Pattern Matching, Racial Diversity and the Grand Hypocrisy of (Silicon Valley) Big Tech Media.

It’s Time to Watch the Watchmen – The Diversity Report of TechCrunch, Recode, The Information, Business Insider and Protocol.

The Big Dogs of Big Tech Media.
Clockwise from top left: Lessin of The Information, Swisher of Recode (Vox), Panzarino of TechCrunch, Shontell of Business Insider and Pierce of Protocol are Editors-in-Chief of the most influential tech publications in the world.

Prelude

I have been writing about Diversity in Tech for over a decade now – a long time. However, my self-published posts have never really got the audience it was targeted at, which is, the Silicon Valley Main Street. This time around, I wanted to do something different with regard to distribution. 

Since I completed this post over two weeks ago, I’ve hawked it as an Op-Ed to ALL main street US (Tech) media – 22 of them. Sadly, but unsurprisingly and understandably, I’ve had no takers. It is a big request to ask anyone, including journalists, to give a dissenting voice an audience, so I have decided to self-publish again, but this time around, I hope the primary intended audience gets to see it and the conversation happens. Abeg (please), share it as you wish me luck holding these very powerful people to account.

Introduction

No thanks to the brutal execution of George Floyd and more importantly, thanks to the persistence of protesters, the conversation about institutional racism in various parts of American life is back to the fore and has been sustained. The tech industry has not been exempted.

As with previous cycles, it has cast blame towards the typical suspects: Big Tech and Venture Capital. And as with previous conversation cycles, one key player in the diversity deficient tech world is wriggling away unscathed, yet again. Silicon Valley Big Tech Media.

Pattern Matching in Tech

Pattern matching is a colloquial terminology in the tech industry that refers to the propensity for established players in tech e.g. Venture Capitalists, taking superficial patterns of successful founders (young white boys who have dropped out of Stanford or Harvard) and using them to determine future investment decisions.

“I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg”

Paul Graham (According to The New York Times)

Though eventually clarified by Paul Graham, that attributed quote articulately captures the spirit of Pattern Matching. Since how one “looks” is one of the obvious patterns one can observe in a human, it is believed that pattern matching disproportionally affects “people of colour” (why do we use this term?).

I have no problem with pattern matching. In psychology it is known as pattern recognition, which is natural and critical for survival. It is how human beings recognise things and make vital decisions quickly, with little data.

My first memory of Pattern Matching was while playing football (the real one) as a kid. The guys with the bow-legged swagger, wearing boots and a shin guard were always picked first. It was almost automatic because they looked like talented footballers. And that’s how I learned to pick my teams. After missing out on some straight legged barefoot talents and picking several kitted-out clowns, I adjusted and used more sensible parameters.

I learned something from that though: Pattern matching is all well and good until it receives contradicting data. It’s all about the data.

The Role of Big Tech Media in Pattern Matching

In the past decade, Big Tech Media has rightfully shone the light on racial inequality in the ranks of Big Corporations and Venture Capital in the tech industry. The Diversity Reports — as they are known, of Big Tech and VC have been published routinely.

The media are very powerful. It is through them we learn and understand the world beyond ourselves. Their importance and power in shaping opinions cannot be overstated as they are very key in providing the data which influences patterns that lead to decisions. 

In Tech, when it comes to personnel, a lot of that data comes in the form of presence. The Big Tech Media controls it all via narrative and coverage in their publications and mega conferences. It is through the media that every player – VCs, Tech Executives, Founders etc learn about the tech world that exists outside of their immediate spheres.

However, when it comes to the diversity in tech debate, I wonder: how have Big Tech Media, the primary opinion shapers of the tech industry, escaped any scrutiny? Then it hit me: when you are busy pointing your torch at others, you forget to point it at yourself.

Since Big Tech Media remains a critical piece if we are to rejig the data to alter diversity-deficient patterns in tech, it’s high-time we shone the light on Big Tech Media.

[RANDOM: Watching the film Hidden Figures made me almost cry. I had absolutely no idea that in the 60s, there were Black women mathematicians and programmers who were good enough to work for the NASA Space Program. Imagine if this was always common knowledge. I can only imagine how many more black folks it would have influenced to take up a career in Computer Science and Technology].

Diversity Report of (Silicon Valley) Big Tech Media

In 2015, I looked at the racial makeup of the largest tech conferences in the world. The results were damning. I wondered how these organisers could be so oblivious. It then occurred to me to check out the people making these decisions, and it was clear why they were colour blind; they didn’t have the right ‘lenses’ i.e., makeup of the editorial/media team, to notice the absence of certain colours.

In this report card, I will look at the racial diversity makeup of both speaker line-ups and the editorial teams of Big Tech Media – who are mostly in Silicon Valley, and contrast their 2015 with today.

The Candidates

TechCrunch

TechCrunch, owned by AOL/Verizon has been the Big Dog of tech startup chronicling and commentary since 2005. More so, they host arguably the largest and most influential startup conference called Disrupt. I have followed TechCrunch since 2007 and experienced the startup evolution through them.

Recode

In the past decade, Recode has evolved from being All Things Digital at WSJ to being Independent to now being a unit at Vox Media. One constant throughout its evolution has been the very formidable Kara Swisher, who is arguably the single most influential person in Big Tech Media. 

The Information

This subscription-based tech publication is high up the list in shaping opinion among Venture Capitalists in Silicon Valley. It was started by Jessica Lessin who is a formidable reporter and an Alumnus of WSJ. They have a VC Diversity Index

Business Insider

Based in New York and founded by the great Henry Blodget, Business Insider is a top 3 tech voice in the tech industry.

Protocol

Backed by a bunch of heavyweights, this publication launched this year with a lot of panache. 

How well have they done?

Racial Diversity Report Card of Major US/Silicon Valley Tech Media

The diversity report of Big Tech Media

Here is the data for this table in spreadsheet format and links to sources.

Solving the Diversity Problem in Silicon Valley Tech

It is good to highlight problems but better to proffer solutions. But first, do these people recognise that there is a problem? Do they want to solve it? 

In 2015 when I wrote my previous post, I had the impression some did. In my Twitter engagement with Kara Swisher after my first post, Aunty Kara gave the patronising response by referencing “the adept use of social media” as a representation of Black in Tech, I offered to engage privately (I threw in my beer diplomacy for good measure). It came to nought.

[Shalaye (Explanation): Aunty Kara took me up on the offer. As agreed, I reached out on 3 subsequent trips to the US and Silicon Valley. After sending about half a dozen emails, initially replied with excuses, Kara went cold and stopped responding. She is not the first Silicon Valley person whose Twitter (public) position contrasts with their private ones, so I haven’t taken it personally. I’d be more than happy to grab that beer if she’s open to it]

If Big Tech companies especially the media wish to change things, they have to first stop being colour-blind and get competent people who have eyes for the blind spots. A deliberate, sincere effort will yield good fruit.

If you are a privileged person in the tech industry who wants to be a true “ally” and see things improve, here are some actionable things to do: 

  1. If you are on yet another panel and you notice the absence of accomplished Black tech players, speak up. Make recommendations. I am happy for you to ask me if your black network isn’t that vast. See Appendix (Note: Black folks have great competence about things outside the diversity topic).
  2. If you are a VC and you are in on a good deal, try to work with the founder and carve out an allocation for those good black investors that aren’t as opportune to have your network. We all know the deal flow is the koko (main thing). If you want to help, share the deal.
  3. If you are recruiting for a senior role in your executive team or board, you can take a book from the NFL beyond Colin Kaepernick’s brave kneeling protest; the Rooney Rule. Just make sure you have a qualified black person in your interview shortlist. That’s not too much of an ask. 

I wrote in an email to my white founder friend recently: I see many organisations “fighting” systemic racism by opening their cheque books. A donation here, a freebie there. It makes them feel good, perhaps. It’s like a retweet but with money.

So, decide if you want to show concern or effect change. I prefer both.

Notes

  1. Every company (including Big Tech Media) has the prerogative to invite or cover anyone they like. However, the proprietors of Tech Media cannot play watchmen and feign concern about the diversity in tech debate while their actions are in direct contrast.
  2. In this post, I focused on these Tech only media companies because they are embedded in heart of Big Tech, derive all revenue from tech and are extremely influential in the space. It was also difficult to get the break down on the tech coverage of bigger publications like The New York Times and Washington Post
  3. I do not think the hypocritical actions of Big Tech Media are deliberate or that there is any deliberate collusion against black people in tech. I think they just don’t care enough to make the extra effort. It is much easier to point and tweet.
  4. I would like to commend Y Combinator. They went from Paul Graham implying that accents are a hindrance to fundraising and success to having the largest number black founded portfolio companies in the US. About 15 investments in Nigeria alone. It helps that they have a talented “lens” in their indefatigable CEO, Michael Seibel.
  5. TechCrunch’s deficiency in representation hasn’t negatively affected coverage of black founders. Asides kindly covering my first start-up in 2010, They have a columnist, Jake Bright that almost exclusively covers African startups (although from New York).
  6. While this post on racial diversity focuses on Black folks in tech ‘cos that’s what I know; I believe it is applicable to Hispanics and Native Americans too.

Appendix

Unlike 2010 when I wondered where the black founders in tech were, today we have countless black folks in every area of tech who have defied the odds to get to the top of the startup world. And they are at the top of the game using any parameter and not “top black”. A random few of my Nigeria-centric favourites tech players that “happen” to be black. I’ll build out this list with time. There also a list of Black owned SaaS being compiled

Shola Akinlade (Paystack), GB Agboola (Flutterwave), Mitchell Elegbe (Interswitch) – Building payment giants in Africa.

Tope Awotona Founder of juggernaut, Calendly

Ime Archibong Head, New Experimentation, Facebook

Iyin Aboyeji: co-founded Flutterwave & Andela – 2 multi hundred million-dollar companies – before he turned 26.

Ekechi, Adia of Migo (Nigeria/Brazil) and Tayo, of Paga (Nigeria/Mexico) are leading multi continental fintech players globally.

Jessica Hope of boutique PR firm, Wimbart, is helping put a lot of African tech founders in global tech conversations.

Michael Seibel co-founded Justin TV/Twitch & SocialCam. CEO, Y Combinator Accelerator.

Temie Giwa of Life Bank literally saving lives. Moving blood and Oxygen via Drones and Bicycles.

Jason Njoku’s IROKO is the last African VoD Iroko standing. A bloody amazing feat considering the amount of money and competition in the space. 

Osarumen Osamuyi of The Subtext and Emeka Ajene AfriDigest are tech analysts from these parts that compare to any from any part of the world. 

Odun Eweniyi is championing a saving culture in over a million Nigerians with PiggyVest.

Gbenga Sesan of Paradigm Initiative is a mammoth when it comes to technology policy. A one man EFF army for the past decade and more.

Funke Opeke of MainOne: the single most impactful individual responsible for broadband penetration in Africa.

Maya Horgan is one of Africa’s prolific investors via $10 million fund Ingressive Capital. At 29, She’s done over a dozen investments with more than half YC alums.

Kola Aina of Ventures Platform with almost 40 start-ups in the portfolio (of which about 10 are Y Combinator companies), is one of the most prolific Angel investors on the African continent.