Diversity in tech: time to check our privilege

CT-water

A couple of weeks I spoke to speak on diversity in the South African tech space at Net Prophet. The talk addressed issues around race (mostly) and gender in the tech space. How can tech solve some of the gender issues and race issues in the country and perhaps beyond? How are companies and the tech industry at large dealing with fact there aren’t enough women and people of colour in tech in SA and Africa at large? From an entrepreneurial point of view.

It is such a big conversation that I felt that I needed more time to discuss I feel about this topic and some of the ways we need to start addressing it. Also, the need for context. We automatically assume the lack of something means a lack of interest or a lack of trying by other parties. When it comes to race and gender and entrepreneurship, it is a bit more complicated than that.

People get very defensive and protective when diversity comes up in their industry or company. They needn’t be. I am going to tell you something no one else will. This problem isn’t a problem but an opportunity to build change and find solutions that don’t impose on people but help and support. It is a great and important challenge that is necessary.

Why diversity matters: McKinsey and Company study

Companies with a racially and ethnically diverse leadership are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.Companies with a gender diverse leadership are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

McKinsey and Company makes the business case why diversity should be taken seriously by companies. But there is also the logically moral case. Businesses should be reflective of the society and industry that they exist in. If your company refuses to employ and empower women and people of colour how does it expect to succeed in a society where huge percentages are made up of women and people of colour?

The conversation around diversity needs to shift from what we would like to do what we must do. An entrepreneur trying to solve problems unique to people living in rural Nigeria will never truly succeed unless that entrepreneur talks to and even hires people from that part of the world.

Why are there not enough people of colour and women in tech?

Most people of colour don’t enjoy the prilivlege of being able to go home when it all goes wrong. In black communities there is the notion of “black tax”. Black tax undercuts whatever aspiration young black people have. It is the extra “tax” that the young professional back people are expected to pay to their family immediate and extended. The most publicized case of black tax is footballer Adebayor and the story of how his income was spoken for by family. Most black people don’t have the luxury of entrepreneurship due to circumstantial disadvantages. They cannot afford it. Even if they are not paying black tax they have no support system both financially of emotionally to indulge in starting a business.

There are far too many systematic and circumstantial disadvantages stacked up again people of colour in this country and women on this continent to truly engender an entrepreneurial culture. Culturally women are taught not to entertain careers in tech let alone start businesses in tech. When enough people tell you no, at some point you might start believing that is the right and only answer. The internet on its own has not been kind to women, strong talented women are often shamed and ridiculed by the same industry they are trying to break into. Companies barely recognizes female leadership with very little role models to look up it’s a wonder young girls are not clamoring at the door for tech education and jobs.

Education is also key. Most families find it difficult to support their girl child in a career path they no little about and are not sure it will provide security and life’s comforts. Gender transformation as it is in corporate South Africa and Africa at large is already dismal. Entry into tech can seem near impossible. The few women in real leadership positions are likely paid less than their male counterparts.

Things we can do to improve diversity

Tech companies need to offer better structured and paid internships. Paying intern is a great way to balance out privilege. We need to think about internships as systematically empowering. We need practical solutions for diversity transforms in tech. Companies need to stop choosing candidates algorithmically but more humanly. A diverse interview ensures that each candidate is given fair consideration and presents an opportunity to bust unconscious bias.

There are a number of entrepreneurs that have language barriers against them; vernacular translators could be employed at startup pitches. If not, investors need to make a concerted effort to incorporate what second language speakers are doing. English may be the language of business but Chinese entrepreneurs are not expected to speak English in their pitches are Africans?

Transformation in the tech entrepreneurial space needs to be thought about from a state level. Talented young black people will likely opt for a position in with the state a big corporate because familia responsibilities. Black tax as mention. We need a new form of empowerment to change this. Black Economic empowerment or affirmative actions are not enough, it is time for diversity entrepreneurial empowerment.

The unemployment rate in Africa is on the rise, there are not enough jobs for the people who need them. New jobs must be created and these new jobs will be created by entrepreneurs. It is up to the state to help empower those who will create those jobs.

Saying goodbye to Memeburn: the hardest thing ever

Cape Town

I wrote Memeburn a ‘Dear John Letter’ and someone asked very nicely that I share it. So here goes. Note, Burn Media is the holding company for Memeburn and Creative Spark is the parent company for Burn Media. My goodbye was doubly hard because I had to leave Cape Town…

Dear Burn Media and Creative Spark,

After four years, more than a 1000 posts, over 800 000 words, four continents, 12 countries and 30 cities it seems our time has come to an end. It is not you, it is me, well its you a little. From our humble beginnings in the crack whore den in Hope St. The hipster havens of trendy Kloof St to our contributions to the tech gentrification of Woodstock. Our time has been great, but alas, it is time to signal in a new chapter of my life and so I must pack up my boxes and go.

In every box I have packed there is a memory of you. The day we hit our first million, our first big interview, the day we became 20 people and the day the new york times recognized us.

When I tell our story, I will talk about the smiles, the tears and the frustrations. I will talk about the good times, the bad times and the times I nearly gave up. But more importantly I will talk about the person I became because of you, the strength I got, the persistent that became the norm and the opportunities I found. Friendships gained, the fat cactus, Rick’s cafe and the rooftop of kloof street. I will think of Apple events, company exits and share prices. Ceos and founders interviewed and heroes met. Stories I loved, stories I hated and stories that sadly couldn’t be helped.

When I talk about the losses we endured, I will also talk about the victories, I will talk about Paris, New York, Lagos, Nairobi, Seoul, London, Accra and San Francisco. I will talk about the price of passion, its rewards as well as its consequences. When I tell our story which has been written in the indelible ink of friendship, love and respect, I will talk about an unstoppable dream. A dream we all bought into without question or hesitation. A dream that would see us all break the walls of our shell to become something quite remarkable. A dream that took me out my comfort zone thrust me in the uncomfortable yet rewarding light of stardom.

Most days I felt an exorbitant amount of anxiety and vulnerability when doing this job. But Africa’s stories had to be told. Tracking entrepreneurship, the adrenalin sport of business. One I revelled in.

Even though I will miss you terribly, I must grow outside of this new comfort zone. I am looking forward to this new challenge and to starting a new phase of my career. Thank you so much for allowing me the immense privilege of telling Africa’s stories.

To my team, there are not enough words and even if there were they would mean nothing to what you guys mean to me. No human being has ever had the privilege of sharing an amazing journey as I have. I wish you all everything of the best. You are each so talented and so very clever that I can’t wait for the rest of the world to take notice.

To Creative Spark, I beg you not to lose your sparkles and continue to be a special and creative place.

I have learnt so much here, and I hope in some small way I have taught something as well. I am sorry I have to break up with you. Forgive me.

Yours always,
Mich