Erik Moore’s career in venture capital began with a hot tub.
It sounds like the ultimate Bay Area cliché, perhaps even more vividly so when you hear that the hot tub in question was destined for the downtown building once sought after by flashy former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.
It was 1999, and Tony Hsieh, one of the building’s well-to-do tenants, had just sold his first company to Microsoft. Hsieh wanted to install a Jacuzzi in his penthouse apartment – but it was against policy in the building, where Moore lived, too. After the fellow tenants ran into each other one night, Hsieh drafted Moore onto the homeowner’s association. They got the sought-after hot tub installed, and became friends.
Good enough friends that Moore invested in Hsieh’s company, one called Zappos.
At the time, he told Hsieh, “I’m not sure I have ever heard of a more stupid idea than selling shoes online.” But, deciding that Hsieh’s obvious talents as an entrepreneur outweighed the apparent dead-end nature of the internet service that became Zappos (which was later acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billion) Moore made the investment that eventually provided the seed money for his venture capital fund, Base Ventures. (more…)
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Turnstyle on Tuesday, Nov. 27th
What’s a post-40 white male to do to get a job around here? If “here” is Silicon Valley, then shave your head, get an eyelid lift, and swap that button down for a slim fitting T-shirt.
That’s the transformation Randy Adams underwent as he pursued and secured the CEO position at Socialdial, and he tells Reuters he probably wouldn’t have gotten the job without it. (more…)
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According to Merriam-Webster, the word meritocracy has two definitions: a system in which the talented are chosen and promoted on the basis of their achievement; and, leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria. However, given the amount of times I’ve heard this word used (improperly) to describe the tech industry over the past couple of years, I think Merriam-Webster must have gotten it wrong. I think they actually meant to define it as “nonsense; especially foolish insolent talk;” also known as b&llsh*#.
Silicon Valley has been rocked by the announcement that a female partner at Kleiner Perkins sued the prestigious venture firm for sexual harassment. And while I actually have nothing to say about the case, I do have something to say about the response. Greg McAdoo, a partner at Sequoia Capital, said in response “This business is a meritocracy by and large. I have no doubt that there are pockets of issues, because in humanity you’re going to have that.” McAdoo said this on stage as a member of an all-male panel of venture capitalists at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference when he was was questioned on the state of sexism in the industry. Does that sound familiar, almost like an all-male congressional panel being convened to discuss the legality of birth control for women? Don’t get me wrong, I have an immense amount of respect for Greg McAdoo. The one time I pitched him, I found him to be a sharp individual with some piercing questions and extremely deep insights. But on this issue, he’s wrong.
Last fall, after CNN’s Black In America did an hour-long segment on race in Silicon Valley, it raised a debate about how the tech community was a meritocratic society; only that time it was in response to racial bias instead of gender bias. Michael Arrington (creator of the TechCrunch Disrupt conference and founder of TechCrunch itself) famously tweeted, “there’s zero race or sex bias in Silicon Valley.” Violet Blue encapsulated the problem of the Valley’s racial bias well in her ZDNet column. That was the last time we started bandying about the word “meritocracy” like it was a lifeline to our virtue.
Do you want to know the truth? We in the Valley hide behind the word “meritocracy” because we don’t want to confront our pernicious underlying issues. According to a New York Times article from several years ago, women graduate with a disproportionate number of honors degrees at universities all over the country. Fifty-five percent of the women from Harvard in 2006 graduated with honors while nearly half the men struggled to graduate with honors. At some universities, 75 percent of the honors degrees handed out were given to members of the fairer sex. I’m looking back at the definition of meritocracy and wondering why the most intelligent don’t have greater presence in the finance side of an industry that prides itself on hiring the smartest.
Hell, why don’t we have more women in this industry period? While the number of female graduates with engineering degrees has declined over the last 15 years (Jolie O’Dell has an excellent breakdown on the reasons why this may be the case), the numbers from universities tech usually likes to recruit from are sharply different. Forty two percent of MIT’s engineering graduates in 2010 were women; 27 percent of Stanford engineering grads are women; and 21 percent of Berkeley’s engineering grads are women. Fully half of all the top students at each of those universities are women. And yet only an estimated 20 percent of tech is female; even less are engineers.
It’s clear that women are succeeding in greater numbers than ever before from an academic perspective. Why then is that success not translating into greater numbers in our own industry? When are we going to confront our issues with gender and race inequality? Why do our tech luminaries like Michael Arrington continue to deny the problem even exists? We pride ourselves on looking at the numbers when we’re building our companies using the lean startup method, but when the numbers tell us that just 6 percent of tech CEOs at the top 100 tech companies are women, we hide behind the word meritocracy. When the numbers tell us that just 14 percent of venture capitalists are women, we hide behind the word meritocracy. When the numbers tell us that 56 percent of women leave their tech jobs halfway through their careers, we hide behind the word meritocracy.
We can’t acknowledge that we’ve created an industry with some intolerance towards minority groups because then it would be our fault. We barely blame ourselves when our companies fail, we just embrace the failure so we can iterate on it. By hiding behind the flawed concept that we’re a meritocracy we’re shifting the blame to those groups who are already dramatically under-represented in our industry. We’re not solving the problem and we’re definitely not iterating. The next time we run into an issue about race or gender, it won’t be our fault because that’s foolish and insolent talk. It won’t be our fault because if it was our fault we’d have to find a way not to smell our own b&llsh*#.
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This month, I was a presenter at a college readiness conference for young Black males, convened at Berkeley City College.
During the program, I watched and observed, just like the young men in the audience, six Black male startup founders share their story of how they came into their fields of endeavor.
It reminded me of why I have a problem with a recent Business Insider story: “Self-Segregation is What’s Keeping African-Americans Out of Silicon Valley. ” When an article like this rears its head, it provides a superficial rationale for closet racists and “meritocracy” ideologues that love to point fingers at minorities and shout, “They are the problem! The status quo is completely fine!”
This notion is not borne out by my experiences. Let’s return to that College Bound Brotherhood event. Where I’m from, to be in the company of several educated well-dressed Black men isn’t uncommon. However, for these same group of men to also be technology entrepreneurs is an anomaly anywhere. I will even go as far as to say that it was unprecedented, not just because of our high risk career paths, but because we also happen to be buddies. From the audiences’ perspective, they heard laughter, witnessed camaraderie between “brothas,” and as Kurt Collins, Founder of Enole, mentioned during his talk, “I know all these guys here, and we’re all weird, and I wanted to be in something I can be weird and be myself.”
The “weirdness” Kurt describes is sometimes depicted as Urkelization, after the 1990’s character Steve Urkel in popularly syndicated show, “Family Matters” who epitomized the black male nerd. The men on stage, myself included, became hackers at a young age at the risk of becoming social pariahs. The kids in the audience were spellbound by our inventions and our junior entrepreneurial activities in elementary school. We gave “nerdy” its much due swag, and the effect was enormous based on the reactions from the young Black men in attendance.
It’s one of the reasons why Blacks in tech would rather participate in a forum like the one gathered by the College Bound Brotherhood than pay attention to another article about why so very few of us exist in the land of innovation, Silicon Valley. Here are five top reasons why I avoid “lack of minorities in tech” articles:
(1) they’re mostly written by non-people of color who are focused on Silicon Valley but don’t live and work in Silicon Valley*
(2) they are written by non-techies, non-builders of technology products and services
(3) they focus on what is wrong with Black people, as if the problem lies with our culture
(4) they typecast Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis as model minorities who don’t have a problem with the status quo
(5) they lack investigative journalism, research, and actually interviewing those of us in the field
However, Giang’s BI article struck a chord because it targeted affinity groups by suggesting that Blacks in tech self-selected segregation, based on Maya Beasley’s Opting Out: Losing The Potential Of American’s Young Black Elite.
Beasley interviews sixty Black and White students and uses her small sample findings to draw a conclusion. It’s a good thing she isn’t in the startup world, because very few of us would get away with validating a business model based on sixty people, but apparently that’s sufficient for a book.
Here’s what Beasley’s work is missing – stepping off the campus and interacting with actual black entrepreneurs in tech. If she did, she’d have learned that most of us didn’t attend the University of California at Berkeley or Stanford. So part of her research is based on assumptions that have no real basis in the industry. She sticks to Cal and Stanford campuses, assuming that they would provide the primary pipeline for Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, and blames African-American students for not doing so. In her words, “Black students need to learn to interact with white people and have some amount of comfort with them and I don’t think that’s asking a lot.”
What I find most disturbing about her conclusions is that she singles out African-Americans when just about every ethnicity has their share of assimilation that is balanced with affinity grouping. When the state of California eliminated affirmative action programs, the number of Black students attending Cal and Stanford dropped. So there aren’t a lot of Black students to begin with. That must be uncomfortable for the many Black students who are just discovering themselves outside the comfort of their homes and backgrounds. There is a great amount of identity formation happening for minority students, but for the straight, privileged White guy, that process isn’t as crucial. He doesn’t have to worry about the words “monkey” written on his dorm door, or date rape, or someone posting a video on YouTube ridiculing his accent when talking to his parents back home.
So Blacks learning from other Blacks, and socializing with other Blacks is important, and perhaps necessary for a healthy sense of self. But according to Beasley, this places Black students at a disadvantage for getting into tech. Has she questioned why the status quo dictates that the gatekeeper for successful entry into tech is how well minorities and women get along with white males? For organizations like Women 2.0 and Girls in Tech, the approach is simple: women must support each other, and united, can shatter the glass ceiling in the tech world. Beasley doesn’t take this approach with Blacks, but rather, makes the claim that an assimilationist approach will create diversity in tech.
I’m from Brooklyn, New York. When I first moved to California, I immediately wanted to connect with other Black startup founders. I did a great job connecting with startup founders from all different backgrounds, but I wanted to see someone who looked like me, who cared about the same issues I do, and if anything, would show me where I could get a haircut. I wasn’t “self-segregating” as Beasley describes it. When you’re Black and highly under-represented in a field, whites recognize it and assume that you know every Black person that they mention, and if you don’t, they will try and connect you with that person. That is the experience of being a minority, and so I pro-actively sought to connect with those with similar backgrounds.
Vivek Wadhwa talks about how critical organizations like TiE were in empowering Indians in Silicon Valley to not only fill the role of engineering talent but as the founder of the startup. Pakistanis have their own social cliques as well as Chinese. Pi Alpha Phi, for example, founded in 1929 at the University of California, Berkeley is the oldest Asian-American interest fraternity and provides programs and opportunities that serve as a pipeline for members to gain entry into companies like Google and Facebook. I started Building While Brown which has a 500+ member network that connects diverse members of the tech and innovation marketplace. Information is gathered outside our network and disseminated within our networks. Because of affinity groups like Building While Brown, Black Founders, Latino Startup Alliance, Startup Triad (Asian), Women 2.0, Girls in Tech, StartOut (LGBT), Silicon Valley is becoming more diverse than it has ever been. With accelerators like NewME and Mexican.vc and pitching events like the Pitch Mixer Entrepreneur Forum, minority-led startup founders no longer have to be the only brown face in the room.
Beasley wants to know why Blacks aren’t playing the game. Playing the game is not an option, it’s a must, but we’ve decided to go above and beyond simply playing it. We want to change the game by leveling the playing field. If Beasley spent more time with us in startup land, she’d learn that we don’t have to assimilate. We can be ourselves, and still be weird. Moreover, we can serve as role models for the next generation of innovators. Those young men in the room at the Black & Proud to be College Bound 2.0 conference received a glimpse of what a future in tech could be like for them.
Beasley is wrong. Affinity groups aren’t the problem. Indifference is the problem. We fight indifference by coming together, helping one another and preparing each other for excellence. Side by side, standing upon each other shoulders, as Lauryn Hill’s chorus in a Nas song echoed, “we’ll walk right up to the sun – hand in hand.”
*Minor changes were made to this piece after publication at the request of the author.
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