Of the 250 seats in Conference Room 6AB in the Austin Convention Center on Sunday afternoon, only 40 were filled with bodies. The panel’s subject was “Cultivating the New Minority Entrepreneur,” one of the many sessions being hosted by Blacks In Technology (BIT) during Interactive. The empty hall was yet another reminder of the stark reality minorities face in the tech world—one often defined by the scarcity of color.
The subject of race in Silicon Valley—the number one start-up ecosystem in the country—has been a major talking point in recent weeks. As we found out last month, race, and the conversations that arise from its curious placement in the American subconscious, will never cease to incite the most privileged among us. It’s a difficult topic to navigate, let alone fully wrap one’s head around. On February 4, in response to an essay by reporter Jamelle Bouie—which explored how tech writing, the stories we are told and the ideas that are ultimately shaped, is controlled by white men (surprise! surprise!)—tech entrepreneur Jason Calacanis went on the defensive (read: attack), wondering, from that comfortable cushion white privilege has afforded him, “Do Tumblr, Wordpress or SquareSpace see color, gender or age? I think not. There is nothing stopping anyone from starting a blog.” I should state here the Calacanis made $25 million when he sold his startup to AOL. He continued: “I can tell you the tech industry & tech media space are both largely post-race. Pure meritocracy... Page views rule.”
There were a lot of faults in Calacanis’ argument, as Anil Dash and Sam Biddle so effectively pointed out, yet his tirade (“to fall back to race as the reason why people don’t break out in our wonderful oasis of openness is to do a massive injustice to what we’ve fought so hard to create.”) could not have come at a more appropriate time.
Yesterday’s panel was an extension of this conversation in another form. So when the moderator asked how we could further evolve the dialogue surrounding Generation Y, race, and entrepreneurship and turn it into action, Marcus Mayo had an answer.
“From the Etsys to the Foursquares, founders have focused on how they want the world to look,” Mayo said, noting how successful entrepreneurs have been able to merge passion with profit. “That’s the beauty of entrepreneurship.”
Mayo is co-founder of IncubateNYC, a Harlem-based program designed to help aspiring CEOs transform their ideas into sustainable business models. Mayo believes the problem with minority entrepreneurship—the hurdles aspiring black and Latino CEOs face—is rooted in two specific areas: a lack of access to information and a lack of access to capital. Which is not completely surprising. Laura Weidman Powers, the founding executive director of Code2040, also stressed the importance of social capital and building networks. "Making connections in critical," she said.
Mayo, Weidman Powers, and other panelists were not blind to the numerous obstacles minority entrepreneurs are confronted with in the initial stages. One speaker even pointed out how VCs typically invest in start-ups run by guys who look like them (read: white).
The hour-long session, though, finally hit home when the moderator noted: “African Americans utilize Twitter more than any other group, yet they are so focused on using it instead of wondering how to create the next Twitter.” It was perhaps the most powerful point of the day. And one for which no one seemed to have an answer.