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.
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.