This article by Startup Institute alumna Malaika Nicholas first appeared on The Whiteboard.
In college, I was in a predominantly white sorority and often invited to hang out at frat parties on the weekends. Regardless of which letters were nailed on the front of the house, I always walked into the party and asked myself, Why in the world am I even here?
I would walk into a house, surrounded mostly by white and Asian men, and of course, the one token black or Hispanic guy, all wearing the same button-down shirt, colored cargo shorts, and boat shoes combo. I knew some of them as captains of sports teams, Presidents of student groups, and 4.0 students on the Dean’s List every year. There would be pool tables, foosball, beer pong fueled by a free-flowing keg, EDM music blasting out of the speakers and, if you listened closely, you could hear the brothers of the fraternity chant their favorite tune: Chug! Chug! Chug! Yeah! Woo!
Looking around, I would gradually start to notice that this party wasn’t very inclusive, although my peers would invite me to join the fun festivities.
This is how many black and Hispanic women feel in white, male-dominated industries, especially the tech industry; as a diversity initiative, we’re always encouraged to join the party, but the party isn’t accommodating of everyone’s unique interests, background, and personalities. Welcome to the Silicon Valley culture—established and maintained by “brogrammers.”
Rebecca Greenfield from The Wire defines “brogrammers” as typically white or Asian men who—
‘Write code in between pushups,’ they love beer and partying, they have the classic frat-bro aesthetic—spiky hair, sunglasses (usually aviators) inside (while coding), polo shirts and hoodies—and they employ bro-speak, throwing terms like ‘dude’ around all over the place.
Believe it or not, many of these men are currently dominating the tech industry. According to workplace diversity statistics in a PBS report, 71 percent of employees at leading tech firms are men and 29 percent are women. Of these employees, 60 percent identify as white, 23 percent Asian, 8 percent Latino, and 7 percent black.
Yes, these numbers are bleak; black women in tech are too few and far between. But, if you’re a black woman interested in entrepreneurship, emerging technology, or investing, or are looking for a unique way to leave a mark on the world, here are four reasons why you should still consider pursuing a career in the bro-breeding tech world:
I believe that if I ever want to improve my skills in any field, then I should surround myself with people more knowledgeable and experienced than me. That’s exactly what you’ll find in the tech industry. You’ll meet everyone from Harvard graduates to college dropouts, programmers with 10+ years of coding experience to self-taught developers, CEOs with PhDs, and startup founders with only a Bachelor’s degree. Everyone in the tech industry is interested in lifelong learning and sharing their knowledge with their peers. More importantly, unlike many corporate enterprises, you’ll feel like you’re part of a community—striving to create something that will make the world a better place. If you want to be surrounded by brilliant, motivated, like-minded people, the tech industry is where it’s at.
In corporate America, and as a black woman, it’s extremely difficult to climb the corporate ladder. To illustrate this reality, US Senator Bob Menendez published his 2014 Corporate Diversity Survey, which found that women of color represent only 4.2% of corporate boards (41 companies do not have a single woman of color director) and only 2.7% of executive team members (49 companies do not have a single woman of color on their executive team).
However, we can see similarly poor diversity in tech as well. For example, according to LinkedIn’s 2015 EEO report, only 23 of their 3,300 employees were African American women and none of them held executive, senior official, or senior management positions. Another example—Google‘s 2014 EEO report revealed that Google employs only 250 black women out of a workforce of over 32,500. In addition, black women held only 60 first/mid-official or managerial roles, compared to 1,622 of white women in similar roles. Sadly, there were no black women in an executive, senior official, or senior management positions at Google.
But these numbers absolutely do not mean that the STEM industry isn’t ready for a black woman to join its executive ranks. In order for us to change these numbers, we need more women of color who are willing to push and challenge the status quo, because representation matters! Many black women are hesitant to even enter the frat-bro tech industry because we rarely see successful black women as tech executives, board members, CEOs, CTOs, or founders. I’m committed to changing these numbers, but I’ll need your help in order to accomplish this feat.
As a black woman in tech, you’ll bring a fresh perspective to the company. For example, I’m the only coworker in my company who grew up in a Caribbean and African household in a middle-class black neighborhood. One Friday, my CEO allowed me to buy Caribbean jerk chicken and brisket for my office’s weekly family lunch, and they absolutely loved it. It felt amazing to share something unique to my culture and to see my coworkers from many different backgrounds appreciate it.
This is the same perspective that helps me understand that black people are not a monolith: we have different interests, different tastes in music, different social media platforms we’re active on, etc. Essentially, this translates to me being able to write content and market a product to different audiences and personas.
Your culture, background, skills and talents, passions, interests, and everything else in between that make can help a startup reach new users or audiences.
Tech culture values employees who take ownership, responsibility, and risks to accomplish their goals. There is no other industry in the world that will allow you to have an idea, and then will give you the tools and resources to make that idea a reality in the same way that tech will. If we want to add more black women to our ranks, if we want to see more black co-founders and CTOs, if we want to change the frat-bro tech culture to be more diverse and inclusive, let’s start by changing the industry from the inside out.
Are you a black woman considering a career in the tech industry? At Startup Institute, we recently launched new inclusion scholarships to support representation in the innovation sector. Download our Program Guide to learn more about our course options.