Hello, world! No, seriously.

Hi, and thanks for visiting! Here’s the lowdown on what you can expect to find here.

New Website

After four years of neglecting my personal website, I finally took the time to give it a much needed upgrade. I prided myself in coding my original website from scratch, thanks to Girl Develop It, but decided I needed something a little more professional-looking…so I pored over a few WordPress tutorials so that I could make the necessary tweaks I needed to the default theme.

Please, please let me know if you see any bugs. I used the inspector in Chrome to get a sense for how the site looks on phones and tablets, but I haven’t yet had the chance to test it out in the wild, other than on my laptop and phone. So if something looks weird, I’d appreciate a heads-up!

New Blog

In addition to revamping my site, I’ve decided to re-up my blog. For a while, I maintained a regular presence on Tumblr, and I’ve written a few posts on Medium, but I’d like to get back into writing for myself. As you have probably seen, in my professional work, I write on business and technology, but outside of that, I enjoy reading and discussing things related to race, culture, media, music, entertainment, and the arts. I’m especially interested in topics of race and business. (Note: Ellen McGirt‘s raceAhead newsletter for Fortune, which covers this topic, is a great read!) So those are the sorts of topics you’ll find on this blog, in addition to my professional bread and butter.

For now, I’ve turned off comments, because I believe a good comment section requires extensive moderation and engagement, and I admittedly don’t have quite enough bandwidth for that right now. I also have zero tolerance for trolls or inanities. But if you’d like to get in touch with me on a post—or just in general!—please do drop me a line, and provided you don’t fall into the categories above, I’ll get back to you.

New Career Tricks

Lastly, I’m excited to share that I’ve been chosen to participate in the ProPublica Data Institute next month! It’s a two-week program focusing on data journalism, design, and programming. All are skill areas that I’ve wanted to strengthen, so I am so grateful the opportunity to attend. My goal is that I’ll be able to apply them in order to report and write more thorough and engaging stories.

Lessons from the ProPublica Data Institute

So…I completely whiffed on my stated intent to keep this blog updated regularly. Sorry about that!

But I promise I have some good excuses for going silent. For one, I’ve been working to regain physical strength and stamina after dealing with anemia and a recurring back issue that’s made it difficult at times for me to walk. The other excuse is, fortunately, a lot more upbeat: as I wrote earlier, I was one of 12 chosen from some 500 applicants to the ProPublica Data Institute. The Data Institute wrapped up last Wednesday, and wow, did I learn a lot from it!

For starters, I knew very little about working with data. I definitely didn’t know about all the superpowers of Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel. Now, my next step is to devise ways of incorporating more data into my reporting. That’s a bit tricky when it comes to private companies, which are the bulk of my journalistic focus. But at Technical.ly Brooklyn, I also write about tech initiatives forged by the city government, which is likely where I’ll start. As part of my final presentation for the Data Institute, I made a chart showing the share of participatory budget funds going to tech projects in Brooklyn. You can check it out below as well as at this link.

The second, and longest, section of the Data Institute focused on coding and design. I had some background in HTML and CSS from classes I had taken through Girl Develop It (which enabled me to customize this very site), so the lessons on those were mainly refreshers for me. The design principles we learned during the Data Institute I found very helpful: I hadn’t considered, for instance, the importance of considering colorblindness in picking a color palette. And it was wonderful to learn JavaScript in a way that made sense and felt applicable to my work. For one assigned exercise, I made a simple interactive photo that uses JavaScript to toggle between “before” and “after” images of the design makerspace A/D/O in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

(I also contributed to this tribute page a few of us put together of some of the most memorable quotes from our time at the Data Institute. It’s rudimentary, for sure — we definitely didn’t optimize for mobile! — but it was a fun way to acknowledge the awesome teachers and speakers we had during our two weeks there.)

Not quite ready for the pros, but maybe one day!

Speaking of optimizing for mobile…man, oh, man, does building a website from scratch require some serious tweaking! Our final project involved creating a portfolio website to showcase our journalistic (and personal, if we chose) work. We used GitHub Pages to host our sites. I knew the site I ended up building needed some work to look good on mobile devices and laptops with smaller screens. (We didn’t go over responsive design formally.) I’ve since made some tweaks so that it looks fine when the browser window isn’t fully maximized on my laptop, but it’s still quite a way off from being fully responsive. So that’s something I’ll continue to work on.

The final part of the Data Institute focused on web scraping, which was something I’d heard about but didn’t know what it involved in practice. What it involved was getting a crash course in Python! Surprisingly, the little bit of knowledge I retained from Codecademy exercises in JavaScript proved to be helpful, since from them, I learned about concepts like variables, loops, and functions. That said, in no way would I have been ready to write my own program from scratch. I still don’t feel very ready, but the simple web scraper we wrote together at least gave me a template for things to do on my own. We also got a talk on the ethics of scraping, which I found quite insightful. (In a nutshell: if you can get data without scraping, do that, and don’t write a scraper that runs so quickly that it brings the entire site down.)

In fun asides, I also dusted off my basic InDesign skills and got a tutorial on how to make a GIF in Photoshop (which I’m sure will come in handy for future Technical.ly Brooklyn posts!). The Data Institute also provided an occasion for me to update my resume (as part of our design unit), so if you could ever use my services, please do reach out!

The opening slide from the deck that I made for my presentation. (Click to see the whole deck!) It mysteriously didn’t work when I was presenting, though. Bummer.

(Featured image credit: Photos by Mike Tigas/ProPublica; GIF by Lena Groeger/ProPublica)

On SheaMoisture and whitewashing natural-hair-care marketing

hair care aisle

So…SheaMoisture released this online video, and many of the brand’s black women customers aren’t having it.

I think few people are begrudging SheaMoisture for seeking to expand its customer base. But it’s interesting to me that making this product appealing to the “mainstream” (read: white women) means lessening the presence of black folks in its advertising. (Carol’s Daughter, apparently, has undergone a similar phenomenon.) It’s a pretty tired trope at this point: gain a following among black consumers but abandon them once you seek to make it big, so to speak.

On a broader level, as a business journalist, I’m interested in two things:

  1. I think on some level there has been a move away from racial demographic-based marketing. Now it’s about psychographics and more specific affinity-based segments, from what I’m seeing. There’s some rationale for that: the customer profile for, say, a Luster’s Pink buyer probably looks quite different from the profile for a SheaMoisture buyer. (For one, the latter is more expensive.)
  2. The notion that Afrocentric spaces cannot be inclusive ones is quite odd to me, especially given the extraordinary influence of hip-hop culture. (There’s lots to say about business influence, co-opting, etc., but I think it’s very fair to say the culture is primarily driven by black folks.) Yet this idea persists in so many arenas, from this ad, which claims inclusivity yet doesn’t feature any dark-skinned or kinky-haired women, to criticism of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, in which it’s claimed that the emphasis on black lives is somehow an affront to non-black people.

I’ve spoken to several other natural-hair-care* entrepreneurs, most of whom are black women. Several of them discussed their initial surprise when they saw that women of other races and ethnicities were flocking to their products. Most described their marketing approach as driven by social media and user-generated content (e.g. customers sharing photos of their hair and videos of their styling tips), hence representing their customer base by default. All acknowledged the personal origins of their companies (i.e. they began making hair products for their own hair needs) and their predominantly black and female customer bases, while noting their desire to welcome customers outside that group.

Indeed, achieving sales growth usually means tapping into new markets, yet any business must be careful not to alienate its core customers while doing so. The SheaMoisture kerfuffle demonstrates (once again) that black customers won’t tolerate perceived exploitation for the sake of racial solidarity. But why even flirt with such a marketing hazard? Reaching a broad customer base, in 2017, should not require erasing blackness.

*That label in itself is murky, given that now there’s another segment of “natural” hair products, i.e. juices and berries, that aren’t necessarily marketed to black women!


Update: SheaMoisture has issued an apology and removed the original video from its social media accounts.

The 5 biases pushing women out of STEM

Woman typing on laptop

I think this Harvard Business Review piece is applicable to fields beyond tech. This part especially resonated with me:

Critiquing biased journalism: Shonda Rhimes edition

Viola Davis at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con

Amid all the furor over Alessandra Stanley’s piece on Shonda Rhimes in the New York Times last week, I saw a smart suggestion from Jeff Jarvis about a possible response: use News Genius to annotate the biased/offending text.

So I decided to do that myself, by compiling many of the criticisms of Stanley’s piece that I’d read and adding my own two cents. The annotated piece is below. (I saved you a visit to the Times!)

The future of Aereo and permissible TV hacks

Studio and transmitter compound of TV station.

The New Yorker recently ran a post on the embattled TV streaming company Aereo. Here are my quick thoughts:

Down with OPP (other people’s pathologies)

African American Union soldier and family

The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates is having a vigorous debate with New York‘s Jonathan Chait. I side with Coates. This post, regarding the erroneous conflation of the “culture of poverty” and “black culture,” is excellent.

However, I still don’t totally agree with Coates’s criticism of Obama’s addresses to black audiences. As I wrote in the comments:

(Not) mocking Thomas Friedman on Silicon Valley

The Santa Clara Valley

Thomas Friedman, a reliable target of mockery for the pundit class, writes a column seemingly tailor-made to be shredded by Valleywag, which is critical of Silicon Valley by default:

The Grammys and hip-hop’s fight for legitimacy

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images via GRAMMY.com

Oh, the Grammys.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took home four awards, including Best New Artist and Best Rap Album, while Kendrick Lamar went home empty-handed. Observers on the Internet, as anticipated, unleashed a collective raspberry; Macklemore responded with an awkward display of white guilt.

What I find most interesting about the reaction to Macklemore’s wins is that it illustrates hip-hop’s persistent chip on its shoulder. It belies any contentions that the Grammys are irrelevant to the genre. After all, if the awards didn’t matter, then why would the record exec Steve Stoute ever have bought a full-page ad in the New York Times to berate Grammy voters for not awarding Eminem or Kanye West Album of the Year?

In other arenas, hip-hop has made significant inroads into traditional cultural institutions. Jay Z’s book Decoded makes the case for readers (and listeners) to analyze the rapper’s lyrics as closely as, say, Wallace Stevens’s verses of poetry. Harvard has an institute devoted to the study of the genre; last year, the rapper Nas announced an eponymous fellowship there that will support scholars in the field. Others, such as 9th Wonder of the hip-hop group Little Brother, have turned full-time to academia.

Then of course, there’s the world of industry. Long gone are the days when rappers were merely unpaid pitchmen for sneakers and vodka. First, there was the proliferation of hip-hop-infused fashion labels, from Phat Farm to Rocawear, with Diddy even nabbing an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for his brand Sean John. In recent years, hip-hop artists have begun to make inroads in industries from media to tech. After reading Danyel Smith’s recent story for ESPN The Magazine on the convergence of sports and hip-hop culture, I couldn’t help but remark on Twitter, in a nod to Netscape founder and investor Marc Andreessen, that “hip-hop is eating the world.”

Oddly enough, hip-hop has struggled to attain that influence in its most immediate backyard—at least among those considered the gatekeepers of music’s legacy. By now, it’s ancient news that hip-hop acts can top Billboard sales charts (though this past year has revealed an interesting disparity in the makeup of songs versus albums charts) and achieve some measure of crossover success. Yet hip-hop artists have largely been confined to receiving genre-specific awards: no hip-hop artist, for instance, has ever won for Record or Song of the Year.

At the same time, however, there has been a gradual trend toward the collapsing of genres altogether. In recent years, the Grammys have made a big show of pairing artists from distinct genres in seemingly improbable collaborations. This year, for instance, featured the snubbed Kendrick Lamar alongside the alternative-rock band Imagine Dragons, as well as Metallica and concert pianist Lang Lang. The Grammys have also, controversially, minimized the recognition of genres it considers to be niche: the number of awards for R&B, for instance, has been slashed by half.

This blurring of genres has extended to the sales charts as well. In 2012, Billboard expanded its criteria for defining record airplay, and in many cases, crossover acts have overtaken artists with followings primarily within one genre. The change has arguably hit country and R&B hardest, but hip-hop hasn’t been immune from its effects: for instance, the Korean artist Psy quite dubiously topped Billboard’s rap charts for “Gangnam Style.”

Macklemore has been beset by a similar genre controversy, as he draws his fan base largely outside of the core hip-hop community. For this reason, the Grammys’ rap committee reportedly sought to bar his nomination in that category. But it’s hard to argue that Macklemore isn’t a rapper, at least in strictly technical terms. (During the awards show, a friend of mine wondered if his song “Same Love” should be considered spoken word rather than rap or hip-hop, but I suspect that distinction would be lost among Grammy voters.)

All of these factors produce an environment in which hip-hop is, paradoxically, both mainstreamed and marginalized. Unlike in decades past, when blues artists received neither recognition nor compensation after their songs became fodder for hits by rock ‘n’ roll acts, the stakes for today’s hip-hop artists aren’t financial. But for a genre—and culture—seeking to burnish its legacy, the slight still wounds.

A few musings on racial diversity in tech

dyed eggs

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.