Howard University (NDinDC / Flickr)
Howard University, one of 17 schools that attended an innovation summit in Silicon Valley this week. (NDinDC / Flickr)

Business is not just about what you know, but who you know. In Silicon Valley, closing a deal is also about who you like and who you trust. Historically black colleges and universities have struggled to build those familiar, trusting relationships with tech firms, but the United Negro College Fund is helping change that. This week officials from 17 schools came to Palo Alto for a four-day Innovation Summit in hopes of laying new foundations for their graduates’ careers.

According to UNCF, African-Americans get 21 percent of their science, technology, engineering and math degrees from historically black colleges and universities (better known as HBCUs). These institutions, however, are only 4 percent of the nation’s colleges, and none of them is in California. So it’s easy to see why Berkeley and Stanford alumni have a geographic advantage in getting internships, jobs and startup funding. The summit was the first step in starting conversations that will broaden that advantage to populations that haven’t typically had it.

“If you just allow the market to take shape as it would, you’ll tend to go and find people that you’re most familiar with,” said College Fund senior vice president Karl Reid. “What these conversations do is… foster the kind of relationships that are necessary for the HBCU community… to make the connections with these kinds of innovative environments.”

It’s hard to say exactly how many African-Americans, Hispanics and other people of color work in Silicon Valley. Some of the largest companies have solidly resisted efforts to get their demographic data. There are a number of black HBCU graduates leading major tech firms, including Symantec’s former CEO John Thompson (he went to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla.) and Art George, a senior VP at Texas Instruments (he attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.). Some executives are reaching out on their own, including Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg. She launched her women’s business initiative “Lean In” at Howard University, a school in Washington D.C. often referred to as the “Black Harvard.” HBCU graduates take pride in the collegiate experience they get: a transformational education that instills a connection to history and a duty to serve.

“There is not only the intellectual development,” said Reid, “but the sense of who they are and a sense of purpose that comes in. Almost a calling, a belief that they’ve gotta ‘lift as they climb’.”

UNCF officials did not suggest outright racism in the lack of African-American high-tech leadership, and they did not attempt to lay blame on anyone for the current state of affairs. Attendees focused on building a new network among themselves for what they called ICE: Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship. The goal is to help HBCU students (African-American and not) and faculty turn their innovations into businesses. Sessions involved meet-and-greets with tech industry leaders, panels for sharing best practices, a reception at Facebook in Menlo Park, crash courses in how Silicon Valley does business and a visit to Stanford’s, a design institute that teaches the problem-solving method known as “design thinking.”

The summit is part of a larger initiative in the coming years, and if the partnership works as intended, the complexion of the tech sector could start looking a lot more like the nation of consumers it serves. That might also make good business sense, too: African-Americans and Hispanics are prolific users of consumer technology, especially social media.

“The next Google, the next Facebook, the next Twitter lies in the heads of kids and youth that may or may not look like the majority of folks (in Silicon Valley),” said Chad Womack, who leads the College Fund’s Merck Science Initiative. “But that’s okay. Because ultimately we want an inclusive economy and an economy that grows where all boats are lifted, not just one boat or another.”

Listen to reporter Joshua Johnson’s interview with United Negro College Fund’s senior vice president Karl Reid here:

Historically Black Colleges Build New Partnerships In Silicon Valley 1 November,2013Joshua 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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