Date: Sunday, May 15, 2022
By: Ray Marcano, The Grio

In a field that intersects with so many others, Black people are underfunded and underrepresented. Mentorships and other programs seek to change that.

The numbers reflect a stark reality — venture capital drives technology and Black entrepreneurs are just getting a pittance.

Venture capital funding for Black start-ups hit $1.8 billion during the first half of 2021, a figure that looks impressive but hides a more concerning fact.

That’s a drop in the bucket when you consider, according to Crunchbase, VCs awarded $147 billion in total funding during that same time period. In other words, start-ups by Black entrepreneurs received just 1% of the VC monies.

Venture capital remains the lifeblood for technology firms, which receive about 62% of VC funds on a global basis. Those fortunate enough to get those funds can grow and expand businesses in a sector valued at $5.2 trillion in the United States alone.

Black people in that sector, underrepresented and in some cases underappreciated, have a message: We can do this, too. And we’re moving forward without your help.

The issue of Black people in tech has become prominent recently as lawsuits and allegations of discrimination hound the industry. A group of Black former employees sued Google in March, claiming discrimination, saying they were relegated to low-level roles in the company.

A lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleges Tesla subjected Black employees to racial slurs and discriminated against them in job assignments, promotions, and pay.

The problems go far beyond hiring. They permeate a financial investment structure that doesn’t include Black people, a still mostly segregated networking system, and large organizations with dismal hiring records.

Black people continue to be underrepresented in the major U.S. tech companies, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times. Facebook, Slack, Salesforce, and Microsoft have workforces that are less than 5% Black. Twitter’s is 6% Black.

But trying to create your own tech company presents challenges. A 2017 study by the Harvard Business School shows there’s very little diversity in money. Less than 1% of venture capitalists (0.3%, to be exact) are Black and the numbers aren’t much better for financial consultants (9%) and investment bankers (6%).

And stats for self-starters are worse. At the time of the 2017 study, Black people made up 12% of the population but 1% of entrepreneurs, which the report defines as company founders.

Technology jobs stand out for their high pay and growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects jobs in the technology sector to grow by 13% over the next decade, more than the average job category. The median wage of $91,250 is just about $50,000 a year more than the median wage for all occupations ($41,950).

Several subcategories within the field have median pay well north of $100,000 annually, For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects computer and research information scientist jobs to grow by 22% over the next decade. These positions, which solve complex computing problems, carry a median wage of $127,000 a year.

That’s why, all over the country, organizations, podcasts and online groups continue to pop up – all with the goal of helping Black people make the connections they need to thrive in tech. It’s not easy.

“Unfortunately, I think, for some of our counterparts feel we have to prove ourselves,” Deena McKay, a technologist and the host of the podcast Black Tech Unplugged, said.

“A means, not an end”

In 2012, five men founded The Hidden Genius Project, an Oakland, California-based group that mentors Black males in entrepreneurship, technology, and leadership.  

Brandon Nicholson, the project’s founding executive director, said, “There’s a lot of young people here, especially Black boys and young men, who could benefit from more engagement, to be able to elevate their potential and realize their potential” in the technology field.

So far, the group has reached about 8,200 young men with various community programs, including some 400 through its 800-hour program component. The intensive component teaches computer science fundamentals,  entrepreneurship, and leadership. The program also offers the support mentees need to graduate from high school and assistance with college opportunities.

“Doing whatever we can to help them achieve their goals,” Nicholson said,  “This is about empowering.”

This type of mentoring has tremendous benefits, according to the National Mentoring Resource Center.  Mentors have a positive effect on Black male youths’  grades in school, relationships with others, and prevention of risky behaviors.

“Tech has to be a means, not an end,” Nicholson said. “It’s got to be a means to something greater. And so when we look at why we’ve selected tech, it has to do with how do you equip people with as many skills and networks as you can to put them in a position to pursue their interests and passions, to grow their network, or grow their awareness of who’s around them and build relationships.

“There are so many opportunities that tie into all the things we do,” he said.

That’s what Nicholson drives home to his students. Tech isn’t just computer software, IT, and programming skills. Tech has an infinite range of possibilities limited only by the imagination.

“Tech helps bridge that gap, where we can help expand the imagination for all of us,” he said.  “You can use tech skills in sound engineering and work in entertainment; use analytic skills to work in sports; you can leverage influencers in creative ways.”

That’s what happened with Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors. BamBam, a K-pop performer from Thailand who serves as the Warriors’ team ambassador, tweeted that Wiggins should make the NBA All-Star team and — roughly 72,000 likes, 38,000 retweets, and more than 3,400 quote tweets later — Wiggins was on the team.

“Sometimes you just got to be able to use it and get paid,” Nicholson said.

That’s what Angela Brown did — used tech to start a nationwide frenzy over a fast-food offering. In 2019, her succinct tweet in response to a competitor started the Popeyes chicken sandwich mania.

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