Stats about minorities in tech are grim: according to one study, only 1% of startups that received funding in early 2010 had a single black person on the team.

This was the inspiration behind Platform--call it (at the risk of oversimplification) the "black TED."

“We openly admit to being inspired by TED,” says Platform founder and serial entrepreneur Hank Williams. “But while TED wants to share good ideas, we want to share important people.”

Platform does endeavor to go beyond representing African-Americans; it also aims to promote Latinos and women in the “innovation economy.”

Many blame the lack of minorities and women in tech on a "pipeline issue”: there aren’t enough black people in engineering schools, due to their underrepresentation in higher education, which in turn is due to our flailing education system as a whole.

But there are a lot of other issues, too. “The numbers of [minorities] graduating from engineering schools is nonzero, yet when you look at the people being hired, funded, and able to start companies, it’s effectively zero," Williams notes.

Troy Carter, founder and CEO of Atom Factory, an entertainment firm that counts Lady Gaga among its partners, at Platform.

"My view is that if you’re not part of the inner circle . . . you don’t even know how to go about breaking into these ecosystems," says Williams. "People think they’re self-made, but no one is self-made.” [Pictured: Baratunde Thurston]

Part of the problem is that like tends to hire like. People need to examine their own “gut feelings,” Williams suggests. “It’s like when someone says, ‘I like the cut of his jib.’ What makes you like that? Is it the fact that he came from a background like yours?"

Meanwhile, Williams says the community of people of color in tech should do their part to boost their own visibility and work together to gain stronger representation.

This is precisely the idea behind Platform.

“If you’re a Latino girl from the barrio, you may never have seen someone who looks like you being an entrepreneur," says Williams.

"We want to be a resource for people to tap into networks and support each other so we can increase the number of people that feel their work is for them.”

Platform Aims To Boost Profile Of Minorities In Tech

Fewer than 1% of VC-funded startups have black people on their teams. Hank Williams, founder of Platform—the "black TED"— wants to change that.

Two years ago, Hank Williams joined a startup accelerator called NewME, which specializes in startups led by minorities. Williams, 48, is a black serial entrepreneur who had spent most of his life living in Harlem and considered himself a “tech geek” since his teenage years. And while in his East Coast life Williams was always cognizant of the fact that there were relatively few people who looked like him in tech, going out to Silicon Valley made him “more vividly aware of the lack of diversity in this business I’ve spent my life in.”

Williams, CEO of Kloudco and the founder of an early Internet radio service, spent weeks walking through the streets of Mountain View and hardly saw other black people. To top it all off, Soledad O’Brien was there filming part of her “Black in America” CNN series, leading Williams to be confronted by some stark statistics. One survey, for instance, showed that only 1% of startups that received funding in early 2010 had a single black person on the team.

The wake-up call led Williams to create Platform. Call it (at the risk of oversimplification) the "black TED." “We openly admit to being inspired by TED,” says Williams. “But while TED wants to share good ideas, we want to share important people.” Williams adds that Platform does endeavor to go beyond representing African-Americans; he’s interested in promoting Latinos and women, too, in what he calls the “innovation economy.” The same survey on startup funding revealed only 6% of teams had women and less than 1% had Latinos. Platform’s first summit was held at MIT Media Lab in July, with roughly 200 attendees, several of whom delivered TED-style talks; videos from the event have just gone live on Platform’s website.

Hank Williams

There are various theories as to why blacks, Latinos, and women are underrepresented in tech. Williams says that he has encountered many people in the industry who get defensive and say it’s a “pipeline issue”: There aren’t enough black people in engineering schools, the thinking goes, which is due to their underrepresentation in higher education generally, which in turn is due to our flailing education system as a whole, and so on down the line. Underlying this view is a deep faith in meritocracy: If there are worthy minorities out there, these people suggest, they’ll find their way to the upper echelons.

“I would say it’s more complicated than that,” counters Williams. “There’s certainly a pipeline issue,” he readily concedes. But there are a lot of other issues, too. “The numbers of [minorities] graduating from engineering schools is nonzero, yet when you look at the people being hired, funded, and able to start companies, it’s effectively zero. My view is that if you’re not part of the inner circle—if you haven’t gone to Stanford or Harvard and don’t have the social capital—you don’t even know how to go about breaking into these ecosystems. People think they’re self-made, but no one is self-made.”

The other thing about social capital—and venture capital—is that its flow is regulated by people who already happen to have it, and those people tend to feel a comfort with their own. Williams points to a comment made by the leading venture capitalist John Doerr several years ago. Doerr said that “the world’s greatest entrepreneurs” appeared to be “white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford, and they 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.”

Doerr may have since come to regret including the race or gender of his favored funding supplicants. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to say, ‘I will only invest in white men,’ ” says Williams. “But the fact that the words even came out of his mouth that way is suggestive of a mind-set and framework that’s at play.” To an extent, Williams says, all of us engage in this—a comfort among our own, and the concomitant risk aversion when it comes time to invest in all sorts of ways with those who are unlike us. But people of goodwill in the innovation economy need to critically examine their own “gut feelings,” Williams suggests. “It’s like when someone says, ‘I like the cut of his jib.’ What makes you like that? Is it the fact that he came from a background like yours? That he thinks like you, dresses like you? It’s something all human beings do, but if you’re in power and making decisions, you have to make an aggressive effort not to think that way.”

Meanwhile, Williams says the community of people of color in tech should do their part to boost their own visibility and work together to gain stronger representation; this is precisely the idea behind Platform. “If you’re a Latino girl from the barrio, you may never have seen someone who looks like you being an entrepreneur. We want to be a resource for people to tap into networks and support each other so we can increase the number of people that feel their work is for them.”

Williams says more than 30 videos from the last conference will be posted soon; a handful are up as of this week. And he’s in the planning stages for the next conference, the location of which will be announced soon. “We’re just getting started,” Williams says.

[Photos by Liz Linder]

Add New Comment

11 Comments

  • LTaylor

    I applaud him for what he's doing, trying to do. People seem to get jumpy when you point out race in America as if it's something that doesn't exist. White people get to openly support white people and it's called business, but when someone else decides to garner support for their own marginalized "category" then it becomes an issue.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Kloudco has an intriguing proposition. I often watch Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley together. I think all the tech geeks dream of having their great "exit interview" with Rose. I just can't help but look for those interviews where CR makes some summary characterization of what it all means, puts it to the "Founder", and they say "Absolutely". Seriously, watch one and see what I mean lol! I also like what they've done by expanding the programming with a separate additional Rose show, and would be just as interested if they did same kind of thing for Smiley. Might make for a good platform to talk with VC funded startup people, and the dynamics of culture associated.

    Best, Anthony

  • Ronald WhoDat Brockmann

    "Fewer than 1% of claims of inequality have an actual study or survey to prove it". It must be true because there are quotation marks around it.

    "We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now." - MLK

  • SPC2

    What about the NY Civil Liberties Union study done in NYC about the Stop & Frisk campaign of the Police Dept, that proved that 89% of those stopped were innocent and of the 533K that were stopped, 87% were Black or Hispanic. http://www.stopandfrisk.com/ http://www.nyclu.org/content/s... This data was the facts that caused the "Stop & Frisk" law to be found Unconstitutional by the Federal Court. My question is why couldn't you have read this article and moved on? Why did you feel that you had a valid argument? Maybe it is related to the fact that you're apart of the privileged majority and anything that attacks that privilege is seen as something to attack.

    BTW, the aforementioned study is just one example of systematic inequality that happens everyday. But lets get to the point of Platform. Here is an organization that seeks to provide an opportunity for Blacks & Hispanics to gain access to a sector that has "effectively zero" % representation. The truth is that Platform takes nothing away from whites. It only seeks to provide access to funding from VCs. What is wrong with that? Oh that's right, that's money that you entitled to, so let me attack anyone that stands in my way!

  • Levi K

    So let me get this straight-- we want to "fix" a completely open, unbiased innovation pipeline that is TED with a biased "Black TED", targeting a specific race? Hmm. I applaud Hank, himself, for being successful; that said, his drive to pollinate his personal ambition among only his own race is completely contradictory. Surely there are other factors in the mix here. I suggest that he consider the following:

    -awareness/education of TED (purpose, uses, opportunities)
    -search terms (perhaps you're searching a topic that is more popular in one particular ethnicity/origin)

    I'm all for supporting innovative people and ideas, but Hank's proposal makes no sense. Creating a resource or communication media solely for a select audience goes against the grain of exactly what we pride ourselves on as a nation-- equality. Let's come together as one; only then will we realize equality and truly make a difference.

  • SPC2

    The challenge to your argument is that it is not Hank calling his organization, "Black TED" but it is the writer.  Hank's quote follows the writer's statement and explains the real comparison he was making with regards to TED.

    You last paragraph does showcase the idea of America as a melting pot where we truly come together as one. Which is the standard defense given when the topic of fairness in race issues is discussed.   And the research just don't support that utopian dream.  All of us are naturally biased towards our own.  That is at a genetic level and this does not make any of us bad, mean, or even racist.  The issue is that if all of the persons in tech or any other industry in America hire persons that look like or are more like them, then the minority automatically is left out.  And let me restate. How it happens is not in question.  The Why is transformed from understandable because in 2013 everyone should be mindful of our natural preferences and put measure in place to ensure that we are purposely more inclusive.  In a country where over 253 million identify themselves as white, and only 41 million (approx. 1/4) are black, it means that black have a 1/4th of a chance at getting the opportunity.

    Hank is just trying to create a Platform that brings blacks and hispanics up to a level where they can be noticed in an industry where they are non existent.  What's wrong with that?  O are you just tired of hearing that you are a part of the privileged majority? As I said to a friend, "he who feels it, knows it."

  • shin

    Minority people has historically been marginalized in America. And this marginalization continues today. What he is trying to accomplish is providing minorities with a "platform" that will allow them to succeed on par with their white counterparts. It might pain you to accept this: but America is not equal. There are always exceptions even for an exceptional country like the United States. The Declaration of Independence was published while white plantation owners still owned slaves. The Constitution as well. African Americans and other minority groups were systematically barred from true participation in this "free" and "equal" country until about 40 or 50 years ago. We are still dealing with the residues from America's unequal history. Why shouldn't marginalized groups have their own institutions that help them to get access to resources they otherwise might not receive?

  • Levi K

    But my point is this-- who declared TED as a 'whites only' site? Some may choose not to view/post there, but there isn't a limit on who has access. I completely agree with you in that marginalized segments of our population need an equal representation. If you have something that is culture- or ethnicity-centric, why can't it go on the same medium as other races? Creating your own race's communication platform only exacerbates the problem that you have noted above. So you may feel like you then "have a voice", but you have really only drawn more negative light to an already tense situation.

  • SPC2

    Levi K, you must have glossed over this article and made some assumption, but it is clear that it was the writer insinuated that 'whites only' declaration about TED! Mr. Williams did NOT refer to TED as a "whites only" site. This is the exact quote from him, “But while TED wants to share good ideas, we want to share important people.”  I'm not certain how that could be confused for what you thought he said.
    That sain, SHIN's point is still salient as it pertains to inherent inequality, but as I said previously, this fact is not brought up to demonize whites! Natural human bias–that 'thing' that makes us want to be around people who are more like us is now the prominent cause of inequality in the workplace. And guess what? All we ask is that privileged group just keep that in mind when they are in a position to include/hire people AND proactively seek out person who are not like them but have the requisite skill sought for the job at hand.  In the case of Platform, they are "introducing" talented and qualified minorities to the industry with the hope that they won't be overlooked.  Levi, we all have inherited this legacy and one group overwhelmingly benefits and other groups do not.  That is just a fact.  It is one that you have only ever been in a position to benefit from and even if this does not increase your bank statement, you still have not had to live your life on the negative side of that demarcation. When you live in a world where you are less likely to be hired with a college degree than a person from the privileged class with a criminal record, you are keenly aware of this bias.  So as I said in my first comment, "he who feels it knows it" and while you could claim ignorance prior to this dialog, if you are half as decent as I suspect, you should walk away from this discussion with a different perspective.  All we ask for is understanding.  You can continue this respectful dialog direct y at peter@accelor8.com

  • ChuanTsay

    This is a bit misleading because if you take a (unscientific) look at most startups, they are, in fact, led by minorities - women and Asian Americans. 

    Of course, with all conversations about race, you may disagree with me. I apologize in advance for any misunderstandings. This is just my opinion and there is no offense intended.