Editor's note: Hank Williams is a tech entrepreneur and CEO of Kloud.co, an Internet startup that provides centralized tools for searching and managing online information. Previously, Hank was CEO of ClickRadio, a pioneer in Internet music. He is featured in "Black in America: The New Promised Land - Silicon Valley," which re-airs at 8 p.m., 11 p.m., and 2 a.m. ET on February 11 and February 12 on CNN.
By Hank Williams, Special to CNN
Last Sunday night, CNN aired "Black In America: The New Promised Land - Silicon Valley," the documentary that chronicled nine weeks I and seven other black entrepreneurs spent in the NewMe Accelerator in Silicon Valley. The aftermath has been, in some ways, exciting. I've been incredibly busy doing panels and interviews and the hashtag #BlackInAmerica was a globally trending topic on Twitter on Sunday evening. It felt like a lot of people were paying attention.
But not as many tech leaders as I hoped.
Initially, my sense was purely anecdotal, but I saw none of the major tech industry players participating in the conversation on Twitter.
So at my company, Kloud.co, we decided to do some quick analytics. Since Twitter is a great proxy for engagement on any issue, that’s where I turned for a relevant measurement. We pulled down all 150,000 tweets tagged #BlackInAmerica between 9 a.m. ET on the day the "Black in America" documentary debuted and 9 a.m. the next day. Then, we cross-referenced that list with industry mega-pundit Robert Scoble’s important tech people Twitter lists. These lists include press, venture capitalists and others.
If we are going to change course, the most valuable potential outcome of the documentary would be a willingness to more openly discuss the issue of race in technology. I was hoping that given the heavy discussion in the tech blogosphere leading up to the broadcast and the press coverage that the issue had finally broken into the mainstream.
Unfortunately, the results were just as I feared.
Across all of Scoble’s lists, there were only three participants in the discussion: Lekan Bashua, Rachel Sklar, and VentureBeat. The tech industry wasn’t watching, was totally unengaged or worse - uninterested.
The reason I anticipated the results is that I recognized that the same dynamics that the documentary discusses would likely dampen the discussion.
The audience I was most interested in was the Silicon Valley elite, including the crowd of actively twittering venture capitalists. There is, I am sure, a camp that believes - as does Michael Arrington - that the Valley is a pure meritocracy. Then there are those that might think otherwise but are afraid of what their partners or other associates might think. Even if you agree that there is a problem that needs fixing, one might reasonably be afraid to have the spotlight aimed at you for being hypocritical if none of your partners or portfolio company founders are black or Latino.
Case in point, venture capitalist Brad Feld wrote a great piece on the existence of racism in tech before the documentary aired, and Arrington attacked Brad with the sharp critique that none of the mentors in TechStars, Brad’s accelerator program, is black. It implied he had no right to express such thoughts. In fact, one of the few people of significant influence willing to speak out on this issue has been Robert Scoble. He said on Twitter that talking about race was a “high risk activity."
But this discussion is important to me, not because I am in the documentary, but because the lack of significant African-American presence in the tech economy is, I believe, critically important. In fact, if we don’t fix it, it’s going to accelerate an already dangerous level of wealth inequality in the country.
As I said in the documentary, not fixing this problem will ultimately lead to a permanent underclass. If you think Occupy Wall Street is a troubling sign of dissatisfaction around wealth distribution, you ain’t seen nothing yet. I fear the growing wealth disparity, particularly along racial and ethnic lines, will be catalyst for significant civil unrest.
Nevertheless, as one of the few voices to speak out on the subject, Scoble recorded a long and introspective audio monologue after watching the documentary. His piece is a fantastic jumping off point for discussion. He doesn’t suggest any quick solutions – in fact he suggests it’s a 50 year problem – but his thoughts are rich, deep and nuanced. What is more important was his willingness to go deep. He was not knee jerk or defensive.
I hoped more people of power and influence could find it within themselves to do the same thing.
But I was disappointed.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hank Williams.