Silicon Valley's Invisible Blacks

CNN's Black in America 4 ignores the history of African Americans in technology. Here's what it missed.

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African Americans have often found opportunities in large technology companies. Kenneth Coleman rose to executive vice president at SGI after holding senior management roles at Hewlett-Packard and the game company Activision. He later launched his own startup. John Thompson, a former IBM executive, took Symantec, a security software provider, from $600 million in annual revenue to more than $6 billion. He is now CEO of Virtual Instruments, a startup that helps companies get greater efficiency from their technology assets.

David Drummond is the chief legal officer at Google. Morehouse Man Paul Q. Judge (No. 87 in The Root 100 for 2011) is the chief research officer at Barracuda Networks, a leading provider of security and anti-spam services for companies. 

Shellye Archambeau is a classic Silicon Valley startup entrepreneur whom Michael Arrington should know. Archambeau is the founder and CEO of MetricStream, whose software helps large financial, health care and insurance companies cope with governance, risk and regulatory compliance issues. Archambeau, a former IBM executive, has grown her 8-year-old Palo Alto company to more than 400 employees and could eventually take it public.

It is important to reiterate this history because the historians of technology tend to gloss over the reality of the black presence. This is not unique to tech; the diminishing of black contributions to America is endemic. In his book The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture, Albert Murray points out the essential role that African Americans have played in American history: wars; Western expansion (explorers, cowboys and buffalo soldiers); music, art and literature; the age of invention (Lewis Lattimer, Elijah McCoy, George Washington Carver); social change (Martin Luther King Jr.) and politics (culminating with the election of Barack Obama in 2008). By lacking a historical context, programs like Black in America contribute to the collective amnesia that is only partly offset by mechanisms such as Black History Month -- or a focus on the struggles of contemporary black entrepreneurs.

But with such a distinguished history in technology, why are there so few black-led startups now? Or, as the popular press likes to put it: Where is the black Mark Zuckerberg? The expectation is unfair. The spectacular success of Zuckerberg's Facebook is rare; more than 80 percent of startups fail, and only one in 10 gets to pay back its investors.

There is little blatant racism in Silicon Valley. The small pipeline of African Americans with technology education means that few are in a position to seize the opportunities that exist. But subtle and unintended obstacles are part of our new racial reality today.

Hank Williams, one of the eight participants in the NewMe incubator, may have put it best in a blog posting after the Arrington flap. Tech markets are a meritocracy, concedes Williams. "But the market makers operate in a world that is not particularly evenhanded," he argues. "The market makers are the folks that help new young companies and entrepreneurs by providing insight, mentoring, capital and relationships. And this part of the tech world is driven by all the same types of biases that exist in the non-tech world." 

Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of The Root, has edited several technology publications including PC Magazine, Information Week and Silicon Valley-based Red Herring, which covered venture capital and startups.

"The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley" will air Sunday, November 13 at 8 p.m. ET, and The Root will live stream a panel discussion about it hosted by Mario Armstrong, "Innovation Nation: Startup Success,"  from 9-10 p.m. ET. Follow the discussion on Twitter during the panel discussion, at #biaLIVE and #BlackInAmerica. We'll be live Tweeting from @TheRoot247.

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