STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
People in the world of high-tech start-ups tell each other this: the idea is everything. Take Facebook - simple concept conceived by a college student became a $100 billion empire in just eight years. But if you look around California's Silicon Valley, the ideas seem to be coming from the same types of people. By one recent estimate, one percent of technology entrepreneurs are African-American. Only eight percent of companies are founded by women. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is not just a model of success in the Valley, he is a blueprint. In the first of a three-part series, KQED's Amy Standen reports on one effort to change the face of Silicon Valley.
AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: It may be safe to say that some people are just born entrepreneurs. Take Chris Lyons. He's from Johns Creek, Georgia, outside Atlanta, and when he was 12, he started mowing lawns.
CHRIS LYONS: I'd take my mom's trash can and I would take my lawnmower. And I would push my lawnmower up and down the hill with one hand, and carry the rolling trash can for the other. I had over 30 lawns in my neighborhood. Then I bought a John Deere tractor.
STANDEN: Now, someone like that isn't going to stay in John's Creek forever. By the time he was 25, Lyons had set his sights on Silicon Valley.
LYONS: There's no other choice. Like, I want to go out, I want to be in an area that nurtures strong-willed, forward-thinking individuals. And there's no better place than Silicon Valley or San Francisco.
STANDEN: The thing is, when you look at Silicon Valley, especially at people who are starting businesses, they don't typically look like Chris Lyons, who is black. And that is the whole point of the this boot camp for startups called NewME, which stands for New Media Entrepreneurship.
LYONS: Yeah, this morning was the first official day.
STANDEN: Lyons is sitting in the living room of a San Francisco townhouse, along with six other entrepreneurs - all of them women or African-Americans, most in their early 20s.
ANGELA BENTON: So these are gifts from our sponsors.
STANDEN: NewME director Angela Benton is presenting them with bags of swag.
BENTON: Kind of go through there. There's, like, a polo shirt...
STANDEN: Bose headphones, a Samsung tablet - it's like Christmas.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)
STANDEN: Everyone here came with a business idea. Chris Lyons' company is called PictureMenu.
LYONS: So my goal is really to eliminate paper menus.
STANDEN: He's thinking big.
LYONS: We're trying to make this a worldwide mobile application.
STANDEN: The idea is that just getting people like Lyons here helps nudge Silicon Valley toward diversity, which, says venture capitalist and consultant Freada Kapor Klein, the Valley badly needs.
FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: This isn't about being bigots, this isn't about who's mean-spirited and who's enlightened. This is about how our brains are wired.
STANDEN: Klein says it's human nature. People tend to help people who look like them and who come from similar backgrounds. It's largely subconscious.
KLEIN: We're not even aware of that hurdle that we've put in the place of a different kind of entrepreneur.
STANDEN: She says the NewME program as a two-way street, because without diversity, the industry - and the rest of us - are missing out.
KLEIN: If we've got a very insular world, then the kinds of companies that are created - most scratch the itch of a particular set of people and ignore everyone else. And I think that's the real loss for everybody.
STANDEN: One reason Silicon Valley is so homogenous is what's called the pipeline issue. There just aren't a lot of women, African-Americans and Latinos enrolling in science and engineering programs. But there are subtler forces at work too.
CHRIS BENNETT: No one's going to say I'm not going to fund you 'cause you're black.
STANDEN: That's Chris Bennett, a NewME alum who is now a working entrepreneur. Along with attorney Nnena Ukuku, he started a Bay Area group called Black Founders.
BENNETT: No one's dumb enough to say that, but everyone will tell you that there is a bias.
NNENA UKUKU: And I think for some people it's sort of like a, I don't know, like a chicken-and-egg issue.
STANDEN: Nnena Ukuku.
UKUKU: They've never seen a successful black entrepreneur, so it's hard for them to envision it. But then, you know, but they do exist. It's just - it's a mess.
STANDEN: A mess because tangled up in all of this are the roadblocks that women and people of color often put in front of themselves. Take, for example, two NewME participants, named Rachel Brooks and Amanda McClure. One day, I asked them why instead of NewME they hadn't applied to a different, more established program, one that wasn't based on race or gender. And when I asked them this, they seemed kind of stumped.
RACHEL BROOKS: I don't know, maybe it just felt a little out of reach.
AMANDA MCCLURE: Definitely.
BROOKS: Maybe that's what it was.
MCCLURE: It wasn't in my realm of conception, you know?
UKUKU: That's a much deeper issue.
STANDEN: Again, Nnena Ukuku, and she's laughing because she hears this all the time. It's a mindset, she says, that people have to be brilliant, at the top of their game, to even take a stab at Silicon Valley success.
UKUKU: And the people that sort of have that tendency to say that tend to be women and minorities. Whereas I'll talk to some of my friends who I adore, who don't fit into one of those two buckets, and they're like: I got an idea, I'm going for it.
STANDEN: She says she recognizes this confidence because she's seen it among her own relatives back in Nigeria.
UKUKU: They're the majority in that culture. There's just - there's an assumption that you will, like why would you not succeed?
STANDEN: That confidence of belonging is exactly what the NewME participants are trying to cultivate on day two of the program.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
STANDEN: They're at the Google headquarters in Mountain View. And guess what? It's exactly the dotcom fantasy that everyone imagined it would be. Chris Lyons sounds giddy.
LYONS: I just walked outside, and they're playing pool and drinking coffee. And I saw a yoga session when we walked in here. But...
STANDEN: But he's is nervous too. Tonight is a bit of an initiation: an "American Idol"-style pitch session.
NAVARROW WRIGHT: Welcome, everybody. OK, you have free alcohol. I said welcome, everybody.
STANDEN: Emceeing is Navarrow Wright, an established entrepreneur in the Valley.
WRIGHT: What we're going to do tonight is give the NewME founders an opportunity to pitch their companies for the first time in public. They will have two minutes to pitch their startup, and we will each have one minute to give feedback.
STANDEN: When it's his turn, Chris Lyons walks up to the lectern and flashes a winning smile at the audience.
LYONS: How's everyone doing today? Good, good. Well, my name is Chris Lyons and I am the CEO and founder of PictureMenu.
STANDEN: He starts out pretty strong.
LYONS: And what we do is we allow any restaurant the opportunity to transform your boring paper menu into beautiful mobile applications for your smartphone, for free.
STANDEN: But after that, it gets a little muddy.
LYONS: Kind of similar to how if you had your own car and you want to upgrade your car with tint or rims...
STANDEN: He wraps up, then the critique begins. Chris Genteel from Google is one of the judges.
CHRIS GENTEEL: It was a great first half of the pitch and then second half kind of went off the rails.
STANDEN: As Genteel goes on, Lyons' face falls a bit.
GENTEEL: I think you gave me a lot of ideas in the beginning and then confused me with a lot of kind of features.
STANDEN: For Chris and the others, it's just a starting point. They've got three months of training ahead of them. And these pitches, they're going to need some work. More on that tomorrow. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.