Sparking a national debate on the lack of diversity in the fields of technology and engineering, Soledad O’Brien has tackled the issue in latest documentary The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley.
The fourth edition of Black in America, scheduled to air on CNN Nov. 13, follows eight African-American entrepreneurs who set out to change the monochromatic world of technology through the NewME Accelerator, an intense 12- week program culminating in a “demo day” in front of possible investors.
Focused on linking major players in the Valley with the 1 percent of African Americans who own tech start-up businesses, the program completed its first cycle in 2011 as eight founders lived and worked together over the summer.
NewME, which is short for New Media Entrepreneurship, began in 2010 with the goal of providing minorities an opportunity to actively develop their businesses and strongly compete in the free tech market.
The NewME Accelerator holds weekly dinners and seminars where entrepreneurs can network with well established tech leaders such as Terry L. Jones, managing partner of Syncom Venture Partners, and MC Hammer, who has become immersed in the tech world since his heyday in the entertainment business.
“It’s not just about having a great idea, you have to find someone to help you build out your vision,” said O’Brien in a phone interview. She cited a lack of education as the reason America as a whole is lagging in the areas of science, technology, and math. “It’s an American problem, but I think the impact is greater for African Americans because sometimes you’re talking about people who come from tremendous poverty.”
Many also point to the lack of education as the root cause for the predominantly white washed scene in the Valley.
“Sixteen percent of white students take calculus, which is one of the highest levels of math that most public schools offer, and that’s a low number. That number is 6 percent for black students and 7 percent for Latino students,” said O’Brien. With such a small percentage of students taking critical math and science classes that open them up to jobs in the tech field, O’Brien believes students “have a wide disparity just coming out of high school.”
A single mother of three daughters, NewME founder Angela Benton said her fight to balance the duties of motherhood and her business is a challenge women of all colors face in the corporate world. Benton started her business in 2010 after creating and hosting the New Media Entrepreneurship Conference in Washington, D.C.
Desperate to give minorities a chance at success in the technology field, Benton completed the first session of the NewME Accelerator side by side with the seven other founders chosen for the program. An African-American female in a young, white, male world, Benton has been recognized by Ebony Magazine’s Power 150, and was named Fast Company Magazine’s Most Influential Women in Technology for 2010.
“We need accelerators like the New Me Accelerator to give networking opportunities to African American technologists, allowing them to have those connections with Google and Facebook,” said O’Brien.
Founded by Fred Terman, the retired Stanford University provost who mentored Bill Hewlett and David Packard of the Hewlett-Packard Company, Silicon Valley has been the heart of all things tech since the early 1940s.
Originally named Silicon Valley because of the sheer volume of silicon chips produced in the small area just south of the San Francisco Bay, the Valley is now the home of Apple, Yahoo! and Adobe Systems. Thanks to the invention and constant upgrading of smart phones, laptops and IPADs, Americans are plugging technology into their everyday lives more than ever before.
For more information on the NewMe Accelerator, visit www.newmeaccelerator.com