Dissecting black tech exclusion
Today, the global African diaspora is positioned to be consumers of technology but not creators of innovation. As consumers, the African diaspora can influence marketing efforts that lead to sales but will seldom see tech innovation that reflects its perspective while serving specific needs. Unless something changes, the global black community will continue to suffer from the weight of tech exclusion without the foresight to see its far-reaching implications...
“We can see how bias is built into our systems and our technology, so there’s a huge opportunity there. This type of discrimination and bias is unethical and almost criminal. In Oakland, California, a software was piloted to identify areas that were predicted to have high crime and high drug sales. But unfortunately, what that algorithm was doing was highlighting areas that had a high population of minorities, regardless of the crime rate. So that’s just one example of how we need to ensure that as we’re designing software and utilizing AI and machine learning, we’re being inclusive and we’re thinking about everyone as we’re building, creating, and innovating.”
“For builders, are you willing to interrogate how your work may facilitate racism? I am reminded of Google’s photo categorization algorithms that classified Black people as gorillas. A more diverse team would have caught that before it went live.”
Although many countries seek to replicate the Silicon Valley ecosystem pioneered in the US, its model also creates inherent disparities that are proving to be systemic. Charley Moore, the CEO of Rocket Lawyer, said in his interview with CNBC that “There are only four black CEOs among Fortune 500 companies, and none of them are in technology.” This quote begins to paint an all too common picture where opportunities in the US exist but only for a select few. Even with access to reliable infrastructure and education, black populations are on the outside looking in when it comes to today’s tech-enabled economies.
“Black and Hispanic students that are graduating with a computer science degree, that’s about 15% for the past five, six, seven, eight years, but we’re only about 3% Black and Latinx in the industry. So, that tells me there’s something else going on there and there’s a lot of barriers to these learners even getting a seat, a foot in the door.”
Further proof of systematic exclusion within the tech sector can be found within the explosive African startup ecosystem. Every global industry and influencer leverage African resources to create more profitable and sustainable supply chains. It would seem logical that indigenous people connected to these resources and culture would have a competitive advantage on the world stage. The 2019 Africa Tech Venture Capital Report by the Partech Africa Team says “African tech start-ups reach a new symbolic milestone with US$ 2.02 Billion raised in equity funding, a 74% YoY growth.” However, The Guardian also during that period reported that analyzed public data revealed that out of the ten African based startups that received the highest amount of funding, eight were led by foreigners (whites).
“A white founder is 47,000 percent more likely to be funded in Kenya than in the US, based on 2018 disclosures. White people make up less than 1% of the Kenyan population and 65% of expatriate founders mainly from the US, the UK, Italy, Denmark and Germany have never lived in Kenya prior to starting their companies.”
The issue faced is cyclical, proportioning blame in various ways depending on where you join the circle. Facts and findings speak to a system that does not support or invest in black communities. Internal perspectives highlight a lack of interest or participation within the global tech space by black talent rooted in a feeling of futility. Members of black communities often speak of innovative concepts but seldom take a bold step towards creating these ventures. Flashes of interest are often counteracted by the fact that if one can’t get a job within a tech company, how could they ever aspire to run one?
“Many tech companies have made statements of support for Black Lives Matter, after protests began but are an example of “black power washing” — giving lip service to their commitment to the black community, but so far doing little to change their hiring practices or their platforms, which can engage in racial profiling or make money from hate speech.”
Two major areas the black diaspora suffers from in our quest to join the global tech elites are funding and collaboration. Again, these two problems represent a pendulum that swings vigorously between lacking access to the necessary resources to start ventures and not launching a tech-enabled venture because there’s no money in it. The perception of funding being the elephant in the room stifles even the thought of collaborating in the early stages of innovation. Needs of the day too often surpass the needs of the future as the diaspora remains, at best, vagrants among new tech darlings and the old guard.
The conversation to be had among black communities all over the world is not one centered around an indictment of white participants in the global tech ecosystem, but rather a learning opportunity for black community around collaboration. As much as some may want to rush into Fortune 500 company boardrooms with fists raised high, a more sustainable and impactful solution lies within collaboration. McKinsey reports that companies that have racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. A McKinsey study from 2012 found that ethnic and racially diverse executive boards delivered returns on equity that were 53% higher.
The tech industry ignoring this public knowledge looks more like blatant racism than a success story that should be replicated, but context matters, outcomes matter, progress matters. Unfortunately decrying racism from the rooftops is somehow less impactful than building the infrastructure necessary to create and recycle wealth within black communities. Black populations simply need to apply the same methods to their own business activities. It is not enough to identify racism, collective action needs to be strategic and organized in a way that will surpass it.
“Are you willing to hold space for Black employees? As in, are any Black people even on your team―especially in leadership positions? If not, are you willing to treat hiring Black people as another growth challenge and hack it? Are you willing to recruit at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and African tertiary institutions as enthusiastically as historically white colleges and universities?”
“Investors have been reaching out to me left and right asking what they can do. It’s not complicated: Invest in Black founders. You don’t have to invest in ALL Black founders. You can keep your thesis and yes even your so-called ‘standards’ and find multiple Black founders to invest in,” Hamilton wrote. “If you need help, I have 130 portfolio companies + I can introduce you to a curated list of a dozen Black investors to hire. My email address is ARLAN@BackstageCapital.com. No more excuses.”
To say funding is a major obstacle to the world seeing more black faces in tech startups doesn’t fully encompass the issue. On one side you do have the fact that investors typically represent a particular demographic that sees increased value in their reflection. On the other, you have a market with prices that exclude the financial majority whose ranks are filled unequally by black people. It is here you realize the perfect storm that renders African diaspora founders invisible.
“The reason a lot of us [women and minorities] don’t get funded is because a lot of investors don’t look like us,”
Regarding venture capital, the statistical evidence and individual feedback speak to a hostile environment that assumes black people are outside of their depth. According to the oft-cited 2015 report by venture capital research firm CB Insights, black founders received a mere one percent of venture capital (VC) dollars, even though blacks make up 12 percent of the US population. The investment issue also flows upstream as black-owned VCs struggle to raise money and black investors grapple with colleagues to make them see the value in considering diversity when investing.
“Blacks are underrepresented in the executive ranks of startups by 82% and more than 75% of all rounds raised go to all-white founding teams.”
This all begins to point to a rather bleak future for potential black startup founders AND investors, however; there are solutions available, although difficult in the short-term. The outpouring of support from social media and multinational corporations highlights the impact of recent racial atrocities. But the entire global community should be aware of the historical impact of past protests and compare it to the status quo.
Countless members of the African diaspora have created vehicles to wealth, but currently lack the infrastructure that would serve as a “highway to heaven.” Black communities all over the globe are replete with monetizable ideas; the next step is creating an ecosystem for those ideas to plug into. This involves identifying sources of black capital, convening promising startups, and building a black tech ecosystem that attracts attention from global capital sources instead of chasing it. The black diaspora must aggressively hunt down opportunities to support, hire, and fund our communities or watch as existing systems slowly choke the life out of our participation in future economies capable of changing our collective stars...
“I respect your vision… But when it comes down on you, either you collectivize, or you run like a single solitary rat.”
The memorable heights of black excellence have typically rode upon the back of autonomous black economies. The technologies developed via this excellence begin in necessity but evolved as a result of increases in spare time and cash flow. It involved black producers spending money in their community, training their staff with monetizable skill sets, identifying potential business pivots and spin-offs, and more importantly the replicable creation of black wealth.
“Technology should be the focus because it offers the lowest barrier to entry. I see how Jewish communities are associated with law and entertainment. On the other spectrum I see latin communities associated with farming and construction. What about us? What can diverse communities within the African diaspora collectively identify as niche and build infrastructure around? I say tech. With a laptop, internet, and a stable power grid; a jobless youth can create a billion dollar company, invent an industry, or serve the needs of those around them in a way an outsider could never conceive…”
How Interns will change
Being an intern is rough. Interns, especially those in companies with bad culture, can expect to be flooded with work as they begin a new life of being subservient to those responsible for reporting on their performance (2. The Guardian: Interns Aren’t Just Cheap Labor to Abuse). Being an intern is literally the lowest position in the entire company and to make matters worse there are thousands of people waiting in if an intern can’t pull their weight. So why be an intern? And how does this equate to changing Africa?
In a new policy research report released last month entitled Creating Decent Jobs: Strategies, policies, and instruments, the African Development Bank says most of the degrees awarded by African universities lack the academic rigour, relevance and career-focused skills to enable graduates to get decent jobs (3. University World News: Unskilled Graduates Struggle to Find Decent Jobs). In 2017, Ingressive LLC’s campus ambassador program participants reported learning how to write computer code on chalkboards. The same program participants reported learning from 10 year old textbooks on coding languages far past their prime.
Several signs point to African education systems lacking the capacity to prepare students for tech-related jobs, but COVID-19 is highlighting how current technology combined with an internship can change that narrative. Ivy League universities are shifting to online learning models prove skill sets at the highest level can be learned and monetized with only a laptop and internet. The explosion of digital learning platforms like Coursera works to expose the fact that the information graduates seek exists on the world wide web. Combining those lessons with real world experience will make candidate resumes more competitive.
The true potential of an internship in a tech-related field can be discovered by following the money. A study of over 20,000 students in the US found that over 60% of students with a paid internships get job offers and make almost $7,000 per year more than those who don’t (4. Jennie Burlowski: The 5 Ways Internships Increase Post-College Earning Power). Big tech has recently created the world’s first trillionaire in Jeff Bezos and companies like Google pay interns over $6,000 per month plus benefits. Multinational tech giants are competitively seeking young talent early as a part of their business models and it won’t be long before African countries follow suit.
It is unfortunate that the figures above hold no promises for African computer science graduates, but it exposes the wave to come. In the 1940’s Silicon Valley was erected out of the flood of student genius flowing out of universities like Stanford and IT Berkley and grew into a $3 trillion neighborhood (Business Insider: How Silicon Valley Became a $3 Trillion Neighborhood). Fast forward about 50 years and you will find a Silicon moniker in every African country with a tech program.
The truth of the matter is that no figures would directly report that interns will save Africa. What we can determine is that graduates are in desperate need of a way to bridge the gap that exists between graduation and employment. With Africa acting in service of the global tech economies and not as a creator; it is up to new graduates to connect with entrepreneurs and SMEs to be the source of tech integration.
African youth must be the drivers of African change as students have for decades. The Apartheid Divestment in the late 1970s, Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the current Black Lives Matter movement were all fueled by students who risked it all to change the world (The New York Times: 7 Times When Students Turned to Activism). Once again it falls upon the shoulders of our global youth to both speak a convincing truth to power and connect the African continent to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Students may have a skills gap, but entrepreneurs and SMEs also have an understanding gap regarding relevant global technology and how it connects to revenue generation.
In the same way that the private sector drives government policy, students must now change their own stars by proving their skills are valuable in the workplace. They must actively leverage their learning communities and mentors to create use cases for their skill sets that add to the bottom line of African businesses. Working for low wages and mistreatment will be painful for the pioneers, but it will lay the necessary groundwork. This is the infrastructure needed to disrupt competitors stuck in the old ways of doing business and develop future economies.
Ingressive For Good (I4G) learned this truth in 2018 through the Ready Set Work government sponsored internship program. The lost souls we brought on to do the most tedious tasks are now full time employees running their own departments. Ingressive needed to be passionate about development and the interns needed to commit to constantly learning and stepping out of their comfort zones. The result is a company that keeps growing and evolving due to a team that is understanding of the past, rooted in the present, and connected to the future. Creating a robust internship program creates a space for more affordable expansion and succession planning, leading to a more sustainable business model. Giving a voice to youth within a company also ensures a company structure capable of adapting to changing times.
I4G continues to play its part as an African tech ecosystem developer through the launching of our workforce readiness initiatives and partnering with local and global tech companies seeking talent. I4G community members get free access to online courses with certifications, collaborative resume building challenges, and mentor led study groups. In conjunction with education and mentors; I4G staff are connecting with HR departments, recruiters, and corporate partners to introduce the African business world to the next generation of tech-enabled rock stars. Visit www.ingressive.org to join the I4G network and connect to a brighter future!
Forbes: The Evolution of Interns
The Guardian: Interns Aren’t Just Cheap Labor to Abuse
University World News: University Graduates Struggle to Find Decent Jobs
Jennie Burlowski: The 5 Ways Internships Increase Post-College Earning Power
Business Insider: How Silicon Valley Became a $3 Trillion Neighborhood
The New York Times: 7 Times When Students Turned to Activism
The Coronavirus Case Study
If necessity is the mother of invention, then it is only natural that technology thrives in trying times. When we think of halting the spread of the Coronavirus, many people may envision the brave nurses, doctors, and scientists on the frontlines. However; in recent times, it is technology that is doing the heavy lifting, Pandemics like the Coronavirus, SARS, and others are pushing infrastructure to its limits and innovation to new heights. To understand the technology forces at play......
one must recognize that the foundations of developing nations are crumbling in the face of COVID 19. Eighty-five nations have closed all learning institutions, impacting over 776.7 million children and youth. The NBA, La Liga, NHL and other major sporting organizations have all cancelled the remainder of their seasons. Countries like Italy and El Salvadore have quarantined their entire countries. The UN paints a doomsday scenario of the global economy losing $2 trillion if governments don’t act quick. In this new world where human touch is a thing of the past, billions of people are depending on technology to hold us all together.
On the bright side, the quarantined masses who happen to be tech savvy are finding new ways to keep their business going. SMEs and multinationals offering software based solutions will be shielded from the crippling blow waiting for supply chain players according to Sequoia Capital. Companies like Zoom, We Chat Work, and Lark are seeing upticks as confined entrepreneurs leverage new ways to connect, learn, and conduct business. Yunqi partners are seeing growth in logistics and cybersecurity companies as people are now relying on the internet and home deliveries as a means of survival in the short-term.
Technology seems to be our only hope in the long-term, as both a way out of our current woes and prevention in the future. While people will always have their part to play, their efforts are being multiplied exponentially with the help of new innovations. Doctors and nurses play the role of infantry as data science and AI serve as our heavy artillery. Currently, companies are leveraging AI algorithms to forecast outbreaks and supercomputers to process immense amounts of data used to create vaccines. Robots are being used to sterilize utensils and drones are delivering supplies.
The Coronavirus is giving the world a lesson on collaboration and innovation and Nigeria needs to pay attention. Rumors are rampant, but the truth is, the African continent is not reporting anything close the numbers of the infected in Europe and America. The same might not be true next time. Traumatized communities and empathetic governments now see the impacts of pandemics and are releasing funding and reducing the burden on the public. However; Nigeria can make investments today that prevent us from facing a similar fate tomorrow.
While the DOW Jones, one of the world’s most watched stock markets, fell by nearly 3,000 points, some tech plays are weathering the storm better than most. Companies like Slack and Broadcom further prove the point that investing in tech and other innovative sectors prepares Nigeria for a better tomorrow. These are the companies that are adaptive enough to survive a crisis while creating the capacity to address our future “unknown unknowns.”
After this Coronavirus pandemic blows over, we all have decisions to make. Areas like data science, AI, machine learning, and robotics are not something that we can wait for others to create on our behalf; they will be interwoven into the fabric of successful societies. Whenever and however possible and at whatever cost imaginable, the masses must be exposed to technology in hopes that we will develop the future creators and consumers of Nigerian innovation.
The best we can do today is to follow common sense. Strict border control and quarantine policies is the way to protect ourselves from irresponsible travelers. The use of hand sanitizer, not touching our face, avoiding crowded locations, and safe social distance may be the only hope for individuals. As a country and continent, we need to realize that if things go really bad, Africa will be the safest place on Earth. We should treat it that way as our national pledge requires: “To defend her unity and uphold her honor and glory.”