The 'Blacks In Tech' Series Wraps, But Let's Keep Talking
Editor's Note: As part of Tell Me More's three-week-long Twitter exploration of black innovators in the tech sector, digital lifestyle expert Mario Armstrong analyzed the tweets and the conversations going on under the hashtag #NPRBlacksinTech. The series wraps today. Below, he looks back on what we've learned.
I think it's important to look at some of the discussions and comments that have come from readers and commenters in addition to official participants, which included a slate of black tech leaders who tweeted with the hashtag about their work and their experiences. #NPRBlacksinTech is an important conversation, not just for 20 days this month, but also for the coming weeks and years — though hopefully not for decades!
One comment in particular got me thinking about why it's important for us to have this conversation:
"Such a pity, that dispensaries of so-called 'news,' after lo these many years, still can't seem to get past their fixation on skin color."
To start, I'd like to tell you a story. In 1999, three years before Friendster, four years before Myspace, and five years before Mark Zuckerberg launched "Thefacebook" from his Harvard dorm room, Omar Wasow founded BlackPlanet. It was one of the first sites on the Internet in a new wave that came to be called "social networks." As Omar told Complex magazine:
"The guys who started Myspace were quoted in Businessweek magazine saying that they looked at BlackPlanet as a model for Myspace and thought there was an opportunity to do a general market version of what BlackPlanet was."
In the years since BlackPlanet launched, Tom Anderson sold Myspace to News Corp. for hundreds of millions. Zuckerberg's Facebook has become a household name, is one of the most heavily visited destinations on the Internet and raised billions during the company's IPO. But nobody seems to even remember Omar Wasow's name. How can that be?
When people ask me why the hashtag #NPRBlacksinTech conversation is important, it forces me to think hard about Omar's inspiring story: He's a great example of why we should use our energy to discuss and highlight the amazing contributions that blacks have made, and continue to make, to our connected world. He's an incredible success story, a highly intelligent individual who was able to operate years ahead of his time, and, yes, he did eventually sell BlackPlanet along with several other sites for $38 million.
@TellMeMoreNPR When I graduated with my engineering PhD, there were 9 other black PhDs that graduated. Not in my class, but in the country!— Ainissa Ramirez, Ph.D. (@ainissaramirez) December 5, 2013
Today, Omar is an assistant professor at Princeton, a position he's more than qualified for, with three postgraduate degrees from Harvard. But I'm left with the obvious fact that most people would not recognize Omar if they saw him on the street.
Perhaps most damaging is the fact that many black kids don't realize that Omar, a positive role model, had accomplished so much before Zuckerberg made his mark. I hear and see headlines all the time about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, asking who's going to be "the next Steve Jobs" or "the next Mark Zuckerberg," and it prompts the question: How come no one asks, "Who's the next Omar Wasow?"
You can definitely argue that Omar was in the wrong place (New York City instead of Silicon Valley) at the wrong time (2001 instead of 2004). You could also argue that he missed the boat because his social networks "Asian Avenue" and "Mi Gente" were limited to minority audiences, while Facebook started as an exclusive network for Ivy League college students but eventually grew to include everyone.
But take one look at pictures of any of the billionaire founders of Twitter, Facebook, Myspace or any other major social network, and then compare those faces to Omar's. You'll see a more powerful fact emerge: He stands alone as a black face in an almost exclusively white crowd.
This isn't just about Omar, but his story is a great example of why this conversation is so vital. #NPRBlacksinTech is about more than just highlighting individuals and the participants who are sharing their stories on Twitter throughout December. It's about making sure a deep and engaging dialogue around blacks in technology continues to happen.
If we can all agree that STEM is our economic future, then we can also agree that we need to perpetuate a virtuous cycle of feedback where the achievements of minorities and women are noted, celebrated, financially supported and then emulated. That is going to help more kids see STEM as a reality for themselves and hopefully lead to the betterment of our society.
I tell kids all the time, "In order to personally grow, you need to be comfortable being uncomfortable!" I'm hoping adults might embrace the thought as well.
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