Where Are The Black Women in Tech?

In this year's State of the Union Address, President Obama expressed a commitment to providing Americans with the resources and education that will propel the country back to its position as a leader of industry. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education is a primary component of The Whitehouse's plan.

In the past 20 or 30 years, the world's greatest digital creations have come out of the United States, but the founders of the largest tech companies are conspicuously similar. While advocating a better equipped work force, the President neglected to mention the underlying societal issues that contribute to world of technology being dominated by white men.

The question remains: What can we do to get more African Americans, and more specifically African American women, in tech?

In order to get more insight into the issue, I got in touch with Tiffani Bell, a young, Black woman who recently launched her own startup--Pencil You In. Her insights are revealing.

In your opinion, why aren't there more Black women techies?

- Exposure. Technology is a white male-dominated field. I know far more white male programmers than I do of any other ethnicity or gender. That's not changing any time soon (for the field). But, I think that's the root of some of the issues when it comes to black women techies and the lack thereof. I didn't meet other black women programmers until I arrived at Howard and even then, I didn't have a black female computer science professor until my senior year. Interestingly, she was the first black female to get her PhD in Computer Science from NC State. The first black female I met in industry who (at one point) was a programmer was my boss at HP. If you notice, I didn't meet any of them until I got to college. If you don't see somebody in a certain career field until you're already an adult, it can almost feel as if that career option is closed to you unless you were already interested.

I think for most things we're interested in for career purposes (with exceptions, of course), you develop an interest in it fairly early in life or at least by the time you go to college. For some people, those choices are prompted by what they see around them. This is very general, but it's been found that many entrepreneurs have parents (or another close relative) who were also entrepreneurs. [1]

- Culture + acceptance. First, there are still pockets in the black community where any kind of "nerdy" activity is frowned upon. Hell, reading for some people is a laughable offense. I never encountered ridicule from an academic standpoint, but I caught it as far as computers went. We need to end making intellectual endeavors socially punishable offenses. As a teenager, for example, I dealt with parents and others that didn't understand what I was doing as far as spending most of my time on the computer. And because they didn't understand, I was considered lazy and was ridiculed about stuff I could be doing around the house instead of programming.

Even now, with a salary from my day job that exceeds that of most in my family and an app (Pencil You In) that's generating revenue, I still dodge cheap shots for my career choice. That's not to brag, but just to illustrate that no matter what benefits may come, if people are set against something, that's how they'll be.

With all of that said, I sometimes wonder how many black girls are out there who spend most of their time in front of the computer (productively) just how I did and how they catch hell and how some of them may actually be deterred. I know there are some. When you're at a point in life where you may not be so sure of yourself (a lot of teenagers), even the most fundamentally meaningless and worse, baseless opinions could influence what you're doing for the rest of your life. If there's a parent or a friend or someone else whose opinion holds weight who speaks against what that teen is doing (even if it's positive), they could drop, cold-turkey, a good thing.

This stuff is needlessly frowned upon and misunderstood. Even though Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are many times filthier rich than your favorite basketball player and ex-housewife, there are people out there who aspire to just that level of wealth and influence because that's all they see (and maybe they think athlete wealth is easier to attain).

- Personality + societal expectations. This one is extremely controversial to talk about and I've only had one or two friends that acknowledged personality and societal expectations and the role they've played in Gates and Zuckerberg's success. One of my good male friends was actually the one to point it out. I don't really know the sociological definition of male privilege or if this even fits, but a man who digs in and asserts himself through his business dealings is much more likely to be accepted for this than a woman. Everybody knows there's a sexual basis for that, even. This could be one reason why people swear Oprah is a lesbian and Gayle isn't just her best friend. To them, it's an impossibility that's she is so business-minded, driven, and actually successful, but isn't guzzling testosterone in the morning. Society hasn't really expected or accepted this and thus, women only recently have been considered viable business titans.

To that end, women who've taken on traditionally male-dominated careers are still occasionally prodded to do more domestic jobs--by males and unfortunately, their female peers as well.

Peel this concept back a little further, and on some levels it's a gender issue.

The kind of thinking that it requires to get to a billion dollars in net worth isn't exactly the same kind women are encouraged to engage in. Business can be nasty and impolite and s/he who has the bigger cohones often wins. It's important, however, to say that women do possess the tenacity to build mega-companies in the form of tech startups. It's just that sometimes the scrappiness, nonchalance, arrogance, and drive that some of these startup guys exhibit isn't often encouraged in women. To be singularly focused on a goal that would put your net worth in line with the economic output of entire countries is sometimes just not considered lady-like--especially when you're actively working toward it.

Unfortunately, somebody's going to think you're a selfish bitch eventually. And to have a black woman think that way? In some circles, it's encouraged, but in far more, it doesn't seem to be. The way I've seen some black women bash Oprah, with absolutely no basis for doing so other than her shoe collection and her hairstylist (!!!), would lead me to believe being an extremely wealthy black woman is a sin even if that's just anecdotal evidence.

What can we do to foster more interest in tech among Black women?

I think the problems are also the solution.

- Examples + exposure. Pull black women in technology offline and out of the boardroom and put them in front of young black girls that are at pivotal points in life as far as figuring out what they want to do for a living. It can't be that they all huddle at executive women retreats and career events while their daughters are at home giggling at Snooki and RHOA. There could be camps/retreats and women going into classrooms in middle and high schools talking their careers up more. I was pretty confident about what I wanted to do as a teenager, but I would have been much more tenacious earlier about capitalizing on it had I seen a black woman running a startup at that 15 or 16. Some people frown on others' need for examples for motivation, but how helpful having a role model is (even if you don't personally know them) can't be denied. Otherwise, some people won't believe certain careers are viable options for them.

Subliminal messages that only certain types of people are smart enough for certain careers is what kills a lot of career choices for black girls and boys, too. If nothing more than rappers, athletes, and singers are in front of you as a career choice as a black kid, no, you're not going to pay attention to your Ben Carsons, Condoleeza Rice-s and Ursula Burns-es that prove that you can do something else. What pisses me off is that these people always seem to be viewed as black exceptions to some rule. And it's like, what the hell is this rule?

But, in any event, something interesting happened at Fermilab last summer. Seventh graders described, through drawings mostly, who was a scientist, both before and after their visit. Of the 14 girls, around 5 originally drew a female scientist in the before drawing and then, around 8 portrayed a female scientist in the after drawing. [2] From what I gather, this was an unintended result, but it says something about what seeing an example can do for some people.

- Truly open up capital for diverse entrepreneurs. You're not going to see affirmative action for venture capitalists. I wouldn't even actually advocate for that even if I could benefit. As far as seeing a black female Zuckerberg, though, she exists, but a few things about the entrepreneurial ecosystem as far as tech startups need to change. Access to capital is one. Zuckerberg grew Facebook in a such a way where it was obvious he was going to need VC money to keep things going at the scale he was growing even in their very early days. It was easy for him to get on a plane, go stand in front of VCs, show them Facebook's uptake, and get $500K from Peter Thiel with a warning not to screw things up. For Facebook to pull a $75B valuation [3] and have generated $1.2B in revenue in 2010 [4], external capital had to be pumped in somewhere. I only personally know one person who has access to $500K for business purposes (in the form of friends-and-family fundraising) and I'd have to do a ton of praying beforehand.

Then, you throw in VCs such John Doerr at Kleiner Perkins who's invested in companies such as Google and Amazon and things get worse. Doerr, at a venture capital forum, once advocated for a very specific and narrow funding formula, e.g., "...white, male, nerds who've dropped out of Harvard and Stanford and [...] have absolutely no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in--which was true of Google--it was very easy to decide to invest." Even white women were livid about that. [5] So, imagine a black woman coming along attempting to get funding in that kind of environment. Double anomaly in their eyes. People do business with who they're familiar and comfortable with though, so for some, that's one explanation.

- Fix the culture + nurture even the aptitudes you don't have. Make being smart less of a liability and we may see more black women programmers with entrepreneurial slants. If your daughter likes Legos, chemistry sets, math, and can't stand Barbie, don't freak out that she might be gay and take cheap shots because she wants to think. Instead, accept this and nurture her interests in the best way possible. Take her to the library. See if you can enroll her in computer classes if she asks questions along the lines of how to make a video game, for example. Even though my parents took their cheap shots and still don't understand what I do, they nurtured what I did by buying me Legos instead of dolls, bringing home a computer that I could write code on, etc.

- Knowledge. Knowledge is needed. Programming is not rocket science and a lot of stuff I've used to learn this or that programming language I didn't pay for. If people know where to look, it's all online for free. (Check out Rails for Zombies at Code School, for instance). [6] It's really the case that in the time a lot of people spend promoting ridiculous trending topics on Twitter that make black people look bad (lmao), they could be learning a programming language and doing something as basic as learning how to build a website. It's all uphill from there. Through proper exposure, somebody could plant that seed. I was teetering back toward being a cartoonist at one point, but a programming class I had in 10th grade kept me focused on programming.

- Challenge young black women to think of ways to leverage technology to solve problems. The only apps I've ever written were built to solve a problem either I had or a friend had. We all have friends that if they could code, could solve a TON of problems. Some of my female friends have said that they get more out of programming for a purpose rather than just tinkering. Framing technology as a way to solve problems could work wonders. Furthermore, I think it's something a lot of people attempting to get girls interested in technology fail to do.

- Emphasize the pursuit and benefits of ownership (and the wealth these guys are generating). This one targets blacks in corporate America in general, but it's important. I saw a lot of people prepping resumes and getting hustled into career fairs when I was in college vs. people at other schools that emphasized starting and owning the companies that seek employees at career fairs. Mentally and economically, there's a big difference. I don't think we emphasize this enough in the black community. We still shout-out more loudly the lady that got a "good job", has a boss, and 50-11 degrees vs. the woman that struck out on her own and signs her own checks. The lady with a good job deserves her props, yes, but long-term economic viability comes from ownership. Nobody can repo a car that's yours and unless you're Steve Jobs, it's hard to get fired from a company you started.

Plus, if ownership (especially for black women) is the default, over time there's capital that's built up that can flow back into the black business community in the form of the kinds of investments somebody would need to scale up a business to Facebook or Google levels. I'd love to see (or even be!) a black woman venture capitalist.

The amount of wealth technology has and is generating for people is ridiculous. I don't see why black people, male or female, should be missing out, but we are.

Linked Articles
[1] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36335626/ns/business-small_business
[2] http://restructure.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/scientists-are-normal-people-children-discover/
     [2a] http://ed.fnal.gov/projects/scientists/
[3] http://techcrunch.com/2011/03/04/facebook-valuation-secondmarket/
[4] http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2011/01/goldmans_leaked_details_on_fac.html
     [4a] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703730704576066162770600234.html?mod=WSJ_hp_MIDDLETopStories
     [4b] http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/06/us-facebook-goldman-idUSTRE70359V20110106
[5] http://jessloren.wordpress.com/2010/05/13/chicago-incubator-to-challenge-john-doerrs-success-wisdom/
    [5a] http://geekfeminism.org/2010/11/29/white-male-tech-startups-get-funding-for-being-white-male/
[6] http://railsforzombies.org/

Be sure to take a look at Tiffani's app Pencil You In, the best online appointment book for beauticians and other cosmetology professionals.

Kimberly Foster (@kimberlynfoster) is the Editor-in-Chief of For Harriet. Email her at kimberly@forharriet.com

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