Putting The Spotlight On Blacks In Tech African-Americans are noticeably absent in Silicon Valley, and in tech firms around the country. So now, leaders from historically black colleges and universities are gathering at Stanford University to talk about changing that. Guest Host Celeste Headlee finds out more.

Putting The Spotlight On Blacks In Tech

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, you may know her as the daughter of legendary actress Phylicia Rashad, but now Condola Rashad is stepping into the spotlight herself. She talks about her starring role in the new Broadway production of "Romeo and Juliet" in a moment. But first, representatives from historically black colleges and universities are meeting this week to talk about African-Americans in the tech world.

According to a recent study by the National Science Foundation, black men and women made up 5 percent of scientists and engineers working in their field in 2010. We took to Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #NPRblacksintech to ask listeners about what African-American technologists they thought we should keep our eye on and what issues they might face. Here's what Maurice Cherry, who talks to black web developers and graphic designers on his podcast Revision Path, told us.

MAURICE CHERRY: In most of these types of industries where you have tech people working, they're really behind the scenes. And the ones that are out there and visible that might be speaking at conferences or representing the company are usually not people of color. So we're not necessarily visible. That's not saying that we're not there. We're just not seen. We're sort of behind the scenes, if you will.

HEADLEE: We wanted to find out more, so we called on Greg Greenlee. He's the founder of Blacks in Technology. That's a website and online community devoted to connecting African-Americans in the tech world. Also with us is Ayori Selassie. She's a strategic advisor at Blacks in Technology and also cofounder and executive director of Pitch Mixer Entrepreneur Forum. That's a group that helps aspiring tech entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to exports. And joining this program once again, Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans. Welcome, all of you.

GREG GREENLEE: Thanks, Celeste. Thanks for having me.


HEADLEE: I'm glad you guys are all there. You scared me there for a second. Let's begin with you, Greg. And, I mean, talk about blacks in technology and the need for it. Is there a reason why we should be concerned? You know, 5 percent is obviously a very low amount of African-Americans in the tech world. Do we have to be concerned about that?

GREENLEE: I think so. I think that as a whole, the technology sector should be concerned just because they're missing out on a increased pool of resources and talent. So if you don't - or if you're not trying to diversify your company or the tech field, you're missing out on a slew of people who have ideas, who have the talent and the skill level to actually - to, you know, increase technology as a whole.

HEADLEE: Well, Walter, where does this disparity come from? Are there not - I mean, you educate people all the time. Are people of African-American descent not going into tech? Are they not getting degrees in that, or are they having trouble once they get their degree getting a job?

KIMBROUGH: Well, I think that there are people that are going into the tech fields, and of course HBCUs are always producing a disproportionate number of those people. But just overall, you don't have enough people in the pipeline that are going - that are finishing high school, going to college and then entering into those fields. So, you know, it starts even before it gets to my level. We still have some major disparities in the K-12 pipeline to get them ready to enter college.

Once they get there, we're able to produce. But I think we're going to have to focus on that level, but people are interested. People of color are interested in doing very well, but we've got to really ramp up those numbers and make sure that more K-12 institutions are helping young people prepare so that when they enter college, they're able to then successfully navigate into those careers.

HEADLEE: OK, but, Walter, that's a - I mean, that's a major undertaking. I mean, colleges have had troubles in the past trying to at all venture into K-12 education or in any way, shape or form confront the idea of curriculum. How do you encourage kids in any particular field of study on the K-12 level?

KIMBROUGH: Well, it has to be, I think, a holistic approach. It can't just be one sector. It's difficult for higher education to try to mandate to K-12. And so I think conversations like this to make sure people are aware of some of these disparities - and we hear of that 5 percent figure, even though the nation is 12 percent African-American. We've got to have engaged communities to be a part of this.

So I think, from the higher-education perspective, we have to make sure people know that this is an issue, that we all can be engaged. But it's not something that I would say higher education is going to solve, but we can play a major role in increasing their awareness. But, I mean, we need state and local elected officials and the tech industry and everybody engaged in this situation.

HEADLEE: So, Greg, where do you begin this, especially with your group Blacks in Technology? Do you begin by reaching out to younger generations to try to get them in involved in tech, or do you support those who are already there?

GREENLEE: I think it's a combination of both. I think one of the things that's definitely needed is - and we've said it before - is more visibility for the people that are already doing magnificent things in the tech world. I think where Blacks in Technology fits in there is that we're trying to provide - that we are providing a platform for people of color that are already in the tech field. And we're giving them an outlet to engage each other, to network and also to be seen and be heard. We do podcasts. We have an online technology blog that represents, you know, African-Americans in technology. All the blogs are written by African-Americans in technology. So I think that, you know, the visibility part - to be able to see someone and to go to someone who looks like that person is definitely a great start.

HEADLEE: Well, let me bring you into this, Ayori Selassie. You're a strategic advisor at Blacks in Technology. I have to imagine that, especially for African-American women, this is a doubly difficult challenge. We've heard a lot about some of the alleged misogyny in the tech community. How do you strategically try to encourage African-American women especially?

AYORI SELASSIE: Oh, that's a great question. And, I mean, definitely we - you know, we have to really reach across, I think, the board in terms of engaging with as many organizations as we can. So I work with the Anita Borg Institute. We have a Black Women in Computing organization. I meet with, you know, women in technology - black women in technology through across the board, and, you know, we try and make sure that this is something that we're engaging at the level of, you know, families in the companies that we work for, and, you know, just across the board.

So, yeah, I mean, Black Girls Code is a great example, I think, of what black women in technology have been doing. Kimberly Bryant sort of set the stage, but she's got this force of volunteers that come and just do amazing things and work with these young kids.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about African-Americans in the world of technology. You just heard Ayori Selassie, product manager at Salesforce. Also with me, Greg Greenlee, founder of Blacks in Tech, and Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University. Let me ask both Greg and Ayori, if you could maybe give us an example - and let me begin with you, Ayori - maybe somebody that we haven't heard of that we should keep our eye on - an African-American in the tech world.

SELASSIE: Oh, definitely. I mean, there's a whole list. And, I mean, the thing that I think is important about what Greg has built at blacksintechnology.net is that, you know, we're constantly sort of putting names out there. So if you go onto that website today, you can find a bunch of names that I've mentioned. But one that I want to mention in particular is Jason Young and Kilimanjaro Robbs. And they're right here in Oakland. They started a program called the Hidden Genius Project. And this project works specifically with young black boys and teaching them how to code. But not just how to code, but also, you know, various different skills. And what they're doing is they're multiplying themselves and these young men. And it's just so wonderful to see what they're doing. I mean, it's, like, it gives me chills. So, I mean, definitely look out for those guys.

HEADLEE: And, Greg, you have an example of somebody we should keep our eye on?

GREENLEE: Like Ayori said, there's a lot of people that's registered on the site that are members of the community, but one in particular - and I'm bringing this person up because they just had a big technology leadership conference over this past weekend - is Andrew West. He's the founder of the National Black Information Technology Leadership Organization. And what - and their mission is - for their organization - is designed to support the goals of black technology leaders by equipping them with resources and professional development designed to strengthen and refine their skills in support of their larger vision. Him, along with Anjuan Simmons, along with Kai Dupe' are three African-American men who were giving talks at the NBITLO conference over the weekend. And actually, Anjuan just released a book. He just published a book, be called "Minority Tech."

HEADLEE: Well, let me go back to you, Walter, because we were talking earlier about encouraging kids in K-12 to study STEM sciences to get into tech. But this study from the National Science Foundation says underrepresented minorities - blacks, Hispanics and American Indians - are less likely than whites to attend college or graduate. So perhaps getting African-American kids into college at all is part of the challenge.

KIMBROUGH: Oh, definitely. It is part of the challenge, and then the other challenge on top of that is having the resources to complete college, as well. So that makes it just a very complex problem that I think a lot of institutions are really concerned about, particularly members of the HBCU community are working to remedy that - as well as in finding new avenues, such as this upcoming HBCU conference to talk about innovation at the institutions where we develop strategies so that HBCUs, in particular, can help faculty members develop practices and working with Silicon Valley so that we provide more opportunities for technology, which will hopefully then generate companies that can fund those institutions, as well as provide support for students. So I think there's some unique and exciting things that are happening there.

HEADLEE: All right. So let me do a quick response from all three of you on one particular question. You may have heard over the summer, Kanye West, the rapper, compared himself to Steve Jobs. I'm not going to ask you guys all to give me your opinion on whether that's a fair comparison, but let me ask you - and maybe begin with you, Greg - what do you think it'll take before we get an African-American who is in that type of visibility job, like a Steve Jobs, that kind of inspiring figure in tech?

GREENLEE: What would it take? That's a pretty good question. I think it's going to take - even before - we have to increase the visibility of blacks in tech because there are people out there right now that are doing amazing and creating amazing technologies within the tech world who are African-American. So it's really more about creating that avenue, creating that - giving them a platform to be able to be seen and to be heard so that we know exactly what these people are working on. I can't remember - maybe Ayori can remember this guy's name from Bitcasa. You know, he's a CEO of Bitcasa, which is, you know, a company that's similar to Drop Box, and he created this, you know, entire platform around that. And, you know, people like that is who needs the spotlight.

HEADLEE: OK, well, let me take that to Ayori then.


HEADLEE: It sounds like Greg is saying that there are these kind of figures out. We just need to give them the opportunity to shine. Ayori, what do you think?

SELASSIE: Yeah, I think the - cultural exchange is really important. And I think that we have folks who are doing wonderful things, and we just need more. And the only way that we're going to be able to do that is to facilitate cultural exchange between areas and regions like Silicon Valley with areas like Detroit, Brooklyn, Oakland, California. And we create those things by building communities and sharing resources and making friendships sort of across these communities, and, I mean, deep friendships. So, you know, you can't just - it doesn't just come out of nowhere.


SELASSIE: Technology is created by people. And what I really love about sort of the urban centers and what we're talking about when we say the value of diversity and what it brings to innovation, is we're talking about young people with fresh ideas, fresh mindsets. And once you enable and then equip them with technology, they're going to apply that to different things, and that's where you're going to get the Steve Jobs coming from. That's where you're going to get these widely new innovative ideas that are going to break the traditions that we're used to today. That's what innovation is.

HEADLEE: Yeah. All right. Well, Walter, you've got about 90 seconds. I hate to do that to you. But, you know, we've all heard these stories about tech people saying - becoming really famous, but they never finished college. I'm sure you've heard those stories.

KIMBROUGH: Right. Right. Exactly.

HEADLEE: So give me the pitch for the next Steve Jobs to go to Dillard and actually finish that degree.

KIMBROUGH: Well, I think those persons, as you heard, our two content experts say that those persons exist. And so I think as our country continues to become more diverse, we're going to have to have different people with different experiences lifted up as these heroes for technology. And so, you know, I'm waiting for that person to have their Sheryl Sandberg moment - that they come out and then everyone's raving about this person from, you know, an African-American background who is now this technology wizard. So I think...

HEADLEE: Sheryl Sandberg who wrote the book "Lean In."


HEADLEE: Just to remind our listeners. Go ahead.

KIMBROUGH: So I think those persons do exist. And I think that - particularly, some of the work that HBCUs are doing - we will generate those people. We're connecting with the urban centers, as I already mentioned that. That's what we do best, and so we will be a pipeline for those persons. But, you know, I agree with both of the guests that those persons are there. We just need to put the spotlight on them.

HEADLEE: So your answer, Walter, is that our African-American Steve Jobs or Sheryl Sandberg is already out there somewhere.

KIMBROUGH: They're there. I believe that in my heart. That person is there, but someone has to say, I'm going to lift this person up to really bring in a diverse group of people to inspire people in technologies. So I'm sorry to Kanye - it won't be him - but there is someone out there.

HEADLEE: He's got other stuff going on.


HEADLEE: Ayori, do we already have, out there, somewhere, our version - our African-American version of Steve Jobs?

SELASSIE: Yes. Absolutely, we do. But guess what? We're not going to see the development in that African-American Steve Jobs if he's not being mentored. You know, Steve Jobs was mentored by, you know, a lot of amazing people including, you know, one of the CEOs of Intel and all sorts of other people. And what they do is they get in there, they work with you, they help you through these challenges and they share their network. They sponsor you, and they support you. And that's what we have to have. That's why that cross-cultural exchange is so important because if we don't start integrating, you know, and having real, you know, diversity and different people involved in our friendships and our relationships and in our companies, then we're not going to have that mentorship that we need that crosses the racial lines.

HEADLEE: That's Ayori Selassie. She's cofounder and executive director of Pitch Mixer Entrepreneur Forum based in Oakland, California and a strategic advisor for Blacks in Tech. She joined us from a studio in San Francisco, California. Greg Greenlee is the founder of Blacks in Tech. It's a website dedicated to connecting African-Americans in the tech world. He joined us from member station WVXU in Cincinnati, Ohio. And we also heard from Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University. He joined us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Thank you all for joining us.


GREENLEE: Thank you.

SELASSIE: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Don't forget, we're looking for you to hook us up with more prominent African-Americans in the world of tech. Use the hashtag #NPRblacksintech on Twitter.

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