New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Roots co-founder Questlove can agree on one thing: The Big Apple has the potential to become the next Silicon Valley. That much was made clear when the two appeared in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood on October 1 for the opening of the “Made in NY” center, which is being touted as a cross-industry hub of creative innovation. “Collaboration between the sectors is crucial if we’re going to be the global media capital of the digital age,” Bloomberg said during the press conference. “Our administration is working hard to make sure that’s the case.”
Added Questlove, who will serve as the center’s first artist-in-residence: “In recent years, technology has really played a game-changing role in how we create and how we consume art. Who knows—maybe I’ll create the new ‘Tonight Show’ theme with someone here at the center.”
The upbeat event was the latest in Bloomberg’s effort to bring the economic prosperity of a Silicon Valley to the Big Apple. There are already 262,000 local jobs in the technology sector, eight percent of the city’s total workforce. Tech industry professionals make a combined $30 billion in wages each year, which is roughly 11 percent of the non-public sector income in the city, according to a report released this year by the Bloomberg Technology Summit.
Nowhere in the United States has the drive to emulate Silicon Valley been as deliberate as in New York City. In 2011, the Bloomberg administration introduced a roadmap for what it calls Silicon Alley that outlined plans to make New York “the world’s premier digital city.” The plan tackles five issues: internet access, education, open government, New Yorkers’ engagement with the city’s digital experiences, and the tech-based businesses that they then create.
Diversity is part of that plan. Specifically, the administration hopes to expand its workforce development programs with tech-based curricula at New York City high schools and offering young people of color jobs in the sector. But according to some experts, what’s missing is a focus on racial equity.
People of color are the fastest growing users of everything from smartphones to social media, and according to researchers, people of color are more likely than whites to use that technology to keep up with what’s happening in their neighborhoods. But not only do they not have a seat at the table when those products are being developed, the table is in a different room entirely. At the heart of the question is how to develop tech communities of people who don’t just consume media, but who create it and can then use it to solve problems in their communities. In a place that’s as racially diverse as New York City, how municipal leaders engage communities of color could be a roadmap for the rest of the country.
There hasn’t yet been a study on race in the New York’s burgeoning Silicon Alley, but numbers out of Silicon Valley provide some clues about what New York City could look like. In 2011, CNN Money asked 20 Silicon Valley companies to release data from their annual reports to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), but only three replied: Dell, Ingram Micro, and Intel. Out of those companies’ self-reported numbers 68 percent of the 44,000 workers were white, and only 33 percent were women.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also tell a dismal story. Out of more than 600,000 people employed as computer and information systems managers, 27 percent are women, slightly more than five percent are black and five percent are Latino. And a 2012 AFL-CIO report found that although 15 percent of the general labor force is Latino and 11 percent is black, only six percent of Latinos and seven percent of black workers are involved in computer and mathematics occupations.
College degrees in computer science also reflect a paucity of blacks and Latinos. Enrollment in computer science programs has grown by 10 percent since the 2007 dot-com crash, according to the Computing Research Association, but racial diversity was static among those getting masters and bachelors degrees in the field. Among BA recipients in computer science fields, only four percent were black, and a little more than five percent were Hispanic. Two percent of both black and Latino students were among those receiving MAs.
While it’s clear that the numbers of people of color in Silicon Valley are low, it’s much harder to surface the reasons for those dismal demographics. After some digging, what’s become clear is that there are two kinds of overlapping barriers for people of color seeking a more meaningful involvement in the sector. First, there’s the lack of access to technology, computer science education and venture capital in communities of color. And because of that lack of access, there’s lack of social capital necessary for entrepreneurs of color to get deals done.
Show me the money
Five years ago, influential venture capitalist John Doerr famously said that he saw a correlation between being a white, male nerd who drops out of Harvard or Stanford and being successful. That attitude appears to have gone largely unchecked in what is often described as “pattern recognition” or “pattern matching” in the venture capital world.
Pattern matching is something Vivek Wadhwa, an Indian-American entrepreneur and scholar who’s written extensively about race and gender gaps in entrepreneurship and innovation, says is “code for racism and sexism” at the core of racial inequality in the field.
“In general, investment banking is a sexist, disgusting culture. I’ve worked there. I know how women and minorities are treated there,” Wadhwa says. “It’s all about networking and mentorship, which are the most important ingredients in entrepreneurial success. And people of color are missing that ingredient. It’s much harder for them to succeed. They have to reinvent the wheel because [technology] hasn’t changed.”
New York City-based web developer Eric Hamilton says he’s had firsthand experience with pattern-matching. He says he once pitched a project to a room of 45 investors, some of whom were black, and watched as they ignored him but were captivated moments later by a disheveled young white man who was considering dropping out of college.
“He commanded the room, because of what he represented. It was that, along with the fact that I’m too old, that I’m the right gender but the wrong complexion, and that I actually finished my degree. It was the pattern-matching piece of it,” Hamilton says.
And those most often identified by pattern-matching come from just a handful of schools. A recent study by Reuters pinpoints how white males who have attended Harvard, Stanford, or MIT are among the most frequently funded by venture capitalists. A quick glance at enrollment data from these top schools shows what you might expect—that there are very few people of color attending them. Undergraduate and graduate admissions across these schools averaged six percent African-American, nine percent Hispanic, 18 percent Asian American/Pacific Islander, and one percent American Indian/Alaskan Native.
And it’s been that way for years.
“It is much harder for people of color who are not tapped into the network, that don’t have the social capital, don’t know how to do the right dance, who don’t know the right mentors,” says Hank Williams, a black tech entrepreneur who founded the data management software company Kloudco and Platform.org, a nonprofit that aims to increase minority participation in technology. “It’s much harder to raise capital. We’re just not in the right circles.”
Get in where you fit in
To address questions of diversity on Silicon Alley, New York City’s chief digital officer Rachel Haot says that the city is reaching out to communities of color.
“Diversity in the technology sector is not only critical to New York City’s economic future and opportunities for all residents, it is critical to the sector itself, Haot says via email.”The importance of diversity in the tech sector has driven the creation of a range of programs, including several employment programs that provided 300 young people of color with paid technology-sector internships and training this summer. In addition, we have hosted professional development seminars and launched We Are Made in NY, an economic development initiative that offers more than 50 programs for getting involved in the tech sector, and highlights diverse teams of local technology firms. Finally, our recent series of listening sessions across the five boroughs generated powerful new suggestions on how best to engage and encourage diverse communities in the new tech ecosystem.”
But some people already working to bridge the racial gap in New York’s tech spaces say the sector’s problems with diversity are very deeply entrenched.
“I do think it’s a much larger structural issue of the options of people who have experience and go to school for computer science,” says Georgia Bullen, a researcher with a Washington, DC-based group called the Open Technology Institute who lives in New York City. She notes that even when a qualified black or Latino candidate does apply for a tech job, they may not be considered as strongly as a white male candidate because they aren’t in the same social networks. Bullen, a white woman, recounted studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon in the early 2000s and being struck by the school’s lack of racial diversity. “It’s not that the organizations aren’t willing to talk about what diversity they have [because] they know it’s not anywhere where they want it to be. But it’s a much longer term problem to fix.”
The Bloomberg administration’s focus on education in its digital roadmap is meant to address some of these structural inequities. But some scholars have spoken out against what they call “technology-focused ethnocentrism,” or the idea that simply offering access to gadgets and tools will meaningfully increase the numbers of people of color who grow up wanting to build and design new technologies. In one article professor Christo Sims describes a technology-focused high school that opened in Manhattan in 2009. Within a few years, he wrote, many of its students of color left because the school, its curriculum, and its after-school activities were not connected well enough to surrounding communities of color.
Kimberly Bryant, the founder of a Bay Area-based organization called Black Girls Code, says that the structural issues aren’t isolated to any one city, but is an industry-wide problem. “It becomes a chicken-or-egg situation,” Bryant says. “There aren’t many people of color graduating with degrees in computer science, which means there are fewer people of color getting jobs at tech companies, which means there are even fewer entrepreneurs of color in the technology field in general.”
Techies currently working in New York say there are also cultural issues at play, such as an aversion to geekdom in communities of color. Mary Pryor is a social media consultant and writer from Detroit who coordinates the meet-up group Blacks in Technology (BIT). She says lack of access to technology careers starts with not knowing those careers exist because they aren’t introduced to young people in schools.
“If it wasn’t for a friend of my grandmother’s from her church group talking about, ‘Oh, your granddaughter is good with math, she should try this program in automotive engineering,’ there is no way I would have stumbled upon the idea that a digital career was anywhere near viable,” Pryor says.
She also said her peers made it very clear that being a geek was not okay. She had to play up other attributes, like being a good dancer, and being into music and DJ’ing, in order to mask what she calls her “geektivity.”
“There’s no real celebration if you grow up in the ‘hood-hood,’ which is where I grew up, to be a geek,” she says. “It sucks, but if you’re seen as someone who spends all their time in the books, there’s a kind of a backlash you deal with, on top of just trying to hide your love of being in front of a computer screen all day.”
Kyle Wanamaker is a software engineer from Philadelphia currently working at Tumblr, and also felt he had to hide his inner geek.
“I played varsity basketball, I was all-league in basketball and track. Basically all that made it passable that I would go and mess around on the computer,” he says.
And both pointed out that young people of color don’t have tech entrepreneurs to look up to in the same way they do celebrities, professional athletes, and musicians. As New York City developer Hamilton puts it, there needs to be an entrepreneur who is like a Mark Zuckerberg mixed with a P. Diddy in order for black and brown people to take notice of the tech industry as a viable option.
Mixing it up
The absence of black and Latino people hasn’t gone unnoticed, particularly among those who’ve been part of the tech sector in New York since before the boom.
Mike Street is a social media strategist and consultant who has worked on brands such as Oprah.com, collaborated with SXSW, and is the founder of the Blacks in Technology meet-up group that Pryor coordinates. He’s personally felt the sting of an absence of black and brown people in the technology sector.
“I’ve been on interviews at Tumblr, Foursquare, and I would look to see what their makeup is,” he says. “Unfortunately, I still see a room full of white guys, some cool white girls, and you may see one or two black guys in the corner. I have friends working at other companies, who say they can count the diversity on one hand. It’s important because, if you’re going to come into these companies, you have to have someone who can vouch for you and bring you in.”
But Street, like Kloudco founder Hank Williams, have hope that things are changing. “Championing minorities in the tech industry is the new civil rights movement,” he says. “This is our new economy, and we have to be active participants.”
Bruce Lincoln is a black entrepreneur who’s been in the tech industry since the 1980s and watched New York blossom over the last decade. He launched Silicon Harlem in February with co-founder Clayton Banks with the hopes of transforming the still predominantly black and Latino neighborhood of Harlem into a center for technology innovation.
And Silicon Harlem, as well as initiatives like Williams’ initiative Platform.org are part of a series of interventions that could make an impact.
“It’s not simply about making sure everyone has opportunities when it comes to developing companies,” he says. “But, also, how that development creates jobs for those people who are not going to be the technology company developer.”
He says black and Latino entrepreneurs working within communities of color have an opportunity to create new networks, which many have signaled are sorely needed, and that these networks could have much broader effects on the future of the field and equitable access for people of color.
“[Technology growth] insularly develops the growth of science, technology, engineering and math, and young people learning coding. It’s an ecosystem that’s developing,” he says.