According to U.S. Census Bureau data, in 2008, blacks and Hispanics constituted only 1.5% and 4.7% respectively of the Valley’s tech population—well below national tech-population averages of 7.1% and 5.3%. You hardly find any blacks in positions of leadership in Silicon Valley companies. There is at least an unconscious bias.
One of my Duke students, a black woman, Viva Leigh Miller, approached me in March 2010 to help her get a job in Silicon Valley. I have taught more than 300 really smart students at the Duke Masters of Engineering Management program, and Viva was one of the best. With a high GPA, many awards, and degrees in science and mathematics from top colleges in the United States, I couldn’t imagine that Viva would have any difficulty gaining multiple job offers. I was sure she would one day become a hotshot CEO. But Viva couldn’t get a job in the Valley—despite introductions that I gave her to leading venture capitalists (VCs). I could never understand why. During my tech days, I would have hired Viva in a heartbeat. She had the determination, drive, and education that all tech companies look for.
Discussing the dearth of black in Silicon Valley is an even bigger taboo than discussing women. I learned this the hard way by having a frank discussion with black entrepreneurs that was recorded by CNN and aired in a documentary titled “Black in America.”
In the interview, I relayed my own experience building a tech company in the deep South of the United States. When I was looking for funding for my second startup, local VCs wouldn’t return my phone calls, even though I’d previously helped build a public company with $120 million in annual revenue. In Silicon Valley, an entrepreneur with credentials like mine would have had dozens of VCs knocking on his door. The advice that other successful Indians gave me was to have a “white guy” on my management team who would deal with the VCs. My company was growing rapidly, and I needed to hire a president and chief operating officer. So I hired a white guy for that role, and killed two birds with one stone. After that, it was easy raise millions of dollars.
After a pre-screening of the documentary, a heated discussion broke out on Twitter about the documentary and my comments. TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington, who is considered to be the tech industry’s most influential blogger, tweeted: “the Indian guy is viveck (sic). he always plays the victim card.” When I confronted Arrington on his comment, he retorted: “@wadhwa you got rich starting companies in America. I don’t understand why you then complain you weren’t given a chance.” He insisted “there’s negative bias in [Silicon Valley]. VCs are dying to invest in women & minorities just so they don’t have conversations like this.” Arrington then “blocked” and “unfollowed” me on Twitter—the ultimate social media insult.
In the documentary, Arrington had said that he didn’t know a single black entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. Then he said that he had once put one black entrepreneur on stage at a TechCrunch event—but would have done the same even if the black entrepreneur had been running a “clown show.” These are blunt comments, and they exemplify the dark side of Silicon Valley: that it is composed of an elite group of power brokers totally ignorant of the hurdles faced by minority groups. Venture capitalists routinely tout their “patternrecognition” abilities—they say they know a successful entrepreneur when they see one. Sadly, the patterns they see merely represent those who have achieved success in the past: typically young, white males.
Silicon Valley is indeed a meritocracy for those who meet these criteria. But others—the blacks, women, and Hispanics—find it an private club from which they are excluded.
The good news is that these obstacles can be surmounted.
First, let’s stop pretending that the tech industry is perfect and admit that there is a problem. All of us have biases, whether we realize it or not. Research published in September 2011 by the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) revealed that hidden biases within the I.T. workplace caused women and blacks to have negative workplace experiences far more often than their male and white counterparts. They were more likely to say they had difficulty balancing their work and family responsibilities, had been excluded by cliques, or were bullied. Not surprisingly, this leads to lower job satisfaction and increased turnover among members of these groups, creating a significant cost for employers and a loss of talent for the sector.
LPFI founder Freada Klein says that to fix the bias problem, corporations need to systematically collect anonymous data from employees on their perceptions and experiences. Otherwise, she says, there is no way for hidden biases to become apparent. She says that companies need to create a workplace culture in which differences are respected and people can speak up about inadvertent, unintended bias or exclusion. A critical mass of underrepresented groups is important; one or two token hires will always be in the spotlight. It’s obviously unfair to ask one person to represent an entire gender or race, and the pressure to do so has been shown to lead to stilted performance.
Companies should always hire the most qualified candidates regardless of race and gender. But because of hidden biases, they don’t always make the right decisions. Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute, says that companies should interview at least one woman and member of a minority group for every open position. Simply ensuring that recruiting efforts include a diverse slate of candidates can substantially affect team composition, she says. And there should be at least one woman and minority-group member on the hiring team. Academic research has shown that people tend to hire those who are similar to them. The current demographics of the hiring team and company can therefore influence the outcome of hiring.
In the startup world, success is all about networks and mentors. Learning from people with experience and getting introductions to investors and customers can make a huge difference. This is where the success of Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley provides valuable lessons. By establishing their own mentoring networks and actively helping each other, Indians were able to transcend discrimination and stereotypes and become the dominant group of immigrant company founders. Despite constituting only 6% of Silicon Valley’s working population in 2000, this group founded 15.5% of the Valley’s startups in 1995–2005. The first generation of successful founders took it upon themselves to teach and mentor the next generation. This is a model that all other groups can emulate.
The venture capitalists that startups meet with have their own biases. These firms are dominated by white males—mostly from elite institutions such as Stanford, Harvard, and Cornell. The interns there are recruited from the same schools. These firms should make a conscious effort to recruit from second- and third-tier colleges—particularly those with large minority populations. And yes, they will find extremely bright, capable people from these schools. This diversity in VC firms will help change perceptions and stereotypes and will open the door for members of groups that are always left out.
Despite all the issues I have raised, I still believe that Silicon Valley is the most open, inclusive place in the world. There are hurdles. But once you cross these, the Valley readily accepts you. I know of no evidence of deliberate intent to exclude people on such arbitrary bases as their sex or color. Rather than arising from conscious prejudices, the bias that is rife in the Valley is based on simple ignorance. This can be fixed—and groups that are left out can share the economic bounties that the tech industry offers.
Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. You can follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa and find his research at www.wadhwa.com.