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July 23, 2012 from KQED
If there is a founding ethos in the world of high-tech startups, it’s this: The idea is everything. Facebook’s initial public offering might have seemed like the perfect illustration. A simple concept, conceived by a college student, became a $100 billion empire in just 8 years.
But if you look around California’s Silicon Valley, ideas all seem to be coming from the same kinds of people. By a recent estimate, 1 percent of technology entrepreneurs are black. Only 8 percent of tech companies are founded by women. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg isn’t just a model of success in the Valley; he’s a blueprint.
A new three-week boot camp for entrepreneurs is aimed at adding more diversity to Silicon Valley’s startup scene.
Seizing Opportunities, From An Early Age
It may be safe to say that some people are just born entrepreneurs. Take Chris Lyons of Johns Creek, Ga., outside Atlanta. When he was 12, he started mowing lawns.
“I’d take my mom’s trash can and I would take my lawn mower,” he says. “And I would push my lawn mower 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.”
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.
“There’s no other choice,” he says. “Like, 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.”
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 three-week boot camp for startups called NewMe, for New Media Entrepreneurship.
Reporting To Camp
On the first day of the camp, Lyons is sitting in the living room of a San Francisco townhouse, along with six other entrepreneurs — all women or African-Americans, most of them in their early 20s.
NewME director Angela Benton presents them with bags of swag — sponsor-donated items like shirts, headphones and mobile tablets.
Everyone here came with business ideas. Lyons’ company is called PictureMenu, which he hopes will eliminate paper menus.
He’s thinking big.
“We’re trying to make this a worldwide mobile application,” Lyons says.
The idea behind the boot camp is that when it attracts people like Lyons to the area, it also helps nudge Silicon Valley toward diversity.
And that, says venture capitalist and consultant Freada Kapor Klein, is something the Valley badly needs.
“This isn’t about being bigots, this isn’t about who’s mean-spirited and who’s enlightened,” she says. “This is about how our brains are wired.”
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.
“We’re not even aware of that hurdle that we’ve put in the place of a different kind of entrepreneur,” she says.
Klein sees the NewME program as a two-way street because without diversity, the industry — and consumers — are missing out.
“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,” she says. “And I think that’s the real loss for everybody.”
Trouble With The Pipeline
One reason Silicon Valley is so homogenous is what’s called the pipeline issue. There just aren’t a lot of women, blacks and Latinos enrolling in science and engineering programs.
But there are subtler forces at work, too.
“No one’s gonna say, ‘I’m not gonna fund you cause you’re black,’ ” says Chris Bennett, a NewME alum who is now a working entrepreneur. “No one’s dumb enough to say that. But everyone will tell you that there is a bias.”
Working with attorney Nnena Ukuku, Bennett started a Bay Area group called Black Founders.
“I think for some people it’s sort of like a chicken-and-egg issue,” Ukuku says.
“They’ve never seen a successful black entrepreneur, so it’s hard for them to envision it. But then, they do exist … it’s just a mess.” READ MORE WATCH THE PITCHES