While much of the country struggles to emerge from a recession, California’s Silicon Valley is booming, and technology companies like Facebook, Skype, and Apple are seeing their valuations soar. CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O’Brien reports that the ownership of this digital bloom is mostly young, white, and male. For her fourth Black in America documentary, O’Brien asks why, according to industry analyst CB Insights, less than one percent of all venture capital money went to digital startups with African-American founders in 2010 – and she profiles a unique, technology-focused “accelerator” developed to help African-American digital entrepreneurs secure funding to establish their businesses.
Black in America: The New Promised Land – Silicon Valley will debut on Sunday, Nov. 13 at 8:00p.m. ET & PT and replay on Nov. 13 at 11:00p.m. ET & PT. It will also replay on Saturday, Nov. 19 at 8:00p.m. and 11:00p.m. ET & PT on CNN/U.S.
The NewMe accelerator program, founded by friends Angela Benton and Wayne Sutton, is a collaborative of African-American start-up founders with Internet-based businesses – the first such business accelerator of its kind. NewMe’s ultimate mission is to diversify the technology industry by accelerating the participants’ business ventures. Participants seek venture capital investment and are mentored by prominent people from within the industry.
O’Brien follows the progress of the eight former strangers after they were selected to live together for nine weeks in a modest, three-bedroom house in Mountain View, CA, from June to August of 2011. The entrepreneurs were provided with free office space and attended regular networking events hosted by NewMe’s sponsors. The participants come from varied backgrounds and experiences, and include:
The participants have given up family and creature comforts to focus on the pursuit of their dreams, but the official launch of the program was inauspicious. They gather for what they are told is an informal welcome reception at Google. In fact, the reception turns out to be a “Dragons’ Den,” a presentation opportunity for their business plans in front of their mentors and sponsors. It does not go well.
“I said to myself that they weren't ready,” says mentor Navarrow Wright to O’Brien, when she asks for his frank assessment of the Dragons’ Den presentations. Wright told the NewMe participants that their lackluster presentations were not well-received. His response to Williams, who offers reasons for the poor performances:
“You can make those excuses and at the end of the nine weeks, not be where you need to be. But you got to recognize, the only person that was in control of that fault was yourself,” Wright told the group. Wright founded GlobalGrind.com, a successful digital publisher of hip hop industry news and celebrity gossip, and is now the chief technology officer of Interactive One, the digital arm of syndicated, minority-owned radio company, Radio One.
Among the potential investors is Ron Conway, known as an “angel investor” – a person who provides capital to fledgling start-ups. Conway’s past Silicon Valley successes include Google, Twitter, and PayPal. He acknowledges would-be entrepreneurs face an uphill climb to secure the sought-after dollars from his firm. “We only invest in one out of 30 companies that we see,” he tells O’Brien. “That’s pretty brutal; I have to admit that a lot of it is who you know,” says Conway.
Digital entrepreneur and investor Michael Arrington, former editor of TechCrunch and founder of CrunchFund, has been previously outspoken in his beliefs that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy, but he acknowledges to O’Brien that it’s not a perfect one. Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Software Company and Kapor Capital takes that view further – that the tech industry is not immune to cultural biases:
“There is something in the dynamic of the start-up world that is quite meritocratic. People do start out on the outside and move to the inside by virtue of what, what they do. But is that really true? Is that true for African-Americans?” Kapor asks O’Brien rhetorically. “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,’ but I guarantee you, from personal experience, that’s what people are thinking…The part that is meritocratic is great – and there’s a big part of it that isn’t. And so, please, let’s not fool ourselves and pretend otherwise in some self-congratulatory kind of way.”
The NewMe program concluded with “Demo Day,” a high-stakes formal presentation by participants before an audience of potential investors. Viewers will learn late in the documentary which start-up received expansion funding.
Video excerpts and other materials related to The New Promised Land can be found at www.cnn.com/inamerica. CNN Money co-produced and co-wrote a feature with in-depth articles on the technology sector and the NewMe accelerator, that includes some written by people who appear in the documentary, http://money.cnn.com/technology/newme_incubator.
Jason Samuels is lead producer for The New Promised Land. Cameo George is senior producer; Kimberly Arp-Babbit is producer; Dave Matthews is associate producer. Geraldine Moriba is executive producer for the In America unit.
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