They thought they were there just attending a welcome event at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. In reality the group of Black tech entrepreneurs was in for a stressful but life-changing opportunity: the chance to pitch their idea to some of Silicon Valley’s best minds.

Unfortunately, as the feedback showed, they weren’t really ready.

I don’t know who your customer is. There were things you said that got me a little more lukewarm. You didn’t tell me a thing about what your business plan was. Don’t ever give vague numbers. I don’t know what you’ve built.

This moment in the dragon’s den comes as a rude awakening for the characters in CNN’s fourth installment of  “Black In America.” This time the documentary series deals with the struggles of African-Americans to start companies in Silicon Valley. Census figures show cities with big tech companies have small Black populations: 3% in Mountain View, 2.4% in Palo Alto, 0.9% in Cupertino.

“What’s the future of America,” asks Soledad O’Brien, CNN’s special correspondent for the “In America” series, “if there’s an area that’s the engine of growth for the American economy, and Black people are left out of it? What’s at risk there?”

Reporting this special brought some controversy O’Brien’s way even before the show aired. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington fired off a heated blog post (WARNING: strong language) about his interview for the documentary, in which he said he didn’t know one black tech entrepreneur. Arrington felt CNN ambushed him by hiding the true topic of the interview and by omitting amendments he made to his original statement.

O’Brien responded with a post of her own, writing that what Arrington said, though perhaps uncomfortable, is also accurate.

“I don’t think he’s being a racist. I think he’s being very honest and very blunt, and very factual, and very realistic. There are not very many. Hence, our documentary.

“I think a lot of the controversy was kind of just people around it sort of whipping it up into a frenzy.”

The lack of Black-owned tech startups is certainly not due to a lack of entrepreneurial spirit: the Census shows Blacks are starting businesses at triple the national rate. Still, less than four percent of all businesses in the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont area are Black-owned. Statistics for the San Jose area are incomplete, and figures on the number of Black-owned tech companies are hard to come by.

President Obama held an event at the White House Wednesday to promote his policies for African-Americans, including helping entrepreneurs find capital. Those policies, however, as documented by his administration, do not specifically mention high-tech startups or tech entrepreneurship.

It’s a thorny topic, but not one O’Brien shies away from. In fact, this Black-Cuban-Australian woman with a white husband and four multiracial children says it’s right up her alley.

“I feel like I’ve been talking about race my whole life. I really enjoy it. … I welcome those conversations, and I welcome debate. If it’s respectful, and sometimes even if it’s not…”

“The New Promised Land – Silicon Valley” airs Sunday, November 13 at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Pacific on CNN. Watch the trailer:

CNN’s “Black In America” Explores Silicon Valley’s Black Tech Entrepreneurs 10 November,2011Joshua Johnson


Joshua Johnson

Joshua Johnson is the creator and host of Truth Be Told, a special series on race from KQED and PRI. Prior to creating the show, he served as the station’s morning news anchor for five-and-half years.

Prior to joining KQED, Joshua spent six years as an anchor/reporter for WLRN Miami Herald News. He’s a native of South Florida, with degrees from the University of Miami. His reporting and newscasting have won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association and from the National Association of Black Journalists. Joshua is also active in his union, SAG-AFTRA. He lives in San Francisco.

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