Women Breaking Firewall To U.S. Tech Capital

Silicon Valley is largely seen as dominated by white men. Host Michel Martin speaks with two African-American women who broke the mold: Angela Benton, founder and CEO of Black Web Media, and LaToya Drake, digital correspondent for AOL.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to switch gears now to focus on technology. $1.25 billion. That's the estimated total in online spending on Cyber Monday, a record. And you've probably noticed yourself how much technology affects nearly every facet of your daily life, whether it's checking email on your iPhone, keeping track of your finances on a laptop or streaming your Netflix through a video game console at home.

But just who's capitalizing as technology and the Internet revolution continue to boom? Silicon Valley, the nation's hub for technology, is largely seen as an industry dominated by white males and, according to the firm, CB Insights, only about one percent of Internet startups headed by African-Americans received funding for venture capitalists in the first half of 2010. That's compared to a whopping 87 percent of Internet startups started by whites.

So, today, we decided to invite two people to talk about the challenge of working in the technology field. Joining us to talk about this are LaToya Drake. She's a digital correspondent for AOL. She's also an adjunct professor of marketing, advertising and public relations at NYU.

Also with us, Angela Benton. She's the founder and CEO of Black Web Media. Her company produces Black Web 2.0, which aims to attract and connect African-American innovators and consumers on Web. She was also featured in CNN's most recent documentary from Soledad O'Brien. It was called "Black in America: The New Promised Land - Silicon Valley."

Ladies, welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

LATOYA DRAKE: Thanks for having...

ANGELA BENTON: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: I'm very interested. You know, the CNN documentary got a lot of attention, in part, because it explored this whole question of why it is that African-Americans have not been as present on the business side of the Internet boom.

One of the things that unfolded is that African-Americans have difficulty getting past the firewall. So why is that? You know, what is your take on this, based on your firsthand experience here?

BENTON: Sure. Well, it's a couple of different things for African-Americans and really for minorities, you know, in general. And one big thing is mentorship, so when you look around, I mean, honestly, even if you look at your family, you know, my sister understands what I do, but my brother, you know, not so much. So when you look at mentorship and role models, you know, those aren't really that prevalent, so that's kind of the first thing.

The second thing is, when people choose an industry, if you choose to be in media or publishing or fashion, then, you know, New York's an obvious choice. And if you choose to be an actor, LA's an obvious choice. And Silicon Valley really is that hub for technology and so to be here and to network because a lot of the business that's being done here - it's who you know and who you get referred to. So you really have to be infused into the network to benefit from it.

MARTIN: LaToya, what's your take on it?

DRAKE: You know what? I have to piggyback off what Angela is saying in terms of networking and who you know. And from my perspective and simply what I observe every day, it's the types of people who get hired and are brought into a company. In many cases, it's because they know someone on the inside and that's not to say that they were unfairly selected, but when you have - I work, for instance, with stars, very high quality talent, so they know other high quality talent. So if you don't know the right people, I think, more than anything, it will need to go beyond simply blindly applying for that job on a jobsite. I think that's one of the things that hinders people who are interested in breaking into this business: simply not knowing the right people.

MARTIN: We're talking about women and minorities in technology in the wake of a record Cyber Monday, which reminded all of us of how the role of technology plays in our lives in this point in our history right now. We're talking with Angela Benton, the CEO and founder of Black Web Media and LaToya Drake, a digital correspondent for AOL.

All right. Angela, here's a tough question. Is there a skills gap?

BENTON: Well, if you look at all the data, you know, there is obviously a pipeline issue. There aren't many minorities graduating with STEM degrees. However...

MARTIN: STEM being?

BENTON: Science, technology, math, engineering degrees. But everyone wants to put a lot of focus on that, like, sure, I agree with that. There aren't many minorities with STEM degrees, but if you look at the technology industry, there are so many people with finance degrees, business degrees and they've taught themselves, you know, how to code. So the barrier to entry is quite low and so, yes, there's a pipeline issue, but you know, no, that's not the only issue.

MARTIN: LaToya, what's your take on it?

DRAKE: I certainly don't think that a particular degree is necessary and I think this just because, in reading something like the Steve Jobs book and you see his background and what was so key for him is being at that intersection of the humanities and technology. There has to be a passion.

I think, if this is something that you do naturally and you don't think twice about the use of technology in your life, for instance, if you have an iPad and you're naturally curious about the apps that pop up or the ads that pop up when you're in a particular app and you're curious about what's the next step. How did that get there? Or if you're in a store scanning a QR code because you want to know where is this taking me on my smartphone?

It's that type of passion that can take you to the next step and I think it is key to merchandise those types of passions and I think, if a person doesn't have a particular degree, merchandising those passions can get you to the next level.

MARTIN: I'm wondering, though, whether - you talked about the pipeline issue. I asked about the skills gap, if there was one, indeed. But I'm wondering if there isn't a risk gap. For example, Angela, I'm thinking about a story that you told where you were speaking at Howard University, a pre-eminent historically black university, and a student approached you about wanting to pursue a career as an Internet innovator, but said his family wasn't supportive because he said his family had sacrificed so much to get him to this point that they were afraid he would lose it all. They thought of it as kind of a crap shoot.

BENTON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So they really were kind of pushing him to do something safe, you know, that they understood.

BENTON: Right.

MARTIN: And I'm wondering if that isn't part of the attitude that the people who do have the skills set and the appetite and the desire - perhaps that there's a culturation, you know, the feeling is that we just can't risk it.

BENTON: Absolutely. I mean, and you know, while the work that I do focuses on African-Americans women and Latinos, generally, black culture is risk-aversed, so we tend to do the safer things and especially as it relates to going to college and then getting a good job and then rising up the corporate ladder.

Being an entrepreneur and being a technology entrepreneur is something that is really, really risky. The skills gap is one thing and the risk gap is another thing.

MARTIN: LaToya, before we let you go, just a final thought from you. Why does it matter that Silicon Valley be more diverse than it is? I mean, people might be listening to this conversation and say, oh, that's too bad for them. That's too bad that there aren't more minorities and women involved in technology, but I love my iPad. I love my iPhone. I love my Android. Why does this matter?

DRAKE: It matters because we want to see what I'm passionate about reflected on these apps. I want to be able to engage the content and apps that I enjoy and that I understand. And who's developing those? Who speaks my language? Who understands my cultural background? So you want to see people developing for your interest set.

Certainly, we carry many of them around in our purses every day, but there's a part of the business that can be tapped into from the minority perspective and I think that is developing content that we are all interested in, that we want to engage with.

MARTIN: LaToya Drake is a digital correspondent for AOL. She's also an adjunct professor of marketing, advertising and public relations at NYU. She joined us from our New York studios.

Angela Benton is the founder and CEO of Black Web Media. Her company produces Black Web 2.0, which aims to attract and connect African-American innovators and consumers on the web. She was with us from member station KCSM in San Mateo, California.

Thank you both so much.

DRAKE: Thanks for having me.

BENTON: A pleasure to be here.

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