While talk of Occupy Oakland has been dominating the headlines, a discussion about the future of African Americans in one of the wealthiest and most innovative regions in the world is raging online. The catalyst is the latest installment in the CNN documentary series, “Black in America,” which explores the path of eight African American entrepreneurs as they develop their start-ups in Silicon Valley.
“For whatever reason, African Americans tend to be consumers of technology and not really creators of technology,” said Angela Benton, founder of Cued, which she has since put on hold, and founder of the NewME Accelerator program at the center of the documentary.
The program follows the NewMe Accelerator program this past summer, starting in June. The entrepreneurs lived together in one house for nine weeks. From the beginning, the program addresses the elephant in the room: Are African Americans being given special treatment in the Valley due to their race? “We’re all serious entrepreneurs,” says BeCouply co-founder Pius Uzamere during one of the group’s dinner gatherings. “We’re building great companies — every single one of us.”
“So, how many black, female programmers do you know,” O’Brien asks PencilYou.In founder Tiffani Bell. “So, before I went to Howard [University], I would say none.”
“Some of these founders show up in a hoodie,” said Uzamere, “We don’t have that luxury to be lackadaisical like that.”
The documentary includes interviews with Silicon Valley heavyweights, such as investors Ron Conway and Mitchell Kapor, both of whom are white. In one exchange, Conway highlights one of the highest barriers to entry for minority entrepreneurs, “I have to admit that a lot of it is who you know,” said Conway.
“We don’t know how to recruit those people,” Conway said later, referring to the African-American community.
The entrepreneurs, in a follow-up session with Interactive One founder Navarrow Wright, receive what can only be described as a harsh reality check from one of their own. “If an investor’s only seeing one African American a year to give a pitch, and you don’t do well,” said Navarrow after telling the group to be harder on themselves in critiquing their past pitches, “you’ve not only affected you, you’ve affected other people. It’s that important.”
Arrington further highlights the high-stakes situation black entrepreneurs face in Silicon Valley. “I’m trying to think of any black CEOs in Silicon Valley,” says Arrington when asked to come up with the top black entrepreneur in the region, “I’m not even coming up with any.” Arrington, who founded the popular technology news Web site, TechCrunch, goes on to say, “I don’t know a single, black entrepreneur.”
The Valley “is not a perfect meritocracy,” says Arrington, but goes on to say anyone can succeed “based on your brain size and how you use it.”
“This is a white and Asian world up here — it just is,” Arrington says. “There’s a guy, actually, his last company just launched at our event and he’s African American. When he asked to launch — actually, I think it was the other way around. I begged him. It’s a cool start-up. His start-up’s really cool, but he could have launched a clown show on stage and I would have put him up there — absolutely. I think he’s the first time we’ve had an African American be the sole founder.”
The comment comes off as odd, given Arrington’s previous comment that he did not know of any African American entrepreneurs.
Arrington’s comments landed in the Silicon Valley chapter of the Twitterverse with a thud — a thud that reverberated Wednesday and Thursday with tweets flying back and forth between Arrington, Wadhwa and Dash.
Wadhwa came to the United States from India in 1980 and benefited from a network of Indian entrepreneurs. “Can I be critical about the community?” he asks during a NewME gathering, “You folks don’t help each other. In some parts of America you have this entitlement attitude like we’ve been discriminated against, ancestors came as slaves, therefore America owes us back, and so on and so on. And that’s what’s holding the community back.”
“There’s something raw and very direct about it that’s jarring,” said Kloud.co-founder Williams, after Wadhwa described hiring a white man to serve as the face of his start-up in order to acquire funding and feed the pattern-matching system that governs Silicon Valley investment strategies — the pattern being that young, white males make successful start-up founders. Eventually the group dynamic shifts from individuals working in the same place on their own projects to a more collaborative environment.
The documentary is, at times, uncomfortably honest, which is consistent with previous installments of the series. But viewers, if they are able to look past any potential offense generated by the subjects, will likely be left with a nagging desire to see what didn’t make it to air. A recent blog post by Benton outlines some of her behind-the-scenes experience during filming, and her take on the resulting Twitter debate. The documentary tells an engaging story on a timely topic, as the nation continues to struggle economically and billions of dollars flow through Silicon Valley. What’s clear from this telling, however, is that 40 minutes is not long enough.
The documentary, “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley,” the fourth installment in the CNN “Black in America” series, debuts on November 13 at 8 p.m. ET.
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