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Mitch Kapor

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On November 13 CNN will be airing Black in America 4 -- The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley, a documentary focusing on eight African-American entrepreneurs and their quest for success in Silicon Valley. I was an advisor/mentor to these founders, and their Demo Day was held in our San Francisco offices.

Following an advance screening last week, a controversy broke out about whether or not Michael Arrington is a racist, based on clips of him in the film, and whether or not CNN set him up in their interview. The back-and-forth on Twitter didn’t actually shed light on why there are so few African-American led startups.

Research should matter more than personalities, and anecdotes should not take the place of data.

I would assert:

(1) The dearth of African-Americans in Silicon Valley Valley is not just a supply problem.

(2) Silicon Valley is not nearly the meritocracy it holds itself out as.

The participation of African-Americans in the Silicon Valley ecosystem as founders, engineers, CEO's, and venture capitalists is disproportionately low. Silicon Valley is dominated by white and Asian males.

Under-representation is typically attributed to disparities in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education pipeline. While pipeline issues are real, it has become a convenient excuse. Worse, there’s a vicious cycle at play—when young people don’t see anyone like them succeeding in a field, they’re less likely to pursue it.

A recent study, The Tilted Playing Field (, indicates there are practices in recruiting, promotion, and retention within the IT sector which are problematic for women and under-represented people of color, and reduce their participation. Specific experiences of exclusion, bullying, difficulty balancing work/family are reported at much higher rates by underrepresented groups -- i.e African Americans, Latina/o/s, and women of all backgrounds. Another vicious cycle at play. "If I’m not going to be valued or respected, then I’m outta here." Meanwhile, Caucasian and Asian male engineers and managers report that their companies spend the right amount of time on diversity.

Silicon Valley likes to think it operates as a pure meritocracy, e.g., it's the best teams and ideas which get funded. In practice, as luminaries from John Doerr to Ron Conway acknowledge, key decisions are often guided by a combination of pattern-matching based on superficial characteristics and the network of people you already know.

If "young, white, geeky, and Stanford/Harvard/MIT dropout", then "invest", is a kind of mental shortcut that is anything but objective. This is mirror-tocracy not meritocracy.

Being meritocratic is a really worthy aspiration, but will require active mitigation of individual and organizational bias. The operation of hidden bias in our cognitive apparatus is a well-documented phenomenon in neuroscience. We may think we are acting rationally and objectively, but our brains deceive us.

see for more detail on myths of Silicon Valley.

My appreciation goes to the Level Playing Field Institute (of which I am a major funder) and its founder Freada Kapor Klein (who is my wife) for leadership in research on these issues.

(version of this piece with more ermbedded links at
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