Dominion of New York


November 18, 2011

How to Build A Black Silicon Valley?

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Written by: Kelly Virella
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When Obama dined with technology business leaders in February, all of them were white. Photo by Pete Souza

Obama dined with technology business leaders in February. All of them were white. Photo by Pete Souza


eorge Fraser grips the edge of his lectern, with a stern face, and stares out at the 100 or so black people sitting in the Rutgers Business School auditorium. The black, Cleveland, Ohio businessman says that on his way to this conference — a gathering to talk about economic development in urban communities — he received divine inspiration. “God told me to tell you today that you have everything you need to be successful, and that he’s not giving you anything else, until you learn to use what you have,” he yells. Laughter and applause ensue. Then Fraser cites statistics to substantiate his claim that black Americans have and spend enough money to create high growth businesses and jobs. Black America currently spends $1 trillion a year, making it the 16th largest economy in the world, according to the State of the African-American Consumer Report. The problem is that we’re not investing our money in our communities, Fraser says. “DuBois predicted that if just 10 percent of African-Americans rose up, got an education, and became middle class, they would uplift the entire community. We’ve surpassed his dream,” he says, citing statistics indicating that at least 17 percentof African-Americans have four-year degrees. “We have a lot of PhDs in America. What we need is Ph Dos.”

While Occupy Wall Street was planning yesterday’s protest aimed at shutting down the street itself and taking over New York City subways, across the Hudson River — in Newark, New Jersey — a different approach to wealth inequality was being articulated. How to do that is a longstanding and seemingly perpetual debate in black America and has sparked several initiatives. But unlike past initiatives, the organizers of this one are asking black Americans to focus not just on entrepreneurship, but to collaborate on building innovative high growth companies in urban areas. “This will require a change in our mindset,” says Chad Womack, co-founder of The America21 Project, the leaders of the initiative and the co-organizers of the conference. “Take the 8-track out of your mind and put in a Blu Ray DVD.”

Currenly, black people make up less than 1.5 percent of Silicon Valley’s workforce, Womack says, a problem that recently received intense media scrutiny after the airing of CNN’s documentary “Black In America: The New Promised Land — Silicon Valley.”  Yet, the problem goes beyond Silicon Valley. Terry Hicks sees our absence from technology entrepreneurship in Pennsylvania, where he oversees the investment activities for Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Pennsylvania, a State of Pennsylvania supported economic development corporation. Of the 120 companies in Ben Franklin’s portfolio, Hicks says none have black founders.

The Ecosystem

The bigger problem is that the members of the group — just like other black business people around the country — aren’t collaborating toward a goal of creating high growth businesses.

On the second day of the conference, men wearing suits and ties dominate the auditorium, with a smattering of equally dressed-up women, but socio-economic backgrounds vary. One woman wears a name tag identifying herself as a Goldman Sachs employee. Another man identifies himself as a college dropout who has had a house painting business. “We need those that have the education to mentor us,” he says. And yet another woman, Shahara Ahmad-Llewellyn — the former owner and vice chairman of the Philadelphia Coca Cola Bottling Company — was reported last year in The New York Times to be worth $170 million.

Some attendees have succeeded in starting high-tech businesses. Others have failed. Andres Montgomery, a former Microsoft employee and consultant and former CEO of Bookbyte, is raising money for his start-up Dreem Digital, a software company that builds apps for classrooms.


About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


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