Silicon Valley's Invisible Blacks

The following article from The Root's archives remains relevant long after the airing of CNN's Black in America 4 program. Enjoy!

Soledad O'Brien's latest chapter in her Black in America series has caused a huge uproar even before the episode airs on Nov. 13. In her continuing exploration of the nooks and crannies of African-American life, O'Brien has taken on Silicon Valley, which sees itself as a model of meritocracy.


The episode, "The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley," follows a group of African-American entrepreneurs who join an "incubator" called NewMe, led by BlackWeb 2.0 founder Angela Benton (a Root 100 2010 honoree), and spend nine weeks living in a house in Silicon Valley, preparing to present their Internet startups to potential investors. (It 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). In the process, O'Brien asks why so few black entrepreneurs have emerged from America's tech bastion.

The controversy has largely been triggered by comments in the documentary by Michael Arrington, founder of the influential startup showcase TechCrunch, who declares that he doesn't know a single black entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and adds that if he found one, he'd give him a platform without regard to the merits of his company. Previews of his comments set off a spirited — and often racially tinged — debate about whether Silicon Valley is as colorblind as it likes to think it is.


The rarity of blacks in current tech startups is indisputable, but both Arrington and O'Brien's documentary leave you with the inaccurate impression that there are no black tech entrepreneurs at all in the Valley. In fact, while the total number of African Americans working at tech companies is small today, blacks have had a long and consistent presence in Silicon Valley, even playing key roles at critical times. Today a number of companies founded by blacks are thriving, despite Arrington's ignorance.

The elder statesman of black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley is Roy Clay Sr., chairman of Rod-L, a company that makes electronic testing equipment. Clay came to the Valley in the 1950s with a degree in mathematics from St. Louis University. He led the team at Hewlett-Packard that created the company's first computer in 1966.

Clay was later a consultant for the premier venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins as it considered investments in startup companies such as Tandem Computers, Compaq and Intel Corp. He has been a City Council member and vice mayor of Palo Alto, Calif. Clay was inducted into Silicon Valley's Engineering Hall of Fame in 2003.

One of the Valley's most famous startups was Silicon Graphics International, a company whose powerful workstations made possible the spectacular special effects that have become standard in today's action films. SGI's advantage was a specialized graphics chip largely based on the Stanford University doctoral thesis of Marc Hannah, an African American, and other students of engineering professor James Clark. Clark and his students left Stanford to found SGI, where Hannah became chief scientist. He now works in real estate development.


Frank Greene developed high-speed computer systems in the 1960s and ran ZeroOne, a provider of large systems and software. Greene founded Technology Development Corp. in 1971 and took it public in 1985. He was the founder of New Vista Capital, which managed some $50 million in investments. Greene died in 2009.

Gerald Lawson created the first game cartridge for Fairchild Semiconductor in the 1970s, making it possible for game consoles to handle many different games. Lawson died in April at age 70 shortly after being honored by the International Game Developers Association.


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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