Monday, November 14, 2011
9506: Silicon Valley Mimics Madison Avenue…?
From The New York Times…
CNN Sets Off a Debate on Race and Technology
By Brian Stelter and Jenna Wortham
For nearly two weeks, a debate ignited by a CNN documentary has raged on the Internet about the obstacles to success in Silicon Valley and whether the technology industry is as meritocratic and as color-blind as it aspires to be.
And the documentary hasn’t even had its premiere yet.
The program, “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley,” is the fourth installment of the CNN series “Black in America.” Set to be televised on Sunday night, it features eight African Americans who hope to become entrepreneurs in what is widely recognized to be an industry dominated by white men.
In the documentary, the blogger and venture capitalist Michael Arrington is shown saying “I don’t know a single black entrepreneur.” That comment, which he later disputed loudly, has spawned hundreds of responses on blogs and social networks and has shown how projects like “The New Promised Land” are now picked over and fought over sometimes even before they are publicly consumed.
“These discussions never would have happened, say, five years ago,” said Jason Samuels, a CNN producer, who found himself telling people, “Let’s have a discussion after the documentary airs, so we’re not just talking about sound bites and the like.”
Already, the program has people talking about a disparity that is often not broached in technology circles — the staggering lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, said Tristan Walker, the head of business development at Foursquare, who attended one of the advance screenings.
“There is a chasm that needs to be exposed a little bit,” Mr. Walker said.
The chatter continued online Friday. Vivek Wadhwa, a professor who mentored some of the entrepreneurs in the documentary, wrote on Twitter that it would “shake up Valley elite” when it was shown on CNN.
“They are in denial,” he wrote.
CNN, which sometimes struggles to gain notice for its journalism in a cable news environment that prefers political talk, has capitalized on the advance attention around “The New Promised Land.” It has published a series of articles and essays about the subject on CNN.com and has promoted the premiere as if it were a reality show competition between the eight entrepreneurs.
The documentary’s host, Soledad O’Brien, said in an interview that she was heartened to see the question “does race matter when it comes to success in Silicon Valley?” receive mainstream consideration.
“I wondered, ‘Is this going to be a documentary that only people in tech are talking about?’ Really, these issues are relevant to everybody, whether you’re trying to start a company or not,” said Ms. O’Brien, who was in Houston on Friday to speak to a Girl Scout troop about science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.
CNN decided in May to make Silicon Valley the next chapter of “Black in America,” which started in 2008. Mr. Samuels said the producers were motivated in part by “The Social Network,” the feature film about the origins of Facebook that was released last year. They decided to track the process of eight participants in the NewMe Accelerator, a program that is meant to help minorities start companies.
Mitchell Kapor, the founder of the Lotus Development Corporation — the software company perhaps best known for creating Lotus 1-2-3 — and an adviser to the accelerator, said in an interview that by profiling the eight participants, the documentary will “open up people’s eyes that there are actual structural barriers and we need to dismantle them.”
“Silicon Valley isn’t always the meritocracy it aspires to be,” he said, “and people who don’t acknowledge that have never had to deal with actual barriers and obstacles that can get in the way.”
Ms. O’Brien said she was not surprised that the subject had been controversial before the documentary’s actual broadcast date. Mr. Arrington’s quote about not knowing black entrepreneurs was published on Twitter on Oct. 26 by a person who attended an advance screening held by CNN. She said she thought Mr. Arrington was being a “realist” in his remarks, not a racist as he sarcastically called himself after others seized on the quote.
“There are a lack of black people in Silicon Valley,” Ms. O’Brien said. She continued, “There is no black Mark Zuckerberg. Period. So he is stating a fact.”
But what made the accelerator compelling as a story, she said, was that “their goal, their strategy is to change that.”
On Oct. 28, Mr. Arrington took to his blog to accuse CNN of ambushing him. He asserted that he said he knew no black entrepreneurs because he doesn’t “categorize people as black or white or gay or straight in my head.”
He wrote, “They’re just smart or not smart.”
Mr. Walker of Foursquare said the documentary might help cement Silicon Valley as a career path for people who tune in. It is the latest in a series of media portrayals of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, like Bloomberg Television’s “TechStars” reality show and the aforementioned “Social Network” film.
“Profiling founders and giving them a spotlight is helping to expose Silicon Valley as a viable, lucrative career path to people who otherwise may not have seen it that way,” Mr. Walker said.