Apple’s products.
I continued interacting with Steve in various ways after I ended my sabbatical at Apple. I gave him a copy of my autobiography, he received my family’s Christmas newsletter, and we periodically connected via email or indirect messages. One poignant note that I sent to him shared how with Apple’s new FaceTime feature I was able to “tuck in” my youngest daughter, Rosa, while I was away from home on business trips. Using FaceTime, I’d tell her a story and pray with her before she went to bed. Because of Apple’s technology, we didn’t have to sacrifice our bedtime routine — even when I was a thousand miles away.
My final interaction with Steve occurred this past spring. In a March 30th email, I told him I was praying for him and his family. I also let him know that one of our SpelBots students had won a national iPhone app competition and that she thought Apple should hire her as an intern. She had applied for summer internships at Apple over the last few years but could never break through. I didn’t hear back from Steve directly, but not long after that my student received a call from an Apple recruiter who said Steve had forwarded her résumé. Sure enough, this past summer our SpelBots student was hired as an Apple intern and soon will be offered a full-time position as an engineer.
A company such as Apple, which at the time of this writing has over $80 billion of cash on hand, can pick and choose whomever they want to hire. So, I’m always glad when they recognize the talent and potential of individuals from groups that are underrepresented in the engineering ranks.
My hope is that Steve’s vision for diversity at Apple will not die now that he’s gone. I also hope that other CEOs learn from him that a true, passionate commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment does not diminish but only enhances innovation.
Take it from Steve Jobs to understand diversity’s value and significance. He recognized that a diverse team of smart and creative people was essential to the success of his company, and to the future of our nation’s global competitiveness. Because of his sincere commitment to diversity, who knows? The next great American innovator could very well be an African American, a Latino, a woman. The iPad and the iPhone are wonderful, but for me that would be Steve’s most enduring legacy.