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

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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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But blacks are very large consumers of technology. Why, in your opinion, are we playing catch up when it comes to producing it?

Williams: I can wear a pair of shoes but that doesn’t mean I want to make them. When Russell Simmons made two-way pagers hot in the late ’90s, that had nothing to do with Russell knowing how to program. He used it and it became cool. I can have a heart attack, but to become a doctor I have to go through eight or nine years of training. I think they are different things and that’s not unique to technology. If its medicine, or creating software, the ability and interest in consuming is distinct form the capacity to get to the point where you can make that thing.

Do you think there would be more interest in blacks becoming producers of technology if they saw more black tech entrepreneurs?

Williams: I think that role models are very important. Being able to see someone be successful as something, that puts it in your head. Kids are impressionable that way. You do what you see people doing, or what your parents tell you to do. What you put in is what you’re going to get out.

TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington recently took heat for his comments on Black In America for saying he doesn’t know a single black entrepreneur. Why might he have said that? Is he right about the low number?

Williams: For the most part in his world, African Americans — and he does know them — I think he said that because because we’re kind of invisible in the valley and it’s not easy to think of many. He did clear that up later in the interview. But he may not see many prominent African Americans in Silicon Valley. He was being truthful as far what came to his mind.

He may have thought of it as a low number because there is a report that came out in the past year that said less than one percent of technology funding goes to tech companies started by African Americans.

Is he right about Silicon Valley being a meritocracy?

Williams: It’s a meritocracy once you get your product to market, and hugely successful people give you money. But in terms of people who need help to get there, everyone needs help, support, angel investors, and it’s much harder for African Americans to get that support to get to that level. It’s the difference between the market and the market makers. Getting to those people and getting them to give you assistance. In that regard it’s not a meritocracy.

People consciously and subconsciously (mainly subconsciously) do what you call pattern matching. They look at the types of people who have made money for them and their partners and the don’t look like me. So if you’re betting on a person and your technique for deciding what you’re betting on is pattern matching, it can result in leaving people who are outside of your regular pattern outside of the game.

Competition in Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley is obviously fierce. But there are those who succeed no matter what. Do you feel that race plays a lesser role than it did in the past?

Williams: I’m gonna say it plays more of a role and here’s why. It used to be hard for everybody to get money and because it was so hard you had to achieve a certain level. I actually think it was a more level playing field 20 years ago because it was much harder, despite there being even fewer blacks in technology.

Today there are people who in my estimation do not deserve funding based on the merits of what they’ve done, but somehow get money easily. It’s not everyone, it’s just some. I don’t believe any African Americans are part of that club. So I actually think it’s harder, not in absolute terms, but in relative terms.

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