Race and Technology: Q&A with Startup Founder Hank Williams

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MARK HILL / CNN

Hank Williams joined eight other African American technology entrepreneurs at a live-in Silicon Valley-based business accelerator called NewME (New Media Entrepreneurship). He spent nine weeks there developing his online data management startup, Kloud.co, exchanging ideas with his housemates, and eventually pitching to potential investors. The entire process was documented by CNN for the fourth installment of its Black In America series, which premieres Nov. 13. Between 1998 and 2001 Williams built the web startup ClickRadio, raising $40 million before the dotcom bubble burst and it went bankrupt. He spoke with TIME about his experiences at the house and his observations on race and the technology industry.

You are not new to the tech game. What advantage could an accelerator like NewME which consisted largely of minority newcomers give you?

Williams: From my perspective, the reason I was excited was because the house was filled with seven other really smart people who think about products. To be immersed in this environment where you’re living with people who are focused on the same goals was incredibly refreshing. It was a radical shift and it was valuable and useful to one’s creativity.

In the nine weeks you were part of this project, what did you learn?

Williams: I’ll tell you the things I got from it: From a product perspective I think that being immersed in Silicon Valley with lots of people who think about product and living with these people was very valuable. The other thing it made me think about a lot was something I hadn’t thought about, which was the role that race plays in the mechanics of not just Silicon Valley but business in general. I’m a very heads down person and I focus on on what I have to do, but this was being able to talk about it with others and that was eye opening for me.

There’s clearly a lack of African Americans in the tech field. Would you say this is because of the so-called “digital divide”?

Williams: No. I think there’s two issues. There is a pipeline issue, which is to say that more African Americans may have been going into engineering or law or business, for example, so…I don’t think it’s a digital divide issue, it’s more of a choice.

But the other thing is, I think, a very similar issue to the reason that women aren’t sufficiently in the business. There is something about the culture and dynamic of the tech world that is not inviting to people who have not historically been a part of it.

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