Editor’s note: CNN’s upcoming documentary, Black in America 4, has sparked a heated discussion about race in the tech industry. VentureBeat has asked several black entrepreneurs to contribute their opinions prior to the airing of the show on Sunday November 13. Read the rest of VentureBeat’s stories on diversity in tech.
I just saw a trailer and a clip for the upcoming CNN special, “Black In America.” In this clip I couldn’t help but notice that Michael Arrington was making some wild statements. Money Mike said “I don’t know a single black entrepreneur.” Then the interviewer prodded him with the statement, “and you are in the industry, what does that say?” He replied, “That means there aren’t any.”
Huh, I thought. I am not a unicorn. I exist.
My first thought was this is Michael Arrington, Eminem of the tech world. He’s a man who uses shock to create publicity. But then I thought about the deeper issue. Maybe Arrington was just being honest. In “Flatland” it’s very difficult to grasp the idea of a sphere. When the people you surround yourself with have never really extended themselves past their own dimension, it is easy to be very naive in your thinking. It’s far easier to say something doesn’t exist just because you’ve never come in contact with it.
It’s not just a black thing either: It’s really about access.
In the south, or Mid-South as some of us call Kentucky, where I live, there is what many people call the “good ol’ boy network.” The good ol’ boy network is getting older and dying off, but there is a new network that seems to have taken its place. In my hometown, there are gatekeepers you must go through before pitching to the local angel investor club.
At one of our first meetings with these gatekeepers (who all happen to be white men), the advice given to us was we may want to let someone else take the lead when speaking to investors. Someone who is more like Dick Cheney. My first thought was, you want us to get some old white man who shoots his buddy in the face while hunting? He went on to explain that we needed someone more like Obama.
Then I realized what he meant: He would rather I not be myself. The same me who has won oratorical contests in the past. The same me who taught little old ladies how to use Photoshop at our public library. We needed someone who wasn’t as passionate. Someone who wasn’t as disruptive.
Needless to say we didn’t go looking for Barack OCheney. We decided to be us, the whole us and nothing less.
Which leads me to the main reasons many tech leaders in Silicon Valley don’t know about black entrepreneurs: access and opportunity. When the gatekeepers think you should change your appearance, your voice, and your actions to fit a mold, it becomes difficult to convince them there are other dimensions they are missing out on.
If the black entrepreneurs dress, sound and act differently to fit in the “White and Asian world,” as Arrington states in the trailer, then how would they ever believe there are totally new dimensions? If the gatekeepers are looking for chameleons, they will miss all the other wonderful species in the rain forest.
But you know what? These are not excuses. They are just realities. It’s like growing up with a family member who is addicted to drugs: You love them but you know not to leave your wallet out around them. You learn to play within the rules, even if those rules seem unfair.
There are some rules to being a black entrepreneur as well.
- Hustle, hustle, hustle hard.
- Let yourself be known. (My mantra is: Stand on your water cooler.)
- Create your own network. Stop looking at what you don’t have and focus on what you do.
- Treat people right.
- Be candid.
- See opportunity in obstacles. Create solutions.
- Make dope products.
- Fail, fail, fail, succeed.
- Be Yourself, because there are already enough chameleons.
- NEVER QUIT.
It may be a little bit harder as a minority, but “hard” has never meant “impossible.” I will get a meeting with the best venture capitalists in the land when it’s time. And if we have to pitch 999 times, we will land at least one. Because we are a great team, with a new disruptive product.
So without further ado allow me to introduce myself.
My name is Lamar Wilson. I am a black entrepreneur. I bought my first duplex at 22. I bought two Cold Stone Creamery franchises at 25, after first starting as a $6 an hour crew member. My parents are not independently wealthy, nor did I come from old family wealth. My dad is an honorable tile setter and pastor. My mother has been a federal government employee for the last 35 years. They’re good, clean, hard-working folk. I was married at 19, have three wonderful honor roll kids and a beautiful wife. I even made an appearance on “Deal or No Deal,” and had fun running from Big Bird.
I may not be the two-dimensional Flatland polygons you are used to, but hopefully you will begin to see my complexities.
I graduated from the University of Kentucky with a finance degree, but taught myself how to program from a recliner in my living room, chilling in my underwear. I started building social applications when my Cold Stone franchises failed. Yes: I said failed. After that experience, the software applications I was building began to supply income for my family and I have been on the web ever since.
Today I own a company called 212ths, with a gentleman named Lafe Taylor, who is also a black entrepreneur. We have created a startup with a software architect named John Meister, called Pheeva. Pheeva provides tools for HTML5 games and applications. We have been together for a year, bootstrapping great tools, so game developers can focus on building great games and allow us to handle the boring, necessary stuff.
We were awarded a grant for technology in our state, not for being black, as some would think, but for being good technologists.
I am not angry with Mr. Arrington, as some would think. Actually those clips made me want to meet him and anyone else who wants to connect with an entrepreneur who loves business and solving problems. Maybe we can sit down have lunch or something. Mr. Arrington: You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to meet and talk business.
Lamar is an entrepreneur from birth, humorist by nature and optimist in spirit. He co-owns a web media company, 212ths in the growing start up community of Lexington, KY. He is also co-founder od Pheeva, an HTML5 game development and monetization platform. He can be found on Twitter: @bigmarh.
[Unicorn image via Éole/Flickr]