Pattern Matching, the New Jim Crow

Google recently released a report containing the percentage of its African American employees. It was reported that there are 1 percent African American in technology roles and 2 percent African Americans in leadership roles.

These findings were sobering, yet not surprising. While working as an analytics consultant to a major paint manufacturer, I had the opportunity to visit Google's New York office as a client on several occasions. During my visits I had no interaction with African Americans. This did not include the African Americans who were cooking the food (kitchen staff), the African Americans who were guarding the doors (security and receptionists) or the African Americans who were mopping the floors (janitors and facilities personnel).

When thinking about the reasons for these disproportionate numbers, one might focus on Google's hiring team. Unfortunately, this problem reaches well beyond Google. To Google's credit, they have formed a partnership with the Reverend Jesse Jackson to help reverse these trends and I was honored to be featured in a mini-documentary highlighting the problem and potential solutions.

In the documentary, I spoke about starting college in the fall of 1987 knowing of very few African Americans interested in studying computer science. When I graduated from Michigan State University with a computer science degree in the 1990s, I was the only African American in that graduating class. MSU isn't to blame for these low numbers, as there were supportive services and programs in place to retain African Americans in computer science and engineering.

Fast forward to 2014, where there is a disturbing trend of "pattern matching" in Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley (NYC). According to CNN, Pattern Matching is defined as follows:

"In the business of investing, pattern matching defines a technique for figuring out which human traits, corporate makeup and financial projections are the foundations for the next Facebook or other big Internet success. The criteria can include a founder's track record, personality type and alma mater."

More often than not the pattern is young, white, male Ivy Leaguer.

I worked for Netscape and more recently Yahoo! as a web analytics engagement manager. With this experience I started a digital video ad network with three African American Yahoo! employees. Two of us had computer science degrees. During that time period we attended numerous business technology pitch events. During these events I noticed some interesting behavior by the angel investors and venture capitalists who attended.

As a trained presenter and published author, I've spent years training executives and colleagues at Yahoo!, in addition to presenting to clients globally. I was/am very comfortable in front of an audience. When I pitched, in most cases, I noticed side conversations and lack of questions as a demonstration of low interest. It could be argued that I wasn't interesting or engaging enough but the behavior was too consistent to ignore -- not to mention I've won awards for public speaking. In many cases during my five-minute pitches, investors would spend those five minutes checking email or stepping out to make a call.

I noticed my non-African American counterparts immediately received attention and respect well before they uttered a single word. These men were young (in their 20s), had no real work experience (besides an internship), not well-dressed (wearing hoodies), caucasian (white) and typically were computer science drop-outs from really good schools.

Then I realized I am too old (I'm in my 40s), had over 20 years of work experience (I did my first internship in 1988), dressed too well (I typically wore a suit jacket), am African American (a black man with a permanent tan) and I actually finished my degree in computer science. I realized that I was too old, too polished, too black and too educated. In baseball you get three strikes -- I had four.

Investors were and are looking for the next billion-dollar tech idea and unfortunately, well dressed, well educated, 40-year-old black men don't fit the mold. The pattern of men who start billion-dollar tech companies happen to be young, white drop-outs of really good schools (i.e. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg). Therefore, investors look to this pattern when looking to invest. Pattern matching at its core is not racist, as black investors pattern match to the same levels as their white counterparts. It's predictive based on trends, yet when groups of people are excluded based on a pattern, it is a limiting problem source.

So one might ask "What is the solution?"

The solution is for African American tech entrepreneurs (1) to focus on building great products and (2) to focus on their customers. It was this strategy that helped me achieve one of my proudest moments as a tech entrepreneur. In 2013, I had the opportunity to be a co-founder of Around The Way, which was an app that finds the closest black-owned business to your current location. We decided that we would boot strap this venture and build a great product for the people. During our first year, we got great media coverage from the top African American media outlets such as Black Enterprise, Essence magazine and Black Entertainment Television (BET). From each, we saw spikes in downloads of our app and spikes in usage.

All of this was great, but the greatest single day in Around The Way's short history wasn't because of Black Enterprise, Essence or BET. Our single greatest day came one day following George Zimmerman's acquittal of killing the unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. Young black folks felt the sense of injustice and instead of burning down their communities like my peers did in Los Angeles in 1992 following the Rodney King acquittal, and how my parents' peers did in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, these young black folks decided to support and by spending in their communities. I know with more African American success stories, the practice of pattern matching will be a distant memory like the Jim Crow laws of yesterday.