How I Earned My Seat at the Table
No, I’m not the intern, and I’m not the minority student fellow. I’m the company CEO, and yes, I’m 26 years old. In today’s tech industry -- where most of the founders and investors are still white males from fairly similar backgrounds -- this is something I have had to clarify time and time again.
It’s 2018, yet African Americans still represent fewer than 5 percent of the tech workforce. In the history of Fortune 500, there have been only 15 black CEOs, and within the Fortune 100, black men and women account for only 4.7 percent of executive team members -- a number that hasn’t increased since 2011. And when it comes to resource-strapped startups, attracting minorities has proven even more difficult because, frankly, the talent pool is small. According to CB Insights, less than 1 percent of VC-backed founders are black. The pipeline for talent in tech among less-advantaged populations is broken very early on, and in multiple places -- opportunity, education, network connectivity and, finally, the homogeneity of the tech community and Silicon Valley.
When I launched intelligent messaging startup Emogi from my University of Miami dorm, I quickly learned that breaking through as a minority entrepreneur without a strong social network or access to capital wouldn’t be easy. Starting a tech company is hard enough; now add the extra layers of being a student and a minority, and the challenges are threefold.
That said, minority leaders can, and are, earning their place at the table. It just requires a more unconventional approach and a lot of perseverance. Based on my experiences, I’ve found the following advice most critical to success:
To get your foot in the door, have thicker skin and be prepared for unconscious bias.
As a minority entrepreneur, we often do not grow up with preexisting relationships in the business community and, instead, must create these connections ourselves. Take, for example, raising your first round of capital. If you don’t have access to a "friends and family" round or lack a warm introduction to a VC or angel investor, who else can you ask?
Growing up in Miami, it was easy to get wrapped up in the "big fish in small pond syndrome," gravitating toward the people and places I felt most comfortable with. But you’ll never earn your spot at the table unless you push yourself to be in the right room, in the right city, at the right time with a really good idea. For me, that meant taking a huge risk -- uprooting my Miami life and moving to New York City in search of greater diversity and superior access to networks. Why? Because without taking risks and thinking creatively, unapproachable situations will remain that way. To get your name out there and build your brand as a minority business leader, going outside your comfort zone is a requirement, even if it means accepting rejection along the way.
And keep in mind, it is all about attitude. My determination is what allowed me to shake off rejection when building my network. I couldn't take initial assumptions personally.
Input equals output when it comes to building your reputation.
Once you are in the room, success can still seem out of reach, as unintended assumptions all too often craft people’s perceptions, both in and out of the office. Minorities in tech are rare, and people might assume you were hired to fill a diversity quotient. Prove them wrong.
I’ve been at many events and have seen the shock on people’s faces when they find out that I’m the one sitting in the CEO seat. Yes, experiencing preconceived notions is diminishing and frustrating, but the best way to change the narrative is by changing someone’s perspective. I see this in the tech industry time and again, not only for people of color, but also for women and other minority groups. Instead of getting discouraged, remember that you are not alone in experiencing this, and by changing the narrative, you are paving the way for those that follow. Go the extra mile if not for yourself, then for the future of others in your footsteps.
Get connected, and pay it forward.
The road to success as a minority entrepreneur certainly has its ups and downs. But once you’ve solidified your network and paved your path, your uniqueness quickly becomes a value. For me, this diverse experience not only helped to uniquely shape my company but also proved vital for enhancing the path to success for those behind me.
Looking at recent grassroots social movements, like March for Our Lives or Black Lives Matter, it’s evident that communities are true catalysts of change -- even more so, communities of students. These movements are prime examples of how young people are steadfast in forging their own paths when the traditional one does not feel right for them.
Sometimes all you need is a model of success to keep moving forward. In New York, I got lucky and managed to find people who believed in me, my ideas and my passion, even though I didn’t have the standard tech background. Mentorship can also be a mutually beneficial relationship that facilitates learning on both ends. As an active member of University of Miami’s marketing advisory board, I am not only committed to changing the culture for the next generation by suggesting a more relevant and strategic curriculum, but I go back often to learn from those younger than me.
The technology industry still has a long way to go when it comes to diversity, not only in leadership, but in the workplace as a whole. However, today’s culture has helped to facilitate this much-needed change by providing the important first steps toward a truly diverse workforce. And it isn’t just the Facebooks and Googles of that world that are responsible for setting a precedent; the entire industry needs to play a part -- from the newest startup to the oldest legacy company. Ultimately, this comes down to making sure that we all have the opportunity -- the privilege -- to innovate. Ideas have no boundaries, no color and no limits. We are a weaker society and a weaker tech sector if we do not have diversity. All of us who make it in need to extend our hands to those working to make it. All of us who are struggling need to remember that it is possible to get a seat that the table, and that things are changing. And above all, it comes down to individuals being willing to scoot over and make a little more room at the table.