It seems there’s always some controversy about the lack of women and certain minorities in tech (read: Blacks and Hispanics). Debates rage on about whether Silicon Valley is a true meritocracy or if pattern matching creates additional barriers for non-white males to succeed.
The real problem isn’t gender or race, it’s poverty. The mythology of success is that all it takes is hard work and determination but that’s simply not true. An access point is also required.
It’s obvious to me, but then again, part of my childhood was spent on welfare in the ghetto of the “worst place to live in the US”. In my neighborhood graduating high school was a high calling and it’s no surprise that most kids didn’t make it that far – when you’re in survival mode it’s hard to think about the future.
I’ve always wondered about my friend Amber who lived in the duplex next door but I can pretty much guarantee she’s not going to be in the next YC class. We lost touch when I moved but I’ll never forget the day when her drug addicted mom was dragged out of my living room by her hair. Her mom’s boyfriend was livid because she wouldn’t tell him the location of the money she’d made the night before from prostituting. At age 8 I remember thinking, “She probably spent it on drugs to put in her needles already.”
I held Amber back as she screamed and forced her to look away as her mom’s head was slammed into the cement porch on her way out of my house.
Food stamps. Section 8. They’re rarely the precursors to an Ivy League education or the founding of a tech company. There are certainly outliers who come from chaotic environments but what’s more common is to hear stories about successful entrepreneurs whose parents provided early access to technology - folks like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Bill Gates and Drew Houston.
When my dad stepped up and decided to move me and my mom to an upper-middle class town a whole new range of possible outcomes opened. At 14 I got my sister’s computer and internet access in my bedroom and that’s when I created a GeoCities site – the first thing I published on the web.
I’d like to believe that no matter the socioeconomic barriers that my story would’ve included finishing grad school from a top university and having a successful business at age 25 but c’mon – I excelled because of the opportunities I was given. I am truly one of the lucky ones.
We like to pretend that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps but upward mobility is surprisingly difficult. It’s not impossible of course, but if you start on the bottom the climb up is a lot steeper and there are fewer people who will take a chance on you.
It’s no surprise that foster kids disproportionately dream of growing up and being social workers instead of software engineers because kids gravitate to what they know.
The beauty of the internet is it has an opportunity to level the playing field by giving kids a chance to learn and connect with folks outside of their neighborhood. It provides a much-needed access point.
Instead of spending so much time talking about the lack of diversity in tech I’d rather be part of conversations about how we can get STEM programs, computers, tablets, and wi-fi to boys and girls in every neighborhood because that’s how the status quo of white male founders in Silicon Valley will actually change.6