CNNMoney has been working with CNN’s Black in America team on a series of stories complementing their new documentary project: The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley. It airs this Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
Any discussion of race and diversity tends to get fraught quickly, so it’s no surprise that this one has led to various fiery discussions. But one theme in particular has come up again and again, from those we interview and from those who comment on our stories: An absolute insistence that the tech world functions as a bias-free zone. “No one cares what you look like; they just care if you can code,” is the common line.
The Black in America production team, led by Soledad O’Brien and lead producer Jason Samuels, conducted hundreds of hours of interviews for the project. While digging through some of their transcripts last night for a quote, I came on this story. It’s from an interview with Lotus co-founder Mitch Kapor, now an influential investor.
MITCH KAPOR: I’ll tell you the following. When we first moved to Silicon Valley, around 2000, for a brief period of time, I was an institutional venture capitalist. And one of the first things I learned was that venture capitalists did not believe that Indians, from the country, India, were capable of being CEOs, even though they were very, very good technically. They would regularly down check and reject startups that were founded by somebody from the Indian subcontinent, ‘cause everybody knew they’re good engineers and they weren’t leaders.
And what’s happened over the 10 years is that has been proven so false by the success of so many Indian-led companies that all of those VCs who said that are probably either ashamed to admit it or have a convenient form of amnesia.
Ok, so that was awful, but it was a decade ago. The problem is all solved now, right?
MITCH KAPOR: In the past week, I have heard two stories from old, good friends of mine whom I trust — that a venture firm has failed to invest in a good startup because they thought that the woman CEO was too aggressive or too brash. That’s this week.
I have not been in the room recently when somebody said, “Oh, that’s an African American-led company; I’m not going to invest there.” I mean, for one thing, people really wouldn’t dare to say that.
But I guarantee you, from personal experience, that’s what people are thinking. Some of the people, some of the time. But enough that not everybody gets the same breaks; not everybody gets the same opportunities. And it’s systemic. And I know it from personal experience.
Think that’s just Kapor’s view? Investor Brad Feld chimed in with a similar story.
That’s why CNN is doing this project and drawing attention to a subject it’s easier to ignore. It’s complicated to talk about and awkward to talk about and there’s no way we’re doing it exactly right; plenty of critics have pointed out areas where they feel our coverage could be stronger. But I’m glad CNN is throwing its resources into having this discussion, and it’s been a privilege to be part of the reporting team on this difficult, fascinating and essential story. -Stacy