Arrington, Race, and Silicon Valley

I spent this summer in Silicon Valley as part of the NewMe Accelerator. NewMe is the first Accelerator program focused on African-Americans. I had an absolute blast in California connecting to incredible mentors like Mitch Kapor, Ben Horowitz, Vivek Wadhwa, and, in my own way, both absorbing insight from, and, as the old man of the crew, mentoring the other members of the program. 

As I have over the years spent much time in Silicon Valley, starting from my days writing Mac software in the 90s, it was great to rekindle some old relationships. Participating in the program moved my company, Kloudco, forward in some amazing ways, in large part from the brilliant insight of the other participants. There’s much more I want to say about my NewMe summer, but that will have to wait for a later blog post. 

Our experiences in NewMe were captured in a new documentary that is part of Soledad O’Brien’s Black In America series on CNN. The documentary will air November 13th and on Wednesday, I and a few hundred other people saw an advance screening. You can check out some clips here.

One of the most striking things about the evening was the aftermath reaction to some of the comments that Mike Arrington, founder and former editor of TechCrunch, made on camera.

A Twitter fight erupted between Arrington and others such as Vivek Wadhwa, who is also in the documentary. In the calm of the day after, I want to share my thoughts.

Arrington Says: Silicon Valley Is a meritocracy

Mike said a few very clear things about his view of the state of diversity in Silicon Valley.

  • its true that there are very few African-Americans in Silicon Valley
  • despite this, Silicon Valley is a pure meritocracy
  • you become successful because you have a “big brain”
First, let me say, I think Mike truly believes everything that he has said about the tech world being a meritocracy. Lots of people believe that.

But I do not believe Silicon valley is a meritocracy. I would more properly say that tech *markets* are a meritocracy.  There are very few businesses where a single individual in her bedroom can create a piece of software that can potentially touch millions of people without any additional capital. No matter how talented you are, if you want to open a hot new restaurant or a shoe factory, you need lots of money before you start. Not necessarily so with software.

Consumers and businesses, for the most part, don’t care what the ethnicity of their software or Internet service vendors are. Users want solutions. And so if an entrepreneur can get a great product completed cheaply, in many cases they can compete on totally even footing. Even if they ultimately need capital, explosive initial success knocks down all known barriers.

But the market *makers* operate in a world that is not particularly even-handed.  The market makers are the folks that help new young companies and entrepreneurs by providing insight, mentoring, capital, and relationships. And this part of the tech world is driven by all the same types of biases that exist in the non-tech world. And it is *much* harder for even the most talented African Americans in the tech world to gain access to influential, insightful, connected mentors, let alone investors.

People, for the most part, want to work with people that are “like them” or that fit a pattern that appeals to them. There is an actual term for this among tech investors called “pattern matching”. It’s the idea that, without objective facts, one can decide whether someone is likely to be successful based on indirect criteria. In other words, when they see a particular pattern of “personhood” they are excited.

And these patterns are discussed openly in the tech industry around issues like age. Since it is only moderately politically incorrect to suggest that younger entrepreneurs are “better”, it is done all the time. The best example of this might be Mike Moritz from Sequoia Capital, perhaps the most influential of all venture funds, admitting on a TechCrunch Disrupt stage that they have a strong bias towards very young entrepreneurs.

But if you believe that age is the only criteria that VCs use for pattern matching I wanna smoke some of what you’ve got.

To be clear, I am not saying any VC says at a partner meeting, “you know I really like this company’s product but did you notice he’s a negro?”

Never happens.

But I firmly believe market makers, both investors and the people who help you get ready to approach them, seek out entrepreneurs who appeal to them on some less than objective, visceral level, who feel “comfortable” to them. They don’t *need* to actively filter out undesirable profiles. They just focus on what *does* appeal to them. They focus on the “patterns” they find appealing and I am confident that not only is age a part of many investors’ ideal patterns, but so are perhaps un-recognized criteria like race, gender, cultural affinity, etc. And on some level this should not be shocking as it reflects socialization that all of us must work hard and consciously not to act on.

Is this (racist/sexist/agist/_____ist)? Well in this context, using incendiary labels is only likely to make people more defensive. The bigger question is, is it a problem? Absolutely.

Is it possible to overcome these additional barriers? I have. But it is only by a sheer persistence and focus that, few other people, white, black, or otherwise, have. While I would never suggest that I am smarter than anyone else, my Arnold-Schwartenzegger-in-Terminator like determination has made my successes possible. Yes, I have definitely had help and support, but compared to some, not so much. 

In fact some people get far more support than others. For example, I’m not going to name any names, but when a top tier VC writes a five million dollar check to a 19 year-old with a barely-beyond-napkin-stage *idea*, no customers and a fragile technology because they “present well” then clearly something else is at work. I am not saying that this exact scenario is common, but it does happen. And since everything is on a spectrum and I can guarantee there are no African-American, or for that matter Latino or female entrepreneurs that contribute such insane data points to that spectrum, it is troubling.

So the bottom line is, if the level of determination that I have was required from everyone on some kind of moderately equal basis, it would indeed be a level playing field — a meritocracy. But it’s not.

Arrington says: I went out of my way to cover African-American entrepreneurs at TechCrunch

The other striking comment Mike made in the documentary was that he went out of its way to make sure African-American’s got covered in TechCrunch.


And I say that with all due respect, because, again, I suspect he believes that it’s true. But I just don’t buy it.

The NewMe organizers tried repeatedly to reach TechCrunch regarding covering the NewMe demo day. They never got a response. While this was going on, Mike was discussing, with CNN producers, being interviewed by Soledad O’Brien for the documentary. At some point, Mike agreed to do the documentary, and after he had shot his interview, told the NewMe organizers (after being approached at a party) that he would be sure to send someone to demo day. Before that time there had been no acknowledgement from TechCrunch that NewMe even existed. No emails responded to, nothing. Mike had only responded to CNN.
TechCrunch writer Alexia Tsotsis did ultimately show up to the demo day. Her article was complimentary about the idea of NewMe and she said, via Twitter, that it was the best run demo day she had seen. But she only wrote a sentence or two about each startup. She didn’t ask anyone for a live demo, or present anything of substance about any of the companies. In essence, she focused on the form of the demo day and the purpose, but not the companies.

Now, if this was the standard for how TechCrunch covers demo days, that would be fine. But I read TechCrunch voraciously, and I don’t believe I have ever seen such thin coverage of any demo day that did get covered. YCombinator has always gotten a full story on each company, as has (I believe) TechStars. Of course there are many accelerators and demo days, and I can’t say that TechCrunch covers every one in depth. But it was striking that they didn’t do a substantive piece on even *one* company given that they did cover the event. (Note: several months later they did cover a company, but not in the demo day context as usually happens).
So my point is this. Though Mike was being interviewed by CNN about race in Silicon Valley in the context of the NewMe accelerator, he did not deem it appropriate to make sure his NewMe coverage was at least roughly on par with other accelerator demo day coverage on TechCrunch. Awareness that he was going to be on national television talking about fairness and balance and meritocracy and race in the Valley did not sway him. Perhaps he didn’t want to be seen as giving favor to NewMe since he was going to be in the documentary. Perhaps.

Either way, Mike was within his rights to decide what he would or would not cover, or how he would cover it, and at what depth. He does not owe any person of color or female entrepreneur or anyone else anything. But to, after the fact, say that he bent over backwards to cover African American entrepreneurs is laughable.

Does this make Mike a bad guy? No. I presume in actuality,  he wasn’t even involved in the editorial process. So I won’t blame him for the uncharacteristic lack of depth of demo day coverage. But I sure as hell am not going to let him claim credit for somehow being some kind of bend-over-backwards-to-cover-African-American-entrepreneurs kind of guy. Let’s get real.