We Don't Need a Black Zuck: Moving Beyond Unicorns In Tech Entrepreneurship
Many of us have our favorite hero stories: stories of rugged individualism and triumph over obstacles. In the tech industry we love our heroes, too. They often come in the form of unicorn founders: brilliant men (in the stories they are almost always men, almost always white) who, thriving in a field of immense change and with visions no one else can see, create companies that are worth billions while generating high returns for investors.
These unicorn companies and their founders are often, in fact, trailblazers who have changed how we live, connect, and even think. Yet our focus on them and the implicit demand that every founder and company behave like them actually perpetuates inequality in tech. In our focus on the hero, on the unicorn, we’re obscuring the work of other founders, specifically Black and Latinx founders, who don’t fit that media darling hero stereotype, while simultaneously ignoring the systemic barriers that keep so many founders from experiencing success.
Rethinking the unicorn
Bring up the topic of diversity in tech entrepreneurship and, in many circles, you’ll hear a common refrain: “All we need is a Black Mark Zuckerberg and everything would change.” That is, a person who will not only build a billion-dollar tech company (a feat in and of itself) but in doing so will shatter stereotypes and show future founders what is possible.
While a well-intentioned wish, we only need to look at politics to see why this is a fallacy. The election of Barack Obama (twice) didn’t eliminate the challenges facing Black people in politics or in the country as a whole. One Black and Latinx unicorn won’t magically solve the challenges Black and Latinx tech founders face either. Further, the emphasis on finding the one, rare founder obscures the meaningful work already being done by thousands of Black and Latinx founders around the country today. Since we can’t find that unicorn, we trick ourselves into thinking the founders that “count” aren’t out there and so we end up not seeing the amazing work being done at this moment.
“The emphasis on finding the one, rare founder obscures the meaningful work already being done by thousands of Black and Latinx founders around the country today.”
What’s more, the narrative that there is a lack of Black and Latinx founders overall simply doesn’t jive with the data: 21% of small businesses are Black or Latinx owned. These numbers are growing as Black-owned businesses increased by 34% and Latinx-owned companies increased by 46% between 2007–2012 (PDF). In our own work with Black and Latinx tech founders specifically, we’ve seen an increase in not only the number of entrepreneurs approaching us for support, but also in the number of our other program participants seeking to launch new endeavors. In our Fellows Program alone, 80% of Fellows intend to start a business.
This attitude — that Black and Latinx founders aren’t out there and we need a hero to change it all — carries with it a major risk. When we do see a Black or Latinx founder cross into unicorn territory, far too many people will think that one person’s success means there is no problem after all and our job is done. If that attitude carries the day we’ll end up ignoring the systemic barriers, from lack of access to funding to lack of access to networks, which exclude far too many founders.
A new vision for entrepreneurship
So, if one person isn’t going to solve everything for Black and Latinx founders, what will?
First, let’s get rid of the idea that there is a silver bullet at all. There is no single answer or approach. Instead we need a multifaceted, ecosystem-level approach that 1) elevates the work being done by Black and Latinx entrepreneurs that captures the range and impact of their businesses, putting to bed, once and for all the myth that they aren’t out there; and 2) puts pressure on investors, especially ones that claim to care about diversity, to put their money where their mouths are.
The first piece — narrative shift — can, and is, happening now. In this #FacesofFounders publication alone, the Case Foundation has brought together Black and Latinx entrepreneurs to share what our experiences are and what is and is not working around diversity in tech. Convenings such as AfroTech, hosted by Blavity, elevate and support founders of color. This form of conversation-shifting and community building that focuses on collective action and impact is critical for changing people’s minds when it comes to what Black and Latinx entrepreneurship looks like.
As for pressure for funding, movement is being made — albeit not fast enough — on this front as well. In a recent article for Fast Company on the paucity of funding given to Black women, Bari A. Williams highlighted some heartening changes. We’re seeing more Black-owned venture capital firms like Magic Johnson Enterprises and Cross Culture Ventures. We’re also seeing Black leaders at existing firms, like Kesha Cash who started Impact America Fund which makes investments in Black and Latinx-owned companies.
In Code2040’s work in partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs, our Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs) work to build their companies, generate press, and support each other. Aniyia Williams, a 2016 EIR at Galvanize in San Francisco, has not only built her company Tinsel into a powerhouse, she did it while launching Black and Brown Founders, to explore alternatives to VC funding. But much more needs to be done. After all, the average amount of VC investment for Black female founders is $36,000 compared to the overall average of $1.3 million invested. Without funding, far too many of our entrepreneurs miss the opportunity to truly grow their businesses.
We need to get this right
2040 is the beginning of the decade when people of color will become the majority in the US, with Black and Latinx people alone poised to make up over 40% of the population. But in the current state of diversity in tech — both as employees and as entrepreneurs — we are shut out. What does it mean to have the majority of the population shut out of one of the largest sectors of the economy for growth and opportunities?
As the innovation economy grows, we need to ensure we are represented as leaders. And we won’t get there by waiting for unicorns or, worse, acting as if we don’t already exist as founders and creators.