While pundits and analysts debate about diversity in Silicon Valley, one thing is very clear: Black Americans make up a very small percentage of tech workers. At Facebook, Google, and Yahoo, that number is a bit less than 2 percent of their respective U.S. workforces; at Apple, it’s closer to 7 percent.
According to the National Black Information Technology Leadership Organization (NBITLO) and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, blacks hold less than 8 percent of all information technology jobs in U.S., and fewer than 3 percent of IT leadership positions.
Many executives and pundits have argued that the educational pipeline remains one of the chief impediments to hiring a more diverse workforce, and that as long as universities aren’t recruiting a broader mix of students for STEM degrees, the corporate landscape will suffer accordingly. But black IT entrepreneurs and professionals tell Dice that the problem goes much deeper than simply widening the pipeline; they argue that racial bias, along with lingering impressions of what a “techie” should look like, loom much larger than any pipeline issue. Statistics from the NBITLO indicate that only two out of five black people who graduate with a computer science or management information systems degree actually land a career in the field, even when the industry says it’s begging for workers.
According to Greg Greenlee, a systems and network engineer at Cincinnati-based Appica and founder of Blacks In Technology, a networking and media organization, a combination of “conscious and unconscious bias” can often keep minority IT professionals and computer science grads from a job. “People seek out people in their circle or in their comfort zone and community,” he said. “They might not always mean to discriminate, but they end up doing it.” That can be a very real problem, because networking is often one of the best ways to find a job or move up the ranks.
Charles Tendell, founder and CEO of Denver-based Azorian Cyber Security, a penetration-testing company, suggests that tech professionals usually connect at conventions or virtually, and that people gravitate to people they either know or who look like them. Tendell admits that he is often one of only a handful of black people at Black Hat or DEF CON conferences, yet he refuses to feel uncomfortable. Instead, he chooses to say: “I am unique.”
Financing a Business
Uniqueness could have an impact on the flow of cash to entrepreneurs. A recent study from Pepperdine University suggested that minority-owned businesses are 22 percent less likely to raise venture capital and get private equity investors than firms run by white men. CB Insights also found that the median amount of funding secured by an all-black founding team was $1.3 million, as compared to $2.2 million for a racially mixed team, and $2.3 million for an all-white team.
Tendell believes that money doesn’t always flow as quickly to tech firms owned by black people, whether it’s in the form of investment or sales: “I can send out a white senior sales person or my business partner, who happens to be white, and we go into client meetings, and I can give all of the answers, but the client will often choose to just talk to them.”
The Salary Gap
A study into H-1B visas by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) also found that black Americans in IT made, on average, $3,656 less than white workers. Nicole Kreisberg, senior researcher for AIER, told Dice: “Race does still matter.” (The study, she added, accounted for such variables as education, age, and geography.)
Salary inequities are definitely impacting black IT professionals, argues Andrew West, CEO of West Innovation Group, a Houston-based technology consultancy and mobile app development company, as well as CEO and founder of the NBITLO. The pay gap runs across the industry from lower level positions to manager roles.
For black IT professionals, the tendency might well be to work hard, not make waves, and hope things come your way, said Allen Westley, a computer systems security analyst at Northrop Grumman in Colorado Springs. But staying isolated or being complacent doesn’t pay. While it can be frustrating to be considered the “other” in a community when you are simply a techie at heart, Westley believes that black IT professionals have to be willing to step outside of their comfort zone, appear at conferences, and develop a proactive plan to get ahead: “You can’t simply keep your nose to the grindstone. Yes, race is still a problem. You have to make sure to deal with it on your own terms. You can’t be too sensitive either and misinterpret something. It’s all very personal.”
The pipeline is still a part of the equation, of course. The 2013 Taulbee Survey found that blacks made up 1.5 percent of Ph.D. graduates, 3.2 percent of those who earned master’s degrees, and 4.5 percent of those who earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science, computer engineering and information disciplines in the U.S. and Canada. Those figures have stayed pretty flat for more than a decade. Greenlee thinks the onus is on blacks currently working in tech to make themselves as visible as they can to help influence those numbers: “One of the keys to making inroads and stomping the digital divide is to help change the perception of what we and others think a computer scientist can look like. It swings both ways.”
He also points to a number of programs that position black children, high schoolers, and college students to think about a career in tech. Black Girls Code runs workshops and computer coding sessions across the country. #Yes We Code acts as a network of training initiatives for low income youth, and Hack the Hood hires and trains low-income minority youth to build websites for small businesses. CODE2040 mentors and places black and Hispanic software engineering students in internships with tech companies. “It’s all about creating a conversation about tech and keeping it important in our community,” Greenlee said.
Creating a Sense of Community
There are other networking organizations and events geared to black professionals and entrepreneurs, West said, including his organization’s NBITLO Urban Technology Weekend, a Houston-based summit featuring STEM programming, as well as professional and entrepreneur resources. The Urban Tech Fair does multi-city and virtual programming, offering tech workshops, entrepreneur showcases, and STEM events. Jacqueline Taylor-Adams, chairperson and CMO for the fair, says it’s meant to “showcase the talent, resources, and innovation that exists in our own backyard and community.”
But everyone can’t be an entrepreneur, said Hadiyah Mujhid, founder and developer at Good App Company, a San Francisco-based software firm, and co-founder of Black Founders, a nonprofit focused on entrepreneur education and startup financing. “I definitely think there has to be some type of motivation to make your own way,” she added. “But not everyone is able to make their own way and not everyone is going to be an entrepreneur, and that’s perfectly fine too.” Mujhid thinks that’s when the industry needs to get involved with black professionals and entrepreneurs to improve diversity in tech: “The tech community is beginning to have an interest in solving this problem. We all have to take ownership and create the solutions.”
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