A Day In The Life: Blacks At The Cutting Edge Of Innovation Every day until Dec. 20, African-American tech thinkers will live-tweet about their day and answer questions in a special Twitter series hosted by NPR's Tell Me More. Join the conversation at @TellMeMoreNPR or #NPRBlacksinTech.
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A Day In The Life: Blacks At The Cutting Edge Of Innovation

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A Day In The Life: Blacks At The Cutting Edge Of Innovation

A Day In The Life: Blacks At The Cutting Edge Of Innovation

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Finally today, this is the time of year when many students and parents are thinking about the future. Students are heading home for the holidays, they're finishing college applications or waiting for decisions. So we wanted to think about opportunity in the future. And for some time now, economists have been predicting that the STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and math - will provide a growing number of the jobs. At the same time, though, there is concern that people of color could be left behind. Today, we're going to drill down on one particular group.

According to a study by the National Science Foundation, African-Americans were just 5 percent of scientists and engineers working in those fields in 2010, even though blacks represent 12 percent of the U.S. population. And yet there are African-Americans making their mark in the industry, and we thought you should meet some of them.

In the coming days at TELL ME MORE, we'll turn to social media to hear from African-Americans in tech. Between Dec. 2nd and 20th, black tech thinkers from across the country will live tweet a day in their lives for us. They'll be using the hashtag #NPRblacksintech.

And today, we're going to jump-start the conversation. Freeman Hrabowski is the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. That school is a leader in graduating students of color in the STEM fields. Once again, that's science, technology, engineering and math. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: Thank you, Michel. Delighted to be here.

MARTIN: From New York, digital lifestyle expert and tech commentator Mario Armstrong. He'll be keeping an eye on social media channels around our Twitter series and reporting back with the highlights. Mario, welcome back to you. Thank you for joining us.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: Thanks for having me. Thanks so much. Dr. Hrabowski, good to hear your voice.

HRABOWSKI: Good to hear yours, Mario.

MARTIN: And in San Francisco, we are joined by Ayori Selassie. She is the cofounder and executive director of Pitch Mixer Entrepreneur Forum. That's a group that helps aspiring tech entrepreneurs pitch their ideas. Ayori, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

AYORI SELASSIE: Thank you. I'm very excited to be here with all these wonderful people.

MARTIN: So President Hrabowski, let me start with you. Stanford University recently hosted a number of historically black college officials to encourage more black students to engage around technology and in entrepreneurship. Why put the spotlight on this issue? Why does this matter?

HRABOWSKI: It matters because the population in our country is becoming increasingly diverse. We know that well before the midpoint of the century - something like 2040 quite frankly - we will no longer talk about minority and majority. We're talking about people of color representing at least 50 percent of the population. And there's so many jobs to be filled. And so we need ways of increasing the number of people from all races - men and women - who can succeed in these areas.

MARTIN: What do you see as some of the challenges in doing that? Why hasn't that happened to this point?

HRABOWSKI: Sure. Well, you know, I've spent the past 40 years teaching math and working in STEM areas. And I would say, number one, we need to increase the number of African-Americans and other students from all races who can succeed in school in general. I'm always surprised that people have not made the connection between reading and math and thinking and technology. And I would argue that the more we teach kids to read well and to want to be smart and the more we teach them how to solve math problems and give them experience and exposure to technology, the more kids will decide to go into STEM areas.

MARTIN: Mario, you've been on tour speaking to students across the country.


MARTIN: Your tour is called Dream, Create, Go! - what do you see as the biggest challenge facing black students in particular? We're focusing on that today.

ARMSTRONG: You know what's interesting? I see this huge appetite. Kids want to go into these fields. The problem that I see quite often is that there's a disconnect between connecting why they should pursue these fields and their passions. In other words, a lot of times, I see people wanting to push technology down kids throats and get them to try to fulfill these pipeline issues. Where I think if you take a different approach, which we do on our show, is we try to find out what are kids' passions?

And how do we tie - I call it STEAM 'cause we do add arts into this - STEAM - how do we tie that to their passions? Thereby giving them relevancy to wanting to learn math. If you want to become a video game programmer, you cannot do that if you don't understand trigonometry, geometry and the basics of laws of physics. So if you can tap into a child's passion, then you peel back the layers and find out what the STEM or STEAM is in those passions.

MARTIN: Ayori, what about you? As we mentioned, you're based in San Francisco and you help aspiring tech entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to experts. What do you see as - why aren't there more African-Americans in Silicon Valley?

SELASSIE: I think it's all social. I think it's all about community and how people gain exposure and how people gain support in those communities. So particularly in the Africa-American community, we've had - we've suffered from the digital divide for a long time. Now we see that closing with mobile devices and things of that nature, but that divide has affected our communities and our society until this point. And so parents are particularly unprepared to handle their children and to support their children in STEAM and STEM - STEM especially. And so we really need to address that social issue and help in that area.

MARTIN: Well, could you talk a little more about that, Ayori, because, you know, we were talking about swimming, for example, and we were talking to a famous, you know, Olympic swimmer who's African-American. And he was saying that because a lot of parents of color - black parents in particular - don't have exposure to swimming, they say they treat water like fire. Stay away from it. But that's not really the case with tech is it? I mean, these parents are not discouraging their kids from engaging with it. I mean - so where do you think the gap is? Is it just that they don't know - they don't know how to steer their kids? What do you think it is?

SELASSIE: Yeah. So I think that the parents don't discourage the children from going into STEM, but other areas do. Right? So, for example, if you look at the image of technology, if you look at the sciences - do you see African-Americans reflected there in highly visible areas and highly visible positions in the media? No, you don't. So that's an automatic discouragement. But then on the other side, with regard to encouragement, our parents don't generally encourage us to study these areas and say, you know what, you're really going to be great in this area and, by the way, here is how I'm going to support you. So we really need to support the parents and the families and give them that extra support so they know how to encourage them and they really feel supported in encouraging those students.

MARTIN: Professor Hrabowski?

HRABOWSKI: Right. You might be surprised to know, Michel, that a third of the students who go to college of all races, including African-Americans, go to college with an interest in majoring in STEM. So there is more interest than we know, that's number one. The problem is that most of the students, of all races, who go to college with an interest in STEM don't graduate in STEM. So there are two things to be done. Number one, to encourage more kids to know more about the possibilities. Mario's right, we need to be showing the connection between their passions and the technology. When we bring kids on campus from the city - from Baltimore - to our campus and they see students from 150 countries, including African-Americans, working in technology, really focused on the work - the kids get excited. They want to know about it.

They want to know what does it take to get to this point. So we can do that by exposing the children to the possibilities and by helping teachers. We have to give teachers more exposure so that they can know how you use geometry one day in engineering, for example. But secondly, we've got much more to do at the college level in supporting students of all races - including African-Americans - to ensure that those who come with an interest in those areas actually succeed in those areas.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are previewing our upcoming social media series - NPR blacks in tech. We are with Freeman Hrabowski, he's president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Ayori Selassie of Pitch Mixer and digital lifestyle expert Mario Armstrong. So let's - talking about supporting students - let's encourage the students who we know are already interested from Howard University Middle School. They've actually sent us some questions that they would like us to answer. Mario, you are our official hashtag-ologist. You know we made that up for the series. And you're going to observe conversations around the hashtag #NPRblacksintech on Twitter.

ARMSTRONG: That's right.

MARTIN: So let me just start with some of the questions. Here is one from a student named Miles. Here it is.

MILES: As a minority in America, why do you think it is so imperative to give back to the community and why do you think it's important to cooperate with other African-Americans to help other people?

MARTIN: Mario do you want to take that?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I just think that this is exactly what we're talking about, when people want to write off, if you will, kids' interest in really wanting to be positive, impact makers in their lives. This is a seventh-grade kid that's asking a very thought-provoking question. And he's trying to interpret and understand and get the resources and the steps to take. We have to take a more active role of embracing, picking up someone else's child to help them see a role model that they may have not seen before and answer these questions because it's all about - and Dr. Hrabowski will totally support this, and this is what he's all about - it's about problem solving.


ARMSTRONG: He's asking a question to solve a problem that he's dealing with. And if we can develop more problem solvers, we have more kids that we'll find into these disciplines.

MARTIN: I have a different - I have a different question for Dr. Hrabowski. So, Mario, I'm going to ask you - ask you, though, to focus on his specific point, though. Do you think there is some special obligation? Some people don't think there is. I mean, some people feel that this kind of focusing on different ethnic groups is polarizing and destructive.

ARMSTRONG: So look, I come from understanding that perspective as well as wanting to embrace a larger picture. So with that being said, you cannot leave behind - it is my obligation to make sure that I reach back - and in droves, not one or two. If I can impact one, that's great. If someone listening can impact one, that is phenomenal. But if we can impact many within our own culture, that is phenomenal. But I don't want to be exclusive to the broader impact and the broader culture. So, yes.

MARTIN: I am going to ask you to answer that, Dr. Hrabowski.

HRABOWSKI: I want to answer that. You know what I love about UMBC? Students of all races want to help children. And so I've got kids who are white, Asian-American and African-American working with Baltimore City kids. And what those children see is authenticity. I do want African-Americans to be interested in helping other students, including African-Americans, but I also want people to think about helping children. What happens is this - when those kids of any race see a student or any adult who cares, they connect to that person. And so I want to encourage us, in our country, to reach out to help these children - African-Americans, Hispanic, poor white kids and others. And it's amazing to me how children connect to authenticity.

MARTIN: Ayori, I have a question for you. This is from Xavier, who's another student at Howard University Middle School.

XAVIER: Do you have a portfolio in the stock market? And what made you want learn entrepreneurship?

MARTIN: Drilling right down into your business, Ayori.


SELASSIE: Oh, my God. That's awesome. I do have a portfolio in the stock market. And I've wanted to pursue entrepreneurship because independence is important to me. I wanted to ensure that I was able to provide support for not only my daughter, but also my nieces, my nephews, my grandchildren. And it's really important for us to leave an inheritance for our next generations, and that is our social responsibility. And we really need to really charge forward in fulfilling that. And in order to do that, we have to work together. We have to share. We have to share knowledge. We have to - we can't have those behind us have to do the same struggles that we faced. And so it is our social responsibility to help each other.

MARTIN: Well, yeah. In fact, people say, look, I don't mind that you struggle. I don't want you to struggle in the same way that I struggled. That's the whole kind of point, isn't it? And if you want to see more of these very incisive questions - and if you can even answer them, we'd appreciate it - from Howard University Middle School students, you can go to NPR.org. Go to NPR.org/TellMeMore. Ayori, you're going to be the first one tweeting a day in your life beginning on Monday for our NPR Blacks in Tech series. What do you - what are you hoping that this social media experiment will reveal?

SELASSIE: I'm hoping that black Twitter really just rises up. And that this message of technology really penetrates through all areas from using technology - especially our teenagers in high school and our middle schoolers, but also to parents who are on Twitter. We have a lot of mothers. We have a lot of fathers who are on Twitter doing, you know, fun things and joking around. But we really want this serious topic to get really deeply embedded into our culture. And the fiber of technology needs to be built into the fiber of our culture as African-Americans.

MARTIN: Mario, what about you? What do you hope will be revealed in this social media experiment?

ARMSTRONG: I hope that we reveal tons of role models that people will discover and find out. I hope that we reveal the amount of intellectual capital that not only our culture, but cultures in general, will have to share in this - in these specific disciplines. And I hope that through this Twitter series - which I think is just phenomenal - that it spills into off-line action. That's what I really hope, is that we can actually see something from these conversations and from these discussions and insightful things you'll be doing, that they actually spill into off-line action.

MARTIN: Professor Hrabowski - President Hrabowski...


MARTIN: ...What are you hoping will be revealed in this?

HRABOWSKI: You know, I think we need a much broader understanding of technology in our society. I have - I see English majors and philosophy majors on our campus who take some courses in technology. And they may be deciding to work in technology or not, but they are broad. And they are able to connect people who are the techies with those who are afraid of technology. What am I saying? That I don't want people to think, well, if you're not really good in computers, you shouldn't be involved with technology as you think about a major. I want people to be thinking about, broadly, the arts and humanities and social sciences as well as computer science or math or science because, quite frankly, they are more connected than you know.

And so I'd like for some of the students to hear from my students and even from some of my CEOs. We have CEO on our campus. We have 100 companies - biotech and IT companies. And some of them have CEOs - men and women - who are African-Americans. I'd love for them to hear from some of these people who are entrepreneurs. We have students who started a company last year, a tech company with an app, and just sold it and gave me some money. I like them to hear that. People like knowing you can make money with these things, right? But I do want them to understand that there's a connection between reading and thinking and math, the humanities and the arts and technology. We should not separate science and technology from the arts, humanities and social sciences.

MARTIN: Do you consider yourself a techie?

HRABOWSKI: No. No, I am a mathematician. I get goosebumps doing math. I love using the technology to help me in many, many ways. And we use data analysis and warehousing in my job. I couldn't do it without all of the data-driven, decision-making using technology. But, quite frankly, I also love reading novels. And I enjoy doing - reciting poetry. And I think it's important. I want my students who are in computer science to also enjoy literature.

MARTIN: Final question, you know, for you because I'm sure there are people who'll be listening to our conversation, and they hear these terms like STEM, which, once again, is science, technology, engineering and math. And they think, you know, I'm not good at - boy or girl, I mean, let's just leave the stereotypes alone. I'm not good at this. This really isn't for me. This is for somebody else.


MARTIN: Is there one thing you could tell somebody who feels that way...


MARTIN: ...Who's listening to our conversation...


MARTIN: ...That they should be thinking about?

HRABOWSKI: First of all, Common Core standards - we should be looking at the Common Core standards and ways in which all people will be taught - children, and as we move up the ladder, to read and think critically and to use technology because whether you're going to be a social scientist, for example, or you're working in the media, you're using technology more and more. So what I would say is we want people to be open-minded, to be willing to learn. To be educated across the board means a willingness to learn, to ask questions, to laugh about it all and most important, to find the life of the mind very important. That's what I want.

MARTIN: Well, thank you all so much for joining us to jumpstart this important conversation. Freeman Hrabowski is president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, with us from our studios in Washington. Digital lifestyle expert and tech commentator, Mario Armstrong, with us from our bureau in New York. Now Mario will be observing our hashtag ...


MARTIN: NPR Blacks in Tech and reporting on it on his blog.

HRABOWSKI: Mr. Hashtologist.

MARTIN: Hashtagologist.

HRABOWSKI: Couldn't even say it.

MARTIN: And from San Francisco and member station KQED, we are joined by Ayori Selassie of Pitch Mixer. Thanks to all of you for joining us. Keep your eyes on Twitter. Beginning Monday, follow our hashtag, #NPRBlacksinTech, as African-American tech leaders and entrepreneurs tweet a day in their lives. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Happy Thanksgiving. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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