Black innovators use emerging technology in areas like gaming, cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence to advance equity, build Black wealth
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Despite their role in transformative tech advancements, Black founders still struggle to get adequate funding and recognition.
By Linda Miller, BIPOCXChange
In 2014, tech entrepreneur Tavonia Evans raised $165,000 from angel investors to launch her first startup, a peer-to-peer identity verification and background check platform called Safe2Meet. But when she went looking for capital to scale the business, she ran headfirst into a shameful reality: Black women founders receive less than 1% of venture capital dollars. At the same time, she saw many of her peers starting to raise money for their ventures using blockchain and cryptocurrency.
“I figured out a long time ago, that's what Black folks need. We need to create our own money, especially in America,” Evans said. In 2017, she did just that, creating Guapcoin, the first publicly launched, decentralized, digital currency focused on building generational wealth in the global African diaspora.
It’s but one example of how Black tech innovators are disrupting the status quo, shattering the myth of Black inferiority with their accomplishments, and ushering in a more inclusive and equitable society through technology—often with little recognition.
Evans recently joined other entrepreneurs in discussing the challenges facing Black tech founders but also the incredible opportunities that technology like artificial intelligence holds for fostering equity and advancing Black liberation. The Feb. 27 conversation was the second installment of the virtual Racial Reckoning Discussion Series sponsored by the Multicultural Media & Correspondents Association (MMCA) and held via the BIPOCXChange (BXC), a metaverse platform that, among other services, hosts events and distributes content for its 300+ Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) media members and their audiences.
Black entrepreneurs are creating new opportunities for themselves and others by launching startups, designing apps, and founding organizations that are changing the tech landscape. Yet they are woefully under-represented in the industry and in mainstream media narratives about it, said MMCA President David Morgan, creator and co-host of the discussion series.
Added Morgan’s cohost Tiffany Norwood: “I can tell you as a lifelong technologist that there are many things in our everyday lives that we use, that were invented by Black people. Caller ID came from a Black inventor. Traffic lights came from the creative minds of Black tech. One of my favorite inventors—Patricia Bath, a Black woman—created and has five patents around laser cataract surgery.”
Norwood received her first IP right, a patent, at the age of 23. Currently, she heads up Tribetan, a company she founded that uses technology, music, video and animations to teach entrepreneurship and innovation literacy for success in business, school and life.
Norwood said she taught herself to code in the 1970s using a book, paper and pencil. She went on to earn degrees from Cornell University and Harvard Business School and to launch nine startups. Her ventures have ranged from the first one-strap backpack to the automation technology behind self-install kits for broadband internet to a virtual reality gaming platform. In 2022, Cornell named her Entrepreneur of the Year, and she recently published her first book,"Vote Like a Boss: An Entrepreneur’s Perspective on Innovation, Leadership, Creativity, Storytelling, and Voting."
The skill sets and mindsets that I cultivated along the way to being an entrepreneur are the skillsets and mindsets that are important in everyday life. They're the skill sets and mindsets of being self-made. They're the skill sets and mindsets of agency. They are the same skill sets that allow people to be the first of their family to go to school or to get a university degree,” Norwood said. “And it [centers] around persuasive storytelling, cultivating endurance and cultivating optimism.”
Fostering endurance and optimism is even more critical when you consider Black or Latinae graduates earn 15-19% of computer science degrees yet they make up less than 3% of the tech industry, according to a 2020 report in Techonomy.
Industry executives often blame this failure—and the wealth gap that it fuels—on the so-called "pipeline problem," using terms like "lowering the bar" to infer Black, Latinae and women candidates are less qualified. These stereotypes are then amplified in media coverage that continually hypes the brilliance of White male innovators and disruptors like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs while ignoring the contributions of Black tech superstars like Evans, Norwood and others who participated in MMCA’s discussion:
• Albert E. White, whose book, "Race for the Net: When African Americans Controlled the Internet and What Happens Now," charts the story of Network Solutions, a Black technology company that played a pivotal role in creating the Internet;
• Dante Simpson, cofounder of ESPAT TV, a creative studio that, among other ventures, meshes live TV, advertising, music, movies and other content with esports and video games;
• Bentley Charlemagne, who founded Qme Spotlight Ecosystem, a company that builds customized digital environments that strengthen community connection and support small business growth;
• Tayler J. James, former director of research at The Plug, which prior to its March 16 closing, published The Black Tech Effect Report, celebrating the success of 100 promising Black-led, high-growth tech companies while acknowledging the ongoing challenges affecting the Black tech ecosystem.
They spoke about what prompted them to pursue careers in tech, how they got to where they are, what they are working on now, and how they persevere in a sector that, already one of the least diverse, is experiencing massive layoffs that are disproportionately impacting women and people of color and eroding diversity, equity and inclusion commitments.
Simpson said he takes inspiration from Tyler Perry’s powerful acceptance speech upon receiving BET’s Ultimate Icon Award in 2019.
“It’s all about trying to help somebody cross. While everybody else is fighting for a seat at the table, talking about ‘#OscarsSoWhite, #OscarsSoWhite,’ I said, ‘Y’all go ahead and do that. While you’re fighting for a seat at the table, I’ll be down in Atlanta building my own.’” Perry said, adding, “I want you to hear this, every dreamer in this room. There are people whose lives are tied to your dream. Own your stuff, own your business, own your way.”
Perry’s words changed Simpson’s journey. “I'll never forget it. It's kind of my motto, and...I've made it a mission within the gaming space.”
And with notable success. Simpson’s ESPAT Studios has been a part of some of the most memorable moments in gaming culture, including the development and production of immersive experiences, mixed-reality, and trailers for notable gaming titles. “Anytime you go into a movie theater and you watch a trailer and you see a video game air prior to the movie, that's actually coming through our studio,” Simpson said.
During the height of the pandemic, Simpson began embedding virtual concerts into immersive video game experiences, which led to notable moments like Travis Scott’s five-performance tour in Fortnite.
“We meshed everything that we had done previously and kind of brought it into this gaming space.
Being a disruptor, Simpson said, is often just identifying an obvious gap or “white space” and using ingenuity to fill it, often through collaboration. Then there is the kind of innovation that disrupts entire systems, like using gamification in education to offer students tangible rewards that go beyond just grades.
Or, as Evans has done, creating an entire currency that not only builds Black wealth but gives people more control over their money, their data, their future. “That's what blockchain would allow us to do,” Evans said. “To have that transparency, to see our money function, how it functions, where it's functioning, and to have greater control over our dollar.”
Entrepreneurs of color are often denied access to capital not just to start their own businesses but to scale them.
Consider the case of Network Solutions, a Black-founded technology company that developed the domain name registration service for the Internet, earning an exclusive contract from the National Science Foundation in 1993 to be the provider for .com, .net and .org top level domains. The firm was acquired two years later for $4.7 million in part because its Black founders were denied the investments necessary to scale the business, said White, who worked at the company and wrote a book chronicling its journey.
“We could not raise capital, even though we had this premier position in the world,” White said. “A lot of people kept saying to us, ‘well, we don't know where the internet's going’…and ‘if it's that important, why did they give [the contract] to Black people?’”
In 2002, the company was sold again in an all-stock deal worth $21 billion.
“Historically that's been our tradition. We develop something, put it out there, we can't get funding, and then somebody else benefits from it,” White said. “So that was the reason that I wrote the book. I wanted our community and other communities to know that African Americans played a major role in the initial launch of the internet…I was also curious about what would be said in the future to our grandkids and our kids about the internet.”
Though Black founders raised almost $2 billion in funding in 2021, that number is minuscule compared to the $147 billion startups raised collectively.
“The difference between Jeff Bezos and the average Black person is he lost $300 million but was able to get more money to launch [more businesses] even after that failure. We couldn't have gotten money like that,” White said
Norwood noted that, as a Black female tech entrepreneur, she raised $700 million for satellite radio startups. “And even with all we've done and the impact, [we've achieved] every time I do a startup…I still have to start at the very beginning as if I've done nothing.”
Perhaps that is why Norwood and the other entrepreneurs are so passionate about helping other Black talent succeed in tech and the promise that artificial intelligence (AI), Web3 and other emerging technologies hold for helping Black businesses to thrive.
Bentley Charlamagne grew up in the Caribbean, moved to the U.S., where he created the Qme spotlight digital ecosystem providing marketing, branding, and technology solution development, and earned “every certification you could think about.”
“It propelled us to the top of the food chain very quickly, working with 14 Fortune 500 companies,” he said. “But in talking to some of those communities, we realized there were challenges for a lot of the small businesses” that weren’t being addressed.
So Qme pivoted to building online “ecosystems” that facilitate learning, connection, and problem-solving, especially for small business owners. They’ve built ecosystems across the FinTech space and the news and media space, among others, including creating the BIPOCXChange. In Philadelphia, Qme built online portals to help Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFIs) assess minority small businesses and connect them with banks, CDFIs and other investors that can provide them with capital.
Qme is now looking into how to integrate AI tools like ChatGPT into its platforms.
While chatbots have long been a common tool for answering customer service questions online, ChatGPT can take a prompt, comb the internet for relevant information, and convert that into plausible-sounding paragraphs of text. It has been used to write essays and poetry, summarize documents, build apps, even conduct makeshift therapy sessions. Just two months after its November 2022 debut, ChatGPT had more than 30 million users, making it one of the fastest-growing software products in memory according to The New York Times. Despite complaints that ChatGPT is prone to giving biased or incorrect answers, it has set off a feeding frenzy of investors trying to get in on the next wave of the A.I. boom.
“I've already built three apps utilizing the OpenAI ChatGPT and there's more I want to build,” said cryptocurrency developer Evans. “There’s just so much opportunity. I just want to scream it from the mountaintops.”
Evans believes publicly accessible AI could be a transformative tool for Black business owners who struggle to get the capital needed to hire employees and build their businesses. “In this age where Black women are starting businesses at a rate of 3:1 to everybody else, they now have another tool to scale their businesses at a rate faster than anybody else,” she noted.
But, just like with cryptocurrency, there is a lot of confusion and trepidation around AI, including concerns that it is going to put a lot of people out of work. Evans said it’s incumbent upon those in the industry to help people of color move past their fears. “We have to stop what we are doing and get out on the streets and educate the people and say, ‘Hey, it's not like what you think. This is an opportunity. This is the help that you've been asking for, that you need. We need to create more opportunities amongst our people, so the education piece is huge right now.”
White agreed. He is currently an advisor on a large venture fund that only invests in established minority firms, where he focuses on how to leverage emerging technologies, such as electric vehicles, which he says will be bigger than the internet. “There's a tremendous opportunity for our community to capture the [EV]space, but we’ve got to be trained,” he said, noting that he is looking to acquire a large training company that can build the capacity of HBCUs.
Tayler James is the former research director at The Plug, a news outlet and research company that, until its recent closing, covered the ways that Black people are affected by and engaged with the innovation economy, and produced a weekly newsletter offering insights on HBCUs.
“I love everything about HBCUs and the foundation that they set for the Black economy,” said Tayler, herself a proud graduate of Florida A&M University.
On March 16, Founder and CEO Sherrell Dorsey announced that The Plug was closing.
It filled an important gap, producing original research on everything from how many Fortune 500 companies have at least one Black board member who is an alumnus of an HBCU (11%), to a look at how well ChatGPT responds to questions about the Black tech ecosystem, to its State of the Pledge report, a comprehensive overview published in partnership with the Blacks In Technology Foundation that revisits the 2020 commitments made by tech organizations to be more inclusive of Blacks through investment and recruitment efforts.
One of the firm’s last studies, The Black Tech Effect Report, was the culmination of a year-long effort to dive deeper into solution-oriented, problem-solving companies paving a path toward the future, many of which are having their time in the spotlight for the very first time. It was produced in partnership with "The Tech We Want," a program of Omidyar Network.
“We decided to highlight and celebrate 100 Black founders who are creating systems and solutions to address different disparities and issues within our country, within our world, and give them their flowers and celebrate with them, in all of their accomplishments,” James explained.
“We have a whole section of companies that are creating work within the social impact space. They're in EV, they're in climate change—things that you don't typically hear about, especially within our Black community. And they're creating these systems and solutions,” James said.
“We highlighted 100, but there are thousands.”
To view the entire Black Innovators and Disruptors conversation, visit the BIPOCXChange.