CNN Black In America 4 Review
The controversial, highly anticipated, race-driven, Silicon Valley CNN special, Black In America 4, hosted by Soledad O’Brien, aired Sunday evening providing a climax to the diversity debates and accusations that flooded the Twittersphere and Blogosphere over the past few weeks. Having closely followed the race debates since the release of my now popularized write-up of the firestorm that took place on Twitter a few weeks ago, it is difficult to ignore disappointment with the supposedly climactic CNN documentary. Though there were dashes of enlightenment and brief moments of truth, the majority of the final product was overshadowed with dramatics and manufactured controversy.
Prior to delving into the heavily biased editing of the documentary and the journalistic irresponsibility of CNN, I do want to highlight some brief moments of truth and enlightenment. The documentary provides aspiring entrepreneurs with an insider perspective of Silicon Valley: the stress, the struggle, the pitch, the competitiveness, and the intimidation. The cutthroat nature of the industry is presented effectively. The documentary rightfully demonstrates lessons of practice and teamwork as pivotal to success as an entrepreneur. In addition to providing a structured glimpse into Silicon Valley, the documentary also introduces a wide range of entrepreneurial personalities, from down-to-earth and likeable (Wayne Sutton), to focused and sometimes abrasive (Angela Benton). Succeeding as a guide to aspiring entrepreneurs on what to expect and how to prepare for the transition between bootstrapping and Series A, the documentary revives some credibility lost from its diverted focus on theatrics.
An irritating motif of the documentary is the vilification of influential figures in Silicon Valley. A major difficulty in critiquing such a controversial documentary is the assumed disagreement to the journalist’s perspective. I want to make clear that I am not debating the validity of racism and discrimination in Silicon Valley, but am rather critiquing its presentation in the proposed documentary. The narrative of the documentary presents Silicon Valley as a “no man’s land” for minorities and women with reigning bigotry from some of the most influential figures in the industry. Soundbites like “I don’t know a single black entrepreneur” and “I don’t even know where to find those people” taken from Michael Arrington and Ron Conway respectively, are used largely out of context. With the former quote, it is not apparent, until reading Arrington’s “Uncrunched” blog, that his words are taken out of context. Per Arrington’s perspective, he was unaware of the subject matter of the interview, and therefore, was reliant on memory, at best, while on the hot seat. And during the interview, when the question is relayed back to the host, she is identically unable to answer, even though ironically, she is aware of the subject matter of the interview and contrarily, had an opportunity to conduct any due diligence required. Further cementing Arrington’s argument, once the opportunity availed to conduct due diligence, Arrington was able to name African American entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Alternatively, with regard to the latter quote taken from Ron Conway, it becomes apparent within the documentary that his words are taken out of context. His usage of the pronoun “those people” references individuals outside the exclusive entrepreneurial networks that define Silicon Valley, rather than any specific demographic. I am a firm believer that levels of racism and discrimination are present in nearly every industry in the US, but attribute much of the vilification in the documentary to the editing staff and well-placed soundbites.
Silicon Valley remains a relatively new industry, and because the quantity of minority applicants is significantly lower than their counterparts, a one to one comparison cannot yet be made. It becomes difficult to measure a statistically significant diversity gap that can be compared to other industries. There are no references to these limitations and uncertainties in the documentary. In the documentary, of the 8 young African American entrepreneurs selected to make pitches, (Spoiler Alert!) 2 actually get funding for their projects: Hank Williams for Kloud.co and Pius Uzamere for BeCouply. This is 25% of the selected sample. In failing to address limitations and uncertainties of this statistic, the conclusion the documentary implies is very misleading. This statistic, ironically, dismisses any accusations of discrimination in Silicon Valley because it exceeds the 18% counterpart for the general sample (regardless of ethnicity or gender). However, in reality, there are very few minority founders and CEOs in Silicon Valley. Instead of pressing focus on statistical inadequacy and causes and resolutions, the documentary focuses on catharsis and dramatics.
One major issue prohibiting minorities in Silicon Valley are the exclusive entrepreneurial networks present. As Ron Conway attempts to relay, it is easier for VCs and investors in Silicon Valley to find entrepreneurs within these organizations and networks as they themselves associate with these organizations and networks. The cause of the diversity gap is in the demographic imbalance in these organizations. This does not necessarily make them discriminatory, but it does serve as a barrier to entry for minorities and women. As reputable minority-driven entrepreneurial networks emerge, and integrate with existing networks, this gap will significantly decrease. This is one of many issues. Unawareness in underprivileged communities of Silicon Valley as a path to success, encouragement from underprivileged communities to study STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Math), and access to enabling programs are a some of the other issues contributing to the diversity gap. Black In America 4 should have delved down into all of these issues. More focus should have been put on unawareness, incubators, and entrepreneurial organizations (for aspiring entrepreneurs to look towards for help). Instead of using the entirety of the special to manufacture a ‘good vs. evil’ theme, this public stage should have been used to address a wide range of problems and brought attention to possible solutions.
Given the reach and influence of the CNN documentary, it is the civic responsibility of CNN, journalists, and editing staff to elucidate all aspects of the diversity conflict in Silicon Valley and relay possible resolutions to these conflicts. Alternatively, CNN focuses more on theatrics, and declares absolute statements without providing biases, limitations, and uncertainties in their argument. Many major outlying issues affecting minorities in Silicon Valley are lost in the dramatics. As for the “silver lining”, the documentary did experience brief moments of success. Black In America 4 is an excellent source for those who want to learn more about entrepreneurship, pitching, and Silicon Valley. However, for those concerned about the diversity gap in Silicon Valley: the hurdles and the solutions, Black In America will leave you unsatisfied, at best.