At SXSW Interactive, A Modern Civil Rights Movement Grows
A conversation with startup CEO Stephanie Lampkin and MVMT50’s Donell Creech about disrupting a very white and very male tech world.
What if I said the battle being waged in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs across the country—that is, the one surrounding race, gender, and access—was similar to what prominent 1950s activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Bayard Rustin fought in? What if I said a modern civil rights movement, not unlike the one your parents or grandparents knew something about, was taking shape in the Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey world of tech? It’s no secret that the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley is a colossal problem; beyond it being a mere black or white thing, data highlights the glaring disparity between men and women in just about every field. There’s not just one elephant in the room anymore; there are multiple elephants in every crevice and corner office of the valley.
The problem has become so seemingly insurmountable, that this year’s annual SXSW Interactive conference in Texas’ capital city felt more urgent, more important—and, as a result, a little more inspiring—than previous iterations. Sunday proved to be a day of considerable announcements and new beginnings for black women founders; digitalundivided’s Kathryn Finney revealed the creation of the BIG Innovation Center in Atlanta, which will offer resources to women of color tech founders in addition to a four-month “world class accelerator program.” Finney’s center will operate much like the prestigious Y-Combinator but with a more targeted focus: providing access, a platform, and guidance to those often overlooked.
Sunday also saw the official launch of Stephanie Lampkin’s startup, Blendoor, which is a blind-recruiting, merit-based app that seeks to “circumvent unconscious bias and facilitate diversity recruiting” for tech companies both large and small. “I understand the power of economic opportunities,” Lampkin told me, saying she felt the wide-spread exclusion of people who looked like her from Silicon Valley hindered such chances. Donell Creech, the founder of MVMT50, agreed. A community-minded coalition, MVMT50 has provided support to black entrepreneurial startups that have made their way through Austin in the last six years. Creech fully and proudly supports Lampkin's work.
At the Rainey Hookah Lounge on Sunday afternoon, I spoke with Lampkin and Creech about the elephant in the valley, the birth of a modern civil rights movement in tech, and the hurdles still ahead.
How did MVMT50 get started?
Donell Creech: We started out six years ago as a partnership with SXSW Interactive, asking: what can the local African-American community do to plug into the international phenomenon that comes into our backyard every year, but one that local black folk don’t want to take advantage of? We originally started out as Blacks In Technology, and with 2015 the 60th anniversary of the [Selma to Montgomery] marches, the lights kinda went off; we rebranded. We’re pushing for equity and all sorts of things, but through the old methods of politics of protest: going to DC, lobbying for laws, and things like that. But my question is: even though that's how we’ve always done it since Dr. King’s time, how is that working for us now? We can’t keep relying on the same methods to push through.
Technology allows us to do for self—to do our own thing. We don’t have to wait for anybody to like us. James Brown has that song, I don’t need anybody to give me nothing, open the door, I'll do it myself. We’ve taken that and spun it in another direction; we don’t even need you to open up the door. We got our own plans. Our fight for equity and justice needs to come through the same innovations that technology uses. It’s about pushing folks through tech and not waiting.
Do you feel SXSW Interactive has become a more inclusive space in the last few years? Is it still a fight that’s going on, or are the doors actually opening?
Creech: For MVMT50, we try to tell people this is a long game—this is chess, not checkers. If you see the statistics they released in 2014 they really haven’t changed much. Our business is: don’t get discouraged, don’t say it’s not working. One article mentioned the Greek proverb—a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they knows they shall never sit in. So that’s what we’re doing, what Stephanie is doing. Right now we’re trying everything. Even though we may not be seeing the immediate results we want, five, ten years from now we hope to. And we’ve definitely seen some improvement; this is only our sixth year and we’re on the precipice of breaking out. Look, the issue we’re tackling is so entrenched. On one end of the spectrum we’re saying, “White guys are evil; they won’t hire us.” And to them, when you say “diversity,” they respond with, “Black folk aren’t ready. We don’t want to do affirmative action.”
Stephanie Lampkin: They say, “We don’t want to lower the bar.”
Creech: That’s their favorite thing—“Why should we lower the bar?” So that’s why we’re on opposite ends of that. We have to get them to understand that we’re not trying to get you to lower the bar. And on the other end, we’re not saying all white folk are racist and won’t hire black folk. It's about: how do we meet in the middle? What can tech do to solve tech’s diversity problem?
Lampkin: But you have to position it in a way that it’s clear how it affects their bottom line. This can’t just be a social good, some warm and fuzzy thing. So I’ve rebranded for that very reason, to say we’re helping you find the best talent. Unconscious bias—even black folk are bias against each other. But that inhibits us from recognizing talent. So this is an opportunity where we’re targeting people you may not have otherwise considered based on external factors: how your name is spelled, how you look, the way your hair is styled, etc.
Let's go back some; where did the initial spark or idea for Blendoor come from?
Lampkin: It was right after the big tech companies published their data. Reverend Jackson went to Silicon Valley and kicked up a lot of dust to get these companies to publish their employee data; this was summer of 2014. Google, Intel, Facebook—they all released their numbers. The claim was that is was a pipeline problem, that there weren’t enough qualified women and people of color. But the data doesn’t support that. So I wanted to create something that was super, super easy for people to sign on and prove that this isn’t a pipeline problem. These people are qualified, but you’re not giving them opportunities because they’re not a culture fit. Or because of other factors; 90% of your hires are from a referral system, which means you’re just getting the same type of people over and over again. I wanted to create a platform that could give access to these people who don’t use LinkedIn, because they’re afraid of posting their photo or their name for discrimination, or in general with having to stress over their social media in how it affects their professional brand.
And have you seen success from this so far?
Lampkin: Absolutely. It resonates on so many levels with people whose parents named them Laquanda or Jerome or whathaveyou. Time and time again they’ve realized it’s affected their ability to get opportunities, so when I tell people about the blind aspect of [Blendoor], it resonates. But it resonates with people of color. My goal is to bridge that gap with white men who have never experienced that sort of discrimination. And that comes with just saying, “This is natural. It’s not racist, it’s not sexist. We all have it—but you’re missing out. You’re leaving money on the table.” We have to pitch it like, there are opportunities missed. This is not a charity. This is business.
“How do we meet in the middle? What can tech do to solve tech’s diversity problem?” —Donell Creech
Creech: The data is out there to support that argument, but they still don’t believe it. America is about making the dollar, so if told them to implement this software and that every time it would improve the bottomline of their company, they would do it without even thinking about it. There’s study after study that says the same thing about diversity. But there’s still that barrier—they still don’t believe; they haven’t internalized it. If you look at the battle we’re in right now, if you go back to the 1960s, it was illegal for interracial couples to get married—now that seems completely ridiculous, almost as if you could never fathom a period like that happening. This goes back to what we’re seeing in tech right now. But it takes time. We’re planting trees.
Lampkin: They’ve quantified it, too. A white male name on a resume is equivalent to eight years of work experience. And there was another study: a white guy, a Latino guy, and a black guy. Only difference in their qualifications was the white guy had a criminal record—and he was still more likely to get hired. That’s almost like saying, if you were born black or Latino, you have an automatic criminal record when it comes to looking for a job. It’s astounding.
How do you see Blendoor evolving ten years down the line, and possibly helping mitigate the substantial race and gender gap at tech companies?
Lampkin: I’m bullish on data. We’re talking about making people accountable; I want to be able to showcase not only just hiring, but retention, promotion, salary—being able to track and make people accountable for the fact that they’re not giving people equal opportunities, equal pay, equal promotion, etc, based on things that don’t matter: race, gender, sexual orientation. I want to dig deeper into that. Even beyond hiring, going into investment; there are only 11 black women in the world who have raised more than a million dollars in venture capital. And a lot of that is the same sort of bias. Another study: AirBnB; black hosts get 80% less revenue and are more likely to be rejected. eBay: women tend to get three-fourths the price for the same product as men. There are so many cases where gender, race, and orientation have nothing to do with the quality of the product, or service or the candidate, but it’s significant in return.
Do you see this denial of access for blacks and Latinos as a civil rights issue?
Lampkin: Yes. Absolutely. Somebody compared my work to Whitney Young. I didn’t know much about him until someone mentioned him to me. He was part of the Martin Luther King Jr./ Malcolm X era, but his goal was strictly focused on economic opportunity. He was meeting with GM, meeting with Ford, saying, “You need to hire black people if you want to scale these companies.” And that helped create the black middle class. I don’t consider myself an activist, but I understand the power of economic opportunities, and the black middle class is—
Lampkin: Right. And I grew up in D.C., too. At the time, PG County was the wealthiest black county in the world, and now we’re trying to catch up in this information age. Like, for instance, with Black Girls Code—Indians were teaching their kids how to code 30 years ago. We have a lot of catching up to do if we expect to make an impact in technology.
Creech: What’s often not acknowledged is, the blueprint is there. White folks, they built a solid middle class. Now, three or four generations later, their kids have a stepping stone. They don’t have that memory of when their dad got the G.I. Bill and he was able to buy property, now it just seems natural; they believe they did it themselves. Whenever we say the same thing for black folk, it’s “Y’all just want a handout.” No. Even today, with corporate America—the handouts they get. It dwarfs what we get. It’s dealing with that language. And as frustrating as it is—I’m sure Dr. King and Malcolm X wanted to bang their heads against the walls, like, “How could they not see this?”—we need to develop allies and not enemies.
Lampkin: I kinda just want us to get money. I’m not the activist type. I’m like, “Let’s get money.”
Creech: [Laughs] Not the old way they used to do it.
The Puff Daddy mentality—let’s just make money.
Lampkin: You have to think long game. The unfortunate thing about our community is; we’re so short-term, so instant gratification focused. Even my family asks why I don’t have a job. “You just paid all this money to go to Stanford and MIT, where’s your job?” And unfortunately many of us don’t have the capabilities to not work and have a startup, but the reality is the return is so much higher. My mother was a Mary K and Avon consultant; like these pyramid marketing-type companies. Even trying to tell her how tech entrepreneurship can generate billionaires, it doesn’t resonate. She has no frame of reference to understand why I’m doing it and why it’s important. We need to educate. We need to instill this idea more in our community. This idea that, it may not pay off right away, but just keep plugging at it—fail, fail fast, fail cheaply, and keep going. Iterate, iterate.
Creech: And that knowledge piece is what’s missing. We have to attack this from multiple fronts. We can’t just say, “White folks are evil.” We have to show our community how to do it and how it’s been done.