13 leaders aiming to increase African Americans in tech


13 leaders in the tech diversity movement working to increase the representation of African Americans in Silicon Valley.

SAN FRANCISCO — In Silicon Valley, they call it the 2% problem.

African Americans make up a tiny fraction of the overwhelmingly white and Asian male workforces of major technology companies, the ranks of aspiring entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who control the spigot of money and access.

Silicon Valley is taking steps to offer more opportunities to underrepresented minorities in the nation’s fastest-growing, highest-paying industry. But no one is working harder to tear down barriers for African Americans than a growing cadre of entrepreneurs, investors, engineers and advocates pioneering a range of innovative efforts, from teaching kids of color how to code to preparing African American and Latino engineers for jobs in Silicon Valley.

“The movement for tech inclusion has become the most important drive for economic progress and opportunity in black America,” says Van Jones, who founded #YesWeCode with the support of music icon Prince. “Tech has become the center of the bull’s eye for African Americans trying to create hope and possibility in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore.”

For Black History Month, USA TODAY profiled 13 people to watch in Silicon Valley’s diversity movement:

Kimberly Bryant
Founder of Black Girls Code

Kimberly Bryant. (Photo: Martin E. Klimek, USA TODAY)

When Bryant’s daughter Kai was in middle school, she began to follow in the footsteps of her engineer mom.

“I was trying to find ways to nurture that talent in her. I was looking for opportunities outside of school. What I saw mirrored what I saw in the industry: Lots of boys, very few girls and not very many people of color at all,” Bryant says.

Kai attended a summer program at Stanford University that teaches kids how to code. She was the only African American and one of just a few girls enrolled. Bryant did not want her daughter to feel isolated as she had in her electrical engineering studies.

So she created a camp of her own. In 2011, Bryant launched Black Girls Code, which introduces girls of color to computer science with the goal of building a new generation of coders. It has introduced more than 4,000 girls in nine cities to computer science. By 2040, Bryant wants to reach 1 million girls whom she calls “tech divas.”

Young women in the program “find their voice,” she says. “We are creating a powerful community of women skilled and confident about what they can create in the workplace.”

Her students heading to Dartmouth, Princeton and Spelman to study computer science “will change the face of technology,” she says.

Laura Weidman Powers
Co-founder and CEO of CODE2040

Laura Weidman Powers. (Photo: Martin E. Klimek, USA TODAY)

Determined to make Silicon Valley representative of America one engineer at a time, Weidman Powers named her organization after the year of America’s projected shift to African Americans and Latinos making up 42% of the population.

This Harvard and Stanford MBA grad’s ambition is to take on inequality of opportunity in the tech industry and close the wealth and achievement gap in the U.S. for African Americans and Latinos by 2040.

“Not to be overly dramatic, but it’s the future of America,” Weidman Powers says.

Black, Latino and Latina students earn nearly 20% of computer science degrees yet make up 9% of the tech industry and less than 1% of tech company founders, she says.

CODE2040 places software engineering students of color in internships with major tech companies and start-ups such as Apple and Intel. Eighty-three fellows have gone through the program and Code2040 plans to double that with the class of 2016. It has also reached more than 1,000 students through Technical Applicant Prep, which prepares Black and Latino students to land and succeed in internships and full-time jobs at top tech companies.

That work was recognized in December when the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave CODE2040 a $1.2 million grant to expand its programs.

Erica Joy Baker
Senior engineer at Slack Technologies, advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech

Erica Joy Baker. (Photo: Martin E. Klimek, USA TODAY)

Baker started playing with computers when she was 12. Self taught, she loved taking things apart to see how they ticked. That analytical drive isn’t the only thing that made her an engineer recruited by Google and now by Slack. She also refuses to adhere to the status quo. As a kid, she wore a jeans jacket covered in buttons. Her favorite: Question Authority.

At Google, she did just that, repeatedly asking for the company’s diversity numbers only “to get shot down all the time.” She also rallied her colleagues to create a spreadsheet of their salaries which she says exposed some inequity issues.

Now she is addressing a much larger audience. Baker is making a name for herself by saying very publicly what people of color typically don’t dare for fear of losing their positions in the industry. In consciousness-raising essays on Medium and in a steady stream of pointed comments on Twitter, she calls out the tech industry for only focusing diversity efforts on women to the detriment of people of color.

With the blessing of Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, Baker spends 20% of her time on advocating for women and men of color and working to improve their lives in the tech world.

“I see as my duty to hold companies accountable until stuff gets better,” she says. “I am trying to keep moving the needle, to make sure the stuff that we didn’t talk about, the stuff that gets brushed under the rug, gets discussed and gets solved.”

Brandon Nicholson
Founding executive director of The Hidden Genius Project

A handful of tech entrepreneurs were determined to help promising young black men uncover their “hidden genius” with an intensive training program that fosters coding and entrepreneurial chops as well as confidence. They built The Hidden Genius Project without paychecks and on a string-bean budget.

“There is so much going on in the world of tech that they did not want these young men to miss out,” said Nicholson, a Princeton grad who grew up in Oakland.

The founders — Jason Young, Tracy “Ty” Moore II, Kilimanjaro Robbs, Kurt Collins and Isaak Hayes — tapped Nicholson to become the nonprofit’s founding executive director in February. He was instrumental in helping Hidden Genius land a prestigious $500,000 grant from Google.

Seventeen young men have completed the program which entails a rigorous summer program plus once a week after school and one Saturday a month. The current cohort is the largest yet: 19 teens started in June.

Nicholson says he’s inspired each day by the young men in the program such as Mathew who went from failing grades in calculus to studying computer science at Cal State East Bay with designs on becoming a software engineer.

Charles Hudson
Managing Partner with Precursor Ventures

Charles Hudson. (Photo: Martin E. Klimek, USA TODAY)

As one of the few African-American investors in Silicon Valley, Charles Hudson is often mistaken for someone else, from Alphabet executive David Drummond to entrepreneur Tristan Walker to music icon and tech investor MC Hammer. It happened so frequently, he created a Pinterest board called  “I Am Not This Guy.”

Everyone in Silicon Valley should be well acquainted with Hudson who has had stints at Google, was as an investor with In-Q-Tel (the CIA’s venture capital arm), founded gaming companies and was a partner with seed-stage investor SoftTechVC. He has now struck out on his own, starting Precursor Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm.

He devotes a significant chunk of his time to mentoring women and minorities and giving the next generation of African Americans a road map to working in the tech industry. African Americans comprise about 1% of venture capitalists, according to surveys. Hudson says he has counted just a dozen African-American venture capitalists out of thousands.

“I want to change the pipeline of the people who get considered for these jobs,” Hudson says.

To persuade people of color that it’s possible to break into the insular tech industry, he and friend Denmark West started the Searchlights Project, a series of interviews to spotlight African Americans thriving in high tech.

Four years ago, he and fellow black investor Richard Kerby started Stealth Mode, which hosts quarterly get-togethers for African Americans in the Silicon Valley tech community. Kerby, who moved to New York City in July, has started a new Stealth Mode chapter there.

Tristan Walker
CEO and founder of Walker & Co. Brands and chairman of CODE2040

If ever there was a role model for young African Americans in Silicon Valley, it’s Walker.

This Silicon Valley entrepreneur is building a modern personal care line for people of color and recently raised $24 million from top venture capitalists and celebrity investors such as Earvin “Magic” Johnson, John Legend and NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. He has inked a deal with Target to sell its flagship product Bevel, a single-blade razor system for men and women with coarse, curly hair, in select Target stores in the United States and on Target.com and recently rolled out a new trimmer as a companion to Bevel.

“He’s a real forward thinker and a real visionary,” hip-hop artist and Walker & Company Brands investor Nas said. “There have been so many products out there for people of color that were not owned by people of color and that matters. Tristan comes from a different way of thinking. Tristan comes into it seeing what’s missing in the industry and it’s important for him to change that.”

Walker’s company reflects his values: Six out of 10 senior leaders are women and 50% of staffers are women. People of color comprise the majority while white men are a distinct minority.

“It’s good business. A more diverse workforce is a better workforce. A more diverse workforce is a better America,” Walker says.

Michael Seibel 
Partner with Y Combinator

Seibel has the kind of entrepreneurial chops that command respect in Silicon Valley.

He was an early executive with Justin.tv, the video streaming service which later became Twitch Interactive and sold to Amazon.com for $970 million. He was also CEO of Socialcam, a social video sharing app that spun out of Justin.tv and sold to Autodesk for $60 million when it was just 18 months old and had four employees.

Like Justin.tv., Socialcam was a graduate of Y Combinator, the most famous and influential incubator in Silicon Valley where Seibel is now a partner. 

Part of his job is reaching out to blacks and Latinos who are underrepresented in Silicon Valley and in Y Combinator.

Seibel started YC Open Office Hours to give people of all backgrounds direct access to Y Combinator partners. In just one week, more than 600 companies applied, 60 of them got in person or Skype meetings with partners. Y Combinator is now planning to expand the program.

He’s also working on a project called YC Startup College, which offers tech start-up curriculum to colleges in general and specifically to historically black universities and colleges. It is currently being piloted at Howard University and Morgan State University.

The efforts are slowly paying off: 19% of the companies in the last Y Combinator batch had either a black or a Latino founder on their founding team.

“Startups are often best at solving the personal problems of their founders. The more diverse the founders, the more types of problems can be solved — and the more people who will be positively impacted by technology,” Seibel says.

Angela Benton
Founder and CEO of NewME Accelerator

Benton started Black Web 2.0, an online publication for African Americans in technology and new media, in 2007 when few others were focused on the underrepresentation of minorities in Silicon Valley.

Through Black Web 2.0, she met tech entrepreneur and diversity activist Wayne Sutton with whom Benton launched the NewME accelerator in 2011 while running her own start-up, an app called Cued Labs that gave recommendations based on where you are. At launch, NewMe had seven minority-led start-ups from around the country living in a rented house in Mountain View, Calif., and was featured in the CNN documentary: Black in America: The New Promised Land, Silicon Valley.

“It felt like we were at the start of something big,” Benton says.

Tech leaders came out of NewMe such as Tiffani Ashley Bell. Bell, a leading advocate for inclusion in tech, later went on to co-found the Detroit Water Project which took part in Y Combinator. The Detroit Water Project is an online service that matches donors with households at risk of having their water shut off and has helped more than 900 families in Detroit and Baltimore.

Today NewME, which helps black tech entrepreneurs turn ideas into businesses, has helped nurture a portfolio of 39 companies that have raised $21.4 million. NewME also offers online services to train thousands of entrepreneurs around the globe.

Wayne Sutton
Co-founder of Tech Inclusion and BUILDUP

Tech entrepreneur Sutton was inspired to move to the Bay Area to create the first start-up house for diverse entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley in 2011 after reading a sobering statistic from CB Insights: Less than 1% of venture capital-backed company founders were African American (83% were white, 12% Asian).

“I thought: ‘What can I do about that?'” Sutton says. “I was a 1 percenter.”

The NewMe accelerator for minority founders was showcased on CNN at a time when very little attention was being paid to the lopsided demographics in the tech industry.

“Never to my knowledge in the history of America had you seen African Americans, women and Latino entrepreneurs talking about doing tech start-ups in Silicon Valley on national television,” Sutton says. “The impact of the documentary was priceless. It showed a different opportunity for minorities and African Americans.”

Today Sutton is a general partner at BUILDUP, a nonprofit that connects, mentors and educated underrepresented tech entrepreneurs. Sutton is also the co-founder of the Tech Inclusion Conference, which was held in September in San Francisco and attracted 1,100. And he manages “Black Men In Tech,” a support network with more than 250 members.

Freada Kapor Klein
Founder of the Level Playing Institute, partner with the Kapor Center for Social Impact and partner with Kapor Capital

A lifelong advocate for people of color and women, Kapor Klein has championed the fight to make the overwhelmingly white and male Silicon Valley more inclusive by promoting equal access to education, funding companies whose leaders hail from underrepresented communities and conducting training for major tech companies on unconscious bias.

She regularly challenges the popular myth that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy where anyone, regardless of race or creed, has an equal shot at success.

“What we have now is a gap between the promise and the stated values and what actually are the opportunities,” Kapor Klein says.

Her work to close that gap is rooted in her Jewish heritage that embraces “a strong sense of social justice.”

“If anyone is being treated unfairly in your community, your country, your society, your school, your workplace, then all of us are participating in that system,” she says. “All of us need to make sure that the system is fair or else we are participating in a rigged game.”

In 2001 Kapor founded the Level Playing Field Institute, a nonprofit which finds innovative ways to remove barriers to higher education and the workplace and houses the SMASH (Summer Math and Science Honors) Academy for low-income high school students of color. She and her husband, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Mitch Kapor have committed to spending $40 million over the next three years to the cause of tech diversity.

Monique Woodard
Founder and executive director of Black Founders, venture partner with 500 Startups

Woodard worked in the entertainment business until 2008 when she was recruited by a tech company in the Bay Area. She got her first computer when she was seven years old and loved technology “because it was about having the freedom to be creative and make something from your own brain and your own ingenuity. That creativity appealed to me.”

In Silicon Valley, she became immersed in the start-up community. She noticed she was always one of a very few African Americans in the room when she went to pitch events, hackathons and start-up conferences. She and her fellow Black Founders co-founders wanted to change that so they created a network of their own. Black Founders began hosting events and workshops. Soon it expanded to other cities and to historically black universities and colleges.

Today, it puts on hackathons at HBCUs where students who are interested in careers in tech and entrepreneurship spend a weekend developing software and mobile apps and connecting with tech companies.

Recently Black Founders launched a mentoring program to pair entrepreneurs with experienced founders. In 2016 Woodard says she plans to take on the dearth of funding resources for black entrepreneurs.

“Access to capital, especially at early stage is still a challenge for black founders and we’ve been thinking deeply about ways to make an impact there,” she says.

Woodard will be making an impact in another way. In January, Woodard joined 500 Startups as the venture firm and start-up accelerator’s first black investor.

“We have to diversify who’s going out there and finding companies and who’s writing the checks,” she said. “That is incredibly important. It’s hard to find black and Latino founders if you don’t have black and Latino investors on your staff.”

Makinde Adeagbo​
Pinterest engineer and founder of /dev/color

Makinde Adeagbo splits his time between being a software engineer at the San Francisco company Pinterest and running /dev/color, a nonprofit group for African-American engineers.

The group brings together engineers from top companies such as Facebook, Uber and Airbnb to provide support for each other and a voice to African Americans in Silicon Valley companies who make up a tiny percentage of technical workers.

Born in Nigeria and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Adeagbo became interested in software engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He landed summer internships at Microsoft and Apple. His first job out of college was at Facebook.

Adeagbo says he was drawn to solving big problems in the tech industry and beyond, in search of ways to make people’s lives “tangibly better,” working on software for schools in Kenya and coaching track in East Palo Alto, Calif.

Now he’s working to match young engineers with role models to guide them.

“Those examples help lead someone to believe: I can do this because someone like me is doing this,” he says.

Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler
Founder of Trans*H4CK and co-founder of BSMdotCo

In October 2013, Ziegler founded Trans*H4CK to build technology for trans and gender-non-conforming people.

“I thought it would be a great idea to bring the hackathon model of collaboration to the space of transgender advocacy to see how we can create technology that would benefit trans people who don’t have sufficient access to resources,” said Ziegler, who wrote and directed the award-winning documentary STILL BLACK: A Portrait of Black Transmen. “After multiple successful onsite hackathons and a speaker series that profiled trans people in tech, we’ve now scaled into an online space in which to have a more global reach.”

Ziegler says Trans*H4CK is an incubator that has launched careers and start-ups. It’s also a research lab to provide data on trans and gender-non-conforming people in tech.

“This information is useful in affecting policy at companies and spaces which hire or don’t hire trans people,” Ziegler said.

And, perhaps most importantly, Trans*H4CK has generated greater awareness about gender in tech.

“Tech is a space where there is so much possibility,” he says, where trans people whose life experience is “different than the majority of people in the industry” have been able to innovate, find community and have a voice.

“As a black trans man in tech, I’ve been very welcomed and been able to flourish in ways I haven’t in other industries,” he says.

Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn @jguynn

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