Startups: Silicon Valley, Race, Michael Arrington, and Detroit




There was recently an online conversation sparked on Twitter on the subject of diversity and Silicon Valley with Michael Arrington’s comments from the documentary, CNN’s Black In America 4 that airs 11/13/11 at 8pm EST. The sound bite that was heard around the world and started the debate was, ‘I don’t know a single black entrepreneur.’

Is Michael Arrington Racist?

After watching the video clip, where he states, ‘I don’t know a single black entrepreneur’, and reading his blog post, ‘Racism the Game’, I truly don’t believe that Michael Arrington is a racist based upon those two slices of information. What I do believe is that whether he thinks he was bamboozled or hoodwinked into the CNN interview it is clear that he was stating how he truly felt, right, wrong or indifferent. The reality is, that the statements that Arrington made he is not alone in his sentiment, maybe the most outspoken but, definitely not alone.

My NewME Accelerator Experience

Why am I jumping into the conversation? First, let me provide you some context of who I am. I am a 39-year old Mechanical Engineer from Detroit and co-founder of a startup called Gokit (the startup world would call me a non-technical founder because I don’t code. YET!) I was one of the 11-startup founders in the NewME Accelerator this past summer, which was the first minority led tech accelerator. I had a very eye opening experience living in Silicon Valley. For anyone in the tech startup space spending time in Silicon Valley is imperative if you have the opportunity. It provides you a contextual understanding of the startup ecosystem: veteran entrepreneurs, angel investors, startups and VCs.

During the 9-week program, I had the opportunity to be immersed in the startup culture spending time at Facebook with their platform developers, Mitch Kapor a mentor who commercialized the spreadsheet at Lotus, and much more. I found that there are some very good people in Silicon Valley that see talent and are willing to provide information for those who get access.

The reality of Silicon Valley hit me the first week of the program when I heard two terms/phrases that embodied my trip and the obstacles that many face African-American founders face in launching successful startups, ‘meritocracy’ and ‘pattern matching’. Let’s first start by defining both terms:

  • Meritocracy is defined as opportunity being determined purely based upon talent, merit, credentials, and education alone.
  • Pattern Matching is a selection criteria based upon built in basis, meaning that I select people that are look and are like me.

In the U.S. it is pretty safe to say we don’t live in a meritocracy and Silicon Valley and the startup space is not exempt from that. I will go on the record and as that Silicon Valley is absolutely diverse in terms of an ethnic perspective, but there is a total void of an African-American presence.

Our experience is captured in CNN’s Black In America 4: The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley. This documentary is ground breaking. Think about this point, when way the last time you saw a group of African-Americans on prime-time TV and they were not athletes or entertainers?

In The Year 2042 Minorities Become the Majority

Where do we go from here? According to the U.S. Census by the year 2042 minorities (primarily Blacks and Hispanics) will be the majority of the population. How will this change the mindset of the startup space as we move towards that date? Tristan Walker refers to this point in his recent interview with Laurie Segall of CNN Tech Money.

Is there a Difference between Detroit and Silicon Valley?

Is Silicon Valley unique in the sense of this issue on diversity? According to data in the CB Insights a report on startups that focuses on gender and race the answer is absolutely no. The reason that I make this statement is that the report covers New York (Silicon Alley) and Boston and the issues are the same in those markets.

As I come back to Detroit I am very interested in being apart of the startup landscape and helping to breakdown some of the walls in Detroit that I saw in Silicon Valley. I wish Michael Arrington and others were right that opportunity is based purely upon talent and merit. The problem with that statement is that there are other issues that impact opportunity in this case are primarily access and relationships.

Here is my commitment to Detroit. The NewME Accelerator was a life-changing event for me and I thank Angela Benton and Wayne Sutton for having the courage to make it happen. Part of my personal responsibility goes beyond having the opportunity to be on TV but in helping bring awareness to of the startup space in Detroit to underrepresented groups especially African-American and Hispanic.

With the unemployment rate in the state of Michigan at 11.1% the startup community is going to be a vital part of attracting and retaining young talent in the state of Michigan. Currently, there is a hugh demographic that is totally excluded from the startup space in terms of representation. This group is African-American founder, which make up, 1% of VC backed startups nationally.

Hitting the Ground Running in Detroit

Talking with 300-Detroit High School Students about Tech Startups

On Wednesday, November 9th Brand Camp University is partnering with DAPCEP (Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program) and the UAW/GM and we are doing a pre-screening for the CNN Black In America 4 documentary to 300-Detroit High School students. The focus is to build awareness of tech startups as a career option and addressing the pipeline issue of getting Detroit students to think about education in STEM (Science Technology Math

CNN Pre-Screening at Google (Birmingham, MI)

CNN Black In America 4 Pre-Screening at Google (Birmingham, MI) on 11/10/11

By the time the Black In America 4 documentary airs on 11/13/11 over 350-people will have been apart of the live viewing of the documentary in Detroit. This will make Detroit one of the largest viewing markets of CNN approved self-hosted pre-screening locations next to New York and Silicon Valley.

Thanks to the Michigan Minority Business Development Council, Google, DACEP, and the UAW/GM for their sponsorship and support.

  • Eric Hamilton

    It is impossible to tell if Arrington is or isn’t a racist from a small video clip. However, did your notice his tone and the disgust on his face when stating that he did not know any Black entrepreneurs?  It wasn’t what he said but how he said it. 

  • Chowhamilton

    My bro Dean Hamilton is an African American entrepreneur and quintessential Silicon Valley product, who took the company he founded, CoSine Communications public in 2000 in a 7 billion dollar IPO.  Dean has got to be one of a number of such African American technology success stories.    Has the world simply gone mad?

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