On Monday, Congressman Donald Payne (D- NJ) held a Google Hangout to discuss the lack of African American representation in the tech industry. The panel was sponsored by CBC Tech 2020, an initiative recently launched by the Congressional Black Caucus with the aim of increasing African American inclusion at every level of the technology sector by 2020.
Anthony Frasier, co-founder of The Phat Startup, and Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code joined Payne to identify the barriers that minorities face in the industry, what changes tech companies and venture capitalists should implement to enhance inclusion, and how the federal government should respond to the disparities. The Phat Startup produces resources for aspiring, millennial-age, minority entrepreneurs, while Black Girls Code introduces girls from underrepresented communities to computer programming, robotics, and app development.
Leading tech companies hire African Americans and Hispanics with computer science and computer engineering degrees at half the rate that universities produce them, according to a USA Today report in October 2014. Another report found that at the seven Silicon Valley companies that would release their EEO-1 data on race and ethnicity, only 2% of the tech workers employed were African American.
“Here at the CBC, we want to try to do whatever we can to get the information out about support efforts such as yours throughout the nation to help in closing those gaps,” said Payne who questioned his guests about the barriers that minorities face when trying to launch innovative companies and find employment at tech companies.
Frasier explained that the obstacles he encountered were two-fold. “I [was not] located in Silicon Valley or in any networks where people can help me to get information on how to build a company and how to raise money,” explained the Newark-raised entrepreneur who scored an internship at a tech company after his own gaming review website grew to 200,000 unique views per month. “Those are things that people who come from my background don’t have access to.”
Bryant agreed that many underrepresented minorities don’t have a broad network of venture capitalists, which inhibits them from raising money. “Women and minorities have a lack of access to capital as a funding source. Venture capital is like the fuel for the engine in the startup economy, especially in the Bay Area,” says Bryant, whose organization has amassed some 3,000 volunteers who teach and mentor girls at one-day workshops and one-week summer camps nationwide. “I see a lot of new entrepreneurs who don’t have what they need to get their ventures off the ground. And that circles back to what Anthony mentioned about the network. Being able to loosen those forms of capital will help them to build better, more sustainable, larger businesses in a quicker fashion at a more comparative pace to their peers in the industry.”
When asked by participants what role the government should play towards unlocking diversity in Silicon Valley, Frasier suggested that it could put more pressure on the companies, but that Feds would need to make some changes of their own. “The government is slow and entrepreneurship is a fast, agile thing. Time is not something we have on our side.”