In this high-tech world we live in—where tech startups are creating new apps and gadgets daily that can do everything from ordering food to hailing a cab—the fact that black entrepreneurs make up only 1 percent of the founders of tech startups that receive major financial backing is pretty abysmal. But there are several programs and organizations trying to change that.
Michael Seibel, the first black partner at Y Combinator—which acts as an incubator for startups by providing seed money—told The Root that the reasons vary for the low number of black founders at startups. But he pointed out that some people may not want to strike out on their own because it’s too risky, and that perception needs to change.
“We have to convince black engineers that they have more control of their careers then they realize and they will always be in demand,” said Seibel, who is a 2012 The Root 100 honoree.
Y Combinator, which has backed such startups as Dropbox and Airbnb, is increasing its outreach to try to get more African Americans to apply for its accelerator program. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company said that just 3 percent of applicants to its winter program were black.
During the annual South by Southwest conference in March, Google and Code2040—a nonprofit devoted to creating opportunities for black and Hispanic engineers—named their first class of entrepreneurs in residence. The program was set up to help underrepresented groups grow their tech startups.
As EIRs, Riana Lynn and Talib Graves-Manns, both of whom are black, and Joel Rojo, who is Latino, will receive a $40,000 stipend, free office space, and mentoring from teams at Google and Code2040.
Lynn, who is based in Chicago, founded the website FoodTrace, a food-sourcing and -mapping site that “helps farmers and artisans sell more and buyers buy better,” she told The Root. Farming and gardening were part of her life growing up, so she wanted to incorporate that experience into a startup.
“My goal was to start a company [on the side] while I was in grad school that would help improve the amount of items that were being bought and sold within each city that were fresh,” said the 29-year-old, who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and attended graduate school at Northwestern.
Lynn, who taught herself to code and later honed her skills by taking online classes and working directly with developers, said it’s important that entrepreneurs who don’t have the technological know-how at least surround themselves with people who do.
“If you don’t have the skills to build exactly what you need, then you should at least have team members or freelancers that can help you move things along faster,” she said. “Then you can also understand a little more about how long the project is supposed to take or how much it may cost, and that’s really key to launching a project as a startup founder with little or no capital.”
Graves-Manns, of Durham, N.C., is a co-founder of RainbowMe, along with Kya Johnson. The website, which is currently in the beta-testing stage, is an online entertainment and educational platform for children of color.
“There’s so many discrepancies between black kids being able to have access to the resources on the technical side to help them learn and be better thinkers. That’s the reason we built RainbowMe,” said the 34-year-old, whose background is in sales, marketing and digital technology. “The earlier you can engage children with technology and innovation, the better they will be equipped when they go into the classroom to be thinkers.”
Graves-Manns said that being named an entrepreneur in residence is priceless, and programs like it are important because “the statistics show that by the year 2040, the majority of U.S. citizens will be people of color: blacks, Latinos, Indian and Asians. And we’ve got to make sure that those populations of people are stakeholders within the increasingly digital and technical culture.”