The Face of Success, Part 4: Blacks in Silicon Valley
BY Vivek Wadhwa
If you think the dearth of women polarizes Silicon Valley, just read what happened when I spoke out about the lack of black tech CEOs.
Paul Graham, Jessica Livingston, and crowd from YCombinator's Startup School, held at Stanford University.
In the previous three pieces in this series, I discussed the dearth of women in technology and the way it polarizes Silicon Valley. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, in 2008, blacks and Hispanics constituted only 1.5% and 4.7% respectively of the Valley’s tech population —well below national tech-population averages of 7.1% and 5.3%. You hardly find any blacks in positions of leadership in Silicon Valley companies. There is at least an unconscious bias.
I was faced with the depth of the problem when one of my Duke students, a black woman, Viva Leigh Miller, approached me in March 2010 to help her get a job in Silicon Valley. I have taught more than 300 really smart students at the Duke Masters of Engineering Management program, and Viva was one of the best. With a high GPA, many awards, and degrees in science and mathematics from U.S. top colleges, I couldn’t imagine that Viva would have any difficulty gaining multiple job offers. I was sure she would one day become a hotshot CEO. But Viva couldn’t get a job in the Valley—despite introductions that I gave her to leading venture capitalists. I could never understand why. During my tech days, I would have hired Viva in a heartbeat. She had the determination, drive, and education that all tech companies look for.
Discussing the dearth of blacks in Silicon Valley is an even bigger taboo than discussing women. I learned this the hard way by having a frank discussion with black entrepreneurs that was recorded by CNN and aired in a documentary titled “Black in America.”
In the interview, I relayed my own experience building a tech company in the Deep South of the U.S. When I was looking for funding for my second startup, local VCs wouldn’t return my phone calls, even though I’d previously helped build a public company with $120 million in annual revenue. In Silicon Valley, an entrepreneur with credentials like mine would have had dozens of VCs knocking on his door. The advice that other successful Indians gave me was to have a “white guy” on my management team who would deal with the VCs. My company was growing rapidly, and I needed to hire a president and chief operating officer. So I hired a white guy for that role, and killed two birds with one stone. After that, it was easy raise millions of dollars in venture capital.
After a pre-screening of the documentary, a heated discussion broke out on Twitter about the documentary and my comments. TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington, who is considered to be the tech industry’s most influential blogger, tweeted: “the indian guy is viveck. he always plays the victim card.” When I confronted Arrington on his comment, he retorted: “@wadhwa you got rich starting companies in America. I don't understand why you then complain you weren't given a chance.” He insisted “there's negative bias in [Silicon Valley]. VCs are dying to invest in women & minorities just so they don't have conversations like this”. Arrington then “blocked” and “unfollowed” me on Twitter--the ultimate social media insult.
In the documentary, Arrington said that he didn’t know a single black entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. Then he said that he had once put one black entrepreneur on stage at a TechCrunch event—but would have done the same even if the black entrepreneur had been running a “clown show.” These are blunt comments, and they exemplify the dark side of Silicon Valley: that an elite group of power brokers, exemplified by Arrington, is totally ignorant of the hurdles faced by minority groups. Venture capitalists routinely tout their “patternrecognition” abilities -- they say they know a successful entrepreneur when they see one. Sadly, the patterns they see merely represent those who have achieved success in the past: typically young, white males.
Silicon Valley is indeed a meritocracy for those to whom these criteria are not hurdles. But others—the blacks, women, and Hispanics whom it overlooks—find it an elite private club from which they are excluded.
The good news is that these obstacles can be surmounted. In my next piece, I’ll discuss how.
VIVEK WADHWA is Vice President of Academics and Innovation, Singularity University; Fellow, Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research, Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization and Exec in Residence, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University; and Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Halle Institute of Global Learning, Emory University.