David Cabello dropped out of Shippensburg University the day after President Donald Trump was elected.
He felt like he had a mission, to help Black businesses as much as he could.
A few years later, he founded Black and Mobile, a food delivery app that only features Black-owned restaurants. With more than 40,000 downloads, 100,000 views per month, a planned expansion to more cities and numerous articles exclaiming the app’s virtues, he’s one of the hottest names in tech in Philadelphia — and he’s only 25 years old.
For Cabello, it’s important to work with other Black entrepreneurs, to help their business and to share some of his limelight with them. But when it came to developing a new app for Black and Mobile, he was certain he’d never find a Black software company that could make it.
Cabello’s concern is a legitimate one. While the technology industry may be the fastest growing in the state, it has a severe diversity issue — especially when it comes to Black Americans. Cabello is a success story, to be sure. But his experience is far from the norm.
Black people make up only 8.7 percent of those in computer and mathematical fields, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number is even lower when you look at the major tech companies. The workforce at Google, for instance, is only 3.7 percent Black, according to its own diversity report. Facebook’s own diversity report has similar results, stating that Black people make up 3.4 percent of those in leadership positions and 1.7 percent of those in technical roles.
The numbers only get more dire when you look at the start-up realm. One percent of startup founders who are backed by venture capitalists are Black, according to a report by RateMyInvestor. That’s compared to 77.1 percent who are white. Even Cabello, with his successful app, is largely self-funded.
Cities in Pennsylvania are doing better tackling the diversity issue than others. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have both been hailed as places that show promise for inclusiveness in tech. But Philadelphia, in particular, has a long way to go, too. According to the Economy League’s report in 2019, Black people make up only 8.8 percent of the technology workforce in Philadelphia, a striking number considering that Black people make up more than 43 percent of the population in the City of Brotherly Love.
Cabello did find a software company, JumpButton Studio — but it was almost by chance, a fortuitous meeting at an event Cabello almost skipped. But once he crossed paths with Nicodemus Madehdou, the young co-founder of JumpButton, he knew he had his guy.
Madehdou’s own journey into the world of tech began more than five years ago, when he was just 15 and trying to find an internship with Google or Facebook … or anywhere, really. When he couldn’t find one (the companies wanted college students, not high schoolers), he joined up with Matthew Auld, Calbert Warner and Daniel Ostermiller to create JumpButton Studios in 2012. Since then, Madehdou has been recognized by the White House for his work as a young developer. But his goals are higher than that.
“Our end goal is to be the first major Black-owned game development studio in Philadelphia, and then slowly branch out to different parts of the US,” Madehdou said. “We want to make a name for ourselves here in Philly.”
They’re on their way too, teaming up with YouTube phenomena the ACE Family for their app, ACE Play. The app has more than 49,000 reviews on Google Play and Apple’s App Store, and is ranked in the top 200 for family apps on Apple.
Madehdou’s hope is that his success will inspire others who look like him to follow in his footsteps. Letting kids see a Black tech entrepreneur lets them envision themselves in that same position and helps them realize that they too can go into this field.
What’s at stake
Solving a problem like a lack of diversity in technology can’t be done by putting all focus on simply hiring more people. It goes deeper than that. You have to ask why is there a lack of representation in the first place?
For Tiffanie Stanard, founder and CEO of Stimulus, a software firm that helps companies use data to influence their purchasing decisions, asking that question is part of solving the problem. The other part is actually following through on possible solutions.
“It has to go beyond just a conversation and understanding,” Stanard said. “It’s not just about helping Black or brown founders, but understanding that they have amazing ideas that need to be accelerated and they need more help because the system is rigged against them in so many different ways.”
One of those barriers is a lack of access to computers at home. Back in 2000, the U.S Census reported that only 32.8 percent of Black households had access to a computer at home and only 23.6 percent had access to the internet at home. In 2015, the numbers improved. Roughly 71 percent of Black children had home computer access and 53 percent had home internet access, according to a survey by Child Trends. By 2018, 66 percent of Black people had access to broadband internet at home, according to a Pew Internet Study. That same year, 23 percent of Black people were dependent on their smartphone for Internet access at home. The trend is going upwards, but for those who came of age prior to 2015, much of the damage had been done. It’s hard to become passionate about technology and computers if your only access to them is at school or the neighborhood library.
That fuels the belief that tech careers just aren’t for certain types of people.
That’s a key problem, according to Kelauni Cook, the founder of Black Tech Nation, a thousand-member strong group that advocates for and supports Black people in technology.
“I want the Black community to see tech as something that also belongs to them,” Cook said. “I don’t think that’s the case right now. I think we’re users of tech, but we’re not producers of tech.”
Some people don’t even want to flirt with the idea of a career in technology.
“I think it’s because it seems so far fetched for us as a community to be involved in what’s going on in the tech industry, because it moves so fast and it requires so much education,” Cook said. “It seems like a mountain that is not worth climbing.
“But there are those of us who understand the power of technology and how cool it is and how cool we can make it, and the cool things we can do for our community through it,” she said.
Another key part of the problem is funding.
“Money helps, whether it’s an investment, creating a program or accelerator, or donating to a nonprofit that can help a Black or brown founder,” Stanard said. And it can’t be a one-time thing. These companies need investors that are in it for the long haul.
The money is out there, too. Philadelphia was ranked seventh nationally in terms of cities to receive the most venture capitalist money, with $2.5 billion being invested across 225 financings in Philadelphia in 2019, according to the PACT report from BridgeBank. Pittsburgh had $218 million in venture capitalist funding, and $2 billion from corporations supporting 139 different start-ups, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Statistically, most of that money will go to companies whose founders are white, since, again, says that only 1 percent of companies funded by venture capitalists nationwide were run by Black people, according to a report by RateMyInvestor.
Part of the issue is that a large amount of Black workers aren’t in upper management positions to even ask for the money in the first place, according to Sylvester Mobley. He’s the founder of Coded By Kids, a nonprofit organization geared towards introducing children in minority groups to technology.
Mobley notes that many programs are geared towards getting minorities into jobs, but aren’t necessarily giving them the skills they need to go into leadership roles.
“Your diversity then gets concentrated in the lowest paying jobs with the least opportunity to grow,” he said. “As you move up the spectrum, there’s almost no diversity, especially when you get into who is starting tech companies, who is raising venture capital and who the venture capitalists are.”
In fact, there were only seven Black people at the 102 largest venture capitalist firms who have the authority and power to make decisions on who to invest in and give money to, according to a 2018 survey reported on by the Washington Post. That’s just 1 percent of all venture capitalist decision makers.
Rectifying that gap takes time and a shift in focus — the goal can’t just be to get people jobs right out of high school, according to Mobley.
“One of the things I’ve struggled with a lot with funders is the fact we are an organization that takes a multiyear developmental approach,” Mobley said. “We want kids to come and stay with us over the course of multiple years. We want them to go to college and we want to prepare them and set them up to go to the upper levels of tech, whether that’s starting their own company or getting leadership positions in the company.
“A lot of funders would ask the short-term questions, how many kids could get jobs six months after high school,” Mobley said. “Funders will pull back because they want to put our money in a program that’s going to get kids jobs. But getting a kid a job in itself doesn’t help. It’s not the fix.”
That short-term focus is something Mobley runs into often.
“People do things that are short-term band aids and I think we forget, sometimes, that at the heart of the issue is racial inequity,” Mobley said. “We’re trying to fix something as deeply ingrained and systemic as racial inequity with these quick, short-term fixes. I find it confusing and troubling that that’s how we approach it.”
“A problem that is as ingrained and as large as this, you’re not going to solve with one fund, one accelerator,” Mobley said. “It’s going to take multiple things all tackling the same problem.”
Hope for the future
Things are changing though. With the recent attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, more and more people are seeking to help with racial inequity in their respective job fields.
“I feel like 2020 made a lot of things apparent and pushed these issues to the forefront, from new programs coming out to people celebrating Juneteenth for the first time,” Stanard said. “Things are moving quicker than I think I’ve ever seen them move over the last few years.”
Mobley agreed. “I think COVID and the protests have put a spotlight on racial inequity that has made it hard for people to continue to ignore how bad the situation is, how things haven’t gotten better over time and how things have progressed,” he said.
Groups are being created to bring Black workers together so that they can network and help each other.
Black Tech Philly was co-founded by Khalil Saboor and Ian Kimble at the start of the pandemic. With around 30 members, it’s still in its early stages, but they see it as an important part of helping to build up the community.
Kimble hopes that a group like Black Tech Philly helps stop comments on how difficult it is to find Black talent in the technology industry. “We don’t want any excuses,” he said. “We have a talent pool. We’re here and we have a group of very talented, very passionate developers and tech specialists.”
When Cook founded Black Tech Nation in Pittsburgh in 2017, it was meant to be a group devoted to supporting and advocating for Black workers in tech.
“I’m shaping Black Tech Nation to be a support space for Black techies and just trying to build them up, give them resources, educate them, support them and give them a sense of belonging and an identity that you just don’t find in tech,” she said.
Black Tech Nation began with a simple event at a coffee shop and has now morphed into a group with around 1,000 members from across the country.
Cook says that Pittsburgh’s tech scene has been very receptive to talking about the issues that surround a lack of diversity. The people she’s encountered also want to help change that. But that hasn’t exactly transitioned into actual, meaningful change.
“I think there’s a lot of good intentions, but it is by no means moving fast enough,” Cook said. “It’s very easy to talk and a lot of times when you’re talking, it feels like action…
“I don’t have any interest in talking anymore,” she said. “I think we all know what the issue is. I think it takes a lot more willpower to actually push things through.”
Pittsburgh has made inclusivity a focus for its tech scene, with the city hosting an Inclusive Innovation Summit for the past few years. The city also supports PGH Lab, which connects start-ups with government authorities to help test new products, and has been working to help those in public housing get access to computers through the ConnectHome USA program.
In Philadelphia, Philly Startup Leaders received more than $450,000 to start a grant for underrepresented founders. Philadelphia has an Office of Diversity, Equity and inclusion to help increase job opportunities for minorities as well. Innovation Works, the largest investor in start-ups in the Pittsburgh region, has been intentional about funding startups that are founded by either women or a person of color. A little more than half of the startups that firm has invested in over the past five years have fit this criteria, according to the company.
Nationally, SoftBank (one of the largest tech investors) created a $100 million Opportunity Fund for Black start-up founders, according to the Washington Post.
Those are all reasons to be optimistic about the future. Another reason? The tech scene in Pennsylvania is still very much growing. There’s still a chance for it to change.
“We actually have that opportunity to build a truly equitable tech and innovation startup ecosystem,” Mobley said. “It’s more of a question of do we have the will to actually do it.”
“I just hope that money is really being directed in and through the Black tech ecosystem a lot more,” Cook said. “That’s really what it all boils down to. You could have the best idea, the best network … [but] you can’t even play the game without money.”
Still, there is a limit to optimism. Realistically, Cook doesn’t see those dreams becoming a reality even in 10 years.
“I think we’re at a point of awareness, but I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon,” she said. “I hope it does, but I don’t know if the doors of opportunity are going to swing open just because people are making noise in the street.”
Mobley agreed. “The reality is, I am very cognizant of the fact that people have short attention spans and while this is something people care about right now — just as quickly as everyone’s attention shifted to this, everyone’s attention can shift away from this to something else.”
This story has been updated to provide greater context and more recent stats for Black household’s access to computers.
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