Open disclosure: I am African American.
My open letter is in response to Amy Haimerl’s article, ‘Diversity left out of startup revolution in Detroit’ posted in Crain’s Detroit on June 24th. Her article, which referenced the ‘Rise of the Rest’ tour led by AOL Founder, Steve Case, was eye opening to some and voice of confirmation for others. The tour features a startup pitch competition with a $100,000 prize for the best startup pitch in each city (Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Pittsburgh). I was glad to see this event kick off in Detroit. There was great media coverage, political involvement, and social media engagement which are all positives for the city, state and local entrepreneurial and tech communities. My congratulations goes out to the Detroit based startup Stik for winning the $100,000 prize.
Like most local tech events it was light on women and racial diversity. The current class of startups, founders, and developers in Detroit is disproportional in terms of race and gender which is similar to other mature startup ecosystems like Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, Boulder and Austin to name a few. So this problem isn’t unique to Detroit, but it does present a unique opportunity for us to be the face of an inclusive startup economy. This would require harnessing the human capital of a larger portion of the rich diverse talent that exists in Detroit. Granted, this is easier said than done, but this issue presents a great opportunity for Detroit to become a pioneer in diversity.
Percentage of African American’s Per City on the Rise of the Rest tour:
Here are the percentages of African Americans per city in the Rise of the Rest tour: Pittsburgh 26%, Nashville 28.4%, Cincinnati 44.8%, and Detroit 82.7%. According to the city census, Detroit is an African American city. Right, wrong, or indifferent, the harsh reality is that Detroit will never get a pass on the subject of diversity and startups as long as the huge gap continues to exist between the city and startup demographics. Period.
Is there Value in Diversity?
Diverse communities bring different experiences, different thought processes, competitive advantages and innovative solutions to the table. There has been an explosion of activity around growing the presence of women and girls in the entrepreneurial and startup space. For example, Google just invested $50M in ‘Made with Code’ a program to excite girls about computer science.
Who is Responsible for Diversity?
There are universal challenges that impact success such education, professional networks, financial resources, and other socio-economic issues. In general, there tends to be a lack of access and exposure, technical founders, developers, and experienced entrepreneurs whose knowledge is often needed to build sustainable startups.
Let me speak of behalf of the African American community.
The reality is if you are smart and African American your family expects you to get a good paying job with benefits working for someone else. You might ask the question, “What about family and friends investing $10K in your startup?” Generally speaking, we didn’t grow up in environments where we pooled resources together to launch ideas or build businesses. In fact, most of us came from families where resources were limited and extra money to invest in ideas/dreams was not available. I am not here to make excuses but historically in the African American community entrepreneurship wasn’t viewed as a pathway to success.
Detroit is a City of Firsts
Detroit was the blueprint of the modern industrial economy. We built the middle class, we built the first highway, we were the first to pay middle class workers $5/hr, we created electro music, we created the light bulb, we perfected the mass manufacturing production line, we even won the first football championship (Pre-NFL). I could go on and on about Detroit’s firsts. We have some amazing work being done by Dan Gilbert, Detroit Venture Partners (DVP), Google, Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), Techtown and New Economy Initiative (NEI) to name a few. These organizations are helping to build a startup community that is driving change in the local and national narratives about Detroit. But the reality is….. it isn’t enough. There needs to be more people of color and women at the table helping to drive change, not just in the room hoping to get a seat.
So I take as much responsibility as others who don’t look like me for the discouraging lack of diversity in the startup space in Detroit. However, Detroit it is time for change! Together let’s get it done.