A few musings on racial diversity in tech

The lack of diversity in tech has been a persistent issue well before I began my career in journalism, but it seems discussion of the topic has lately reached a fever pitch. Right now, I’m doing some research on the rise of startup hubs and its impact on diversity in tech, so I was interested to read this post at the New Yorker about Silicon Valley’s “race problem.”

Among other things, the New Yorker article details how the venture firm Andreessen Horowitz has made several steps to heighten its sensitivity to the issue of diversity. Tristan Walker, the African-American founder of one company featured in the story, was previously an entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz. And the firm recently brought on Allison Munichiello, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Lean Startup Conference, as a partner focusing on “communities and diversity.” The firm’s efforts have already yielded some successes: it has invested in Walker’s consumer-goods company (aptly named Walker & Company), as well as a company called Proven, co-founded by a Chilean immigrant, which makes a mobile app for recruiting restaurant workers.

Despite those efforts, I was put off by a few details. First of all, I don’t think Tristan Walker is the most instructive example of Silicon Valley power brokers becoming aware of the opportunities in communities of color. Before being named entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz, Walker was the director of business development at Foursquare, which though not based in Silicon Valley (but in New York, which is rivaling California’s tech prowess more and more) is still a marquee name in the land of tech startups. He already had ample access to the industry’s resources. But are investors willing to bet on talented entrepreneurs of color who aren’t yet on the inside track?

Secondly, I noticed in the article a persistent conflation of hip-hop culture and black identity. There were repeated references to rappers and hip-hop initiatives—hosting a talk with Steve Stoute, enlisting Nas as an investor in one of Andreessen Horowitz’s portfolio companies, visiting Henry Louis Gates at Harvard’s Hip Hop Archive—as part of Ben Horowitz’s outreach to black communities. But hip-hop is not the sole driver of entrepreneurial ambition in black communities, and it’s misguided to use the former as a proxy for the latter. In fact, black entrepreneurialism predates hip-hop by many decades, if not centuries, as noted by the New Yorker’s reference to Madam C.J. Walker. Simply adjusting one’s “pattern matching” to account for a few people who look like Jay Z is an incomplete solution to diversity, at best. At worst, it may end up pigeonholing black entrepreneurs who identify more with other facets of black culture.

Curiously, the New Yorker article—as well as many of the discussions that I’ve seen, whether in magazine articles, on social media, or in conference panels—doesn’t address recruiting minority tech talent in an obvious place: historically black colleges and universities. There is much hand-waving about the need for Silicon Valley to expand its networks, but I see little evidence of outreach to the organizations that have historically aided networking among black professionals, including HBCUs, Greek organizations, and civic groups such as Jack and Jill and the Links. That omission squanders valuable opportunities to expose talented students and workers to entrepreneurial paths. One cultural factor that I believe even advocates for diversity in tech may overlook is that blacks (and Latinos) often face greater pressure to pursue “safe” careers in areas that have traditionally yielded success in their communities: medicine, law, dentistry.

I sincerely hope that Silicon Valley’s efforts toward greater racial diversity go beyond the surface. But it looks like investors may simply be relying on figureheads and stereotypical tropes rather than actually challenging their assumptions of what a successful entrepreneur looks like.

Update: Tristan Walker responded to this article via Twitter. Here’s what he had to say:

Indeed, organizations such as CODE2040, Black Girls Code, and Close the Divide Project are working to address the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Much of their work focuses on the “pipeline” problem—the low number of blacks and Latinos skilled in computer science—which is a separate, though equally important, issue from how minorities currently in the industry are regarded by potential investors and employers.

As Walker points out, Andreessen Horowitz is one of CODE2040’s partners. So I find it interesting that in an article about “addressing Silicon Valley’s race problem,” we hear a lot about Steve Stoute and Nas, but nothing of, say, recruiting students from HBCUs for internships. Most of the supposed efforts to address diversity that are mentioned in the New Yorker article are cosmetic solutions, at best. Perhaps the writer simply glossed over Andreessen Horowitz’s other work in this area; indeed, the venture firm’s sponsorship of events and programs to boost minority participation in tech is briefly noted in one sentence.

However, I’m not convinced that the New Yorker is solely to blame. As a business journalist, I know that companies and organizations—particularly well-financed and highly visible ones like Andreessen Horowitz—are quite deliberate in how they present themselves, and they will do everything they can to ensure that their press clippings align with their carefully scripted narratives. So I’m hard-pressed to believe that Ben Horowitz waxed at length about diversifying the pipeline of tech talent and scouting for potential investments in new areas, but somehow all of those comments were left out.

Moreover, even the outreach efforts described in the article are limited to his own network:

Horowitz told me that he recently started an African-American “network” at Andreessen Horowitz. (“I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it out loud,” he said.) Made up of prominent black figures drawn largely from his own address book, the network includes everyone from hyper-connected C.E.O.s to rappers to entrepreneurs. [emphasis added]

Many aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to conquer Silicon Valley, especially those of color, face roadblocks because they lack the connections to gain entry into the networks investors like Horowitz operate in. Yet Horowitz’s solution is to rely upon those same closed networks to diversify his pool of potential investments. That limited approach is exactly what yields tokenism: finding a few brown faces to fit the bill without examining why so few people of color gain consideration in the first place.

If organizations such as CODE2040 are working to address systemic issues such as the lack of diversity in the talent pipeline, does it matter if firms such as Andreessen Horowitz take a cosmetic approach? I believe it does. It doesn’t take much funding to start an Internet company, but rapidly scaling such a company into the likes of a Google or Facebook requires significant capital. Those who are systematically overlooked by investors thereby face dampened prospects for their businesses’ growth. Even skilled technologists of color, whose numbers CODE2040 seeks to increase, aren’t immune to the effects of that bias.