If venture capitalists Mitch and Freada Kapor of Kapor Capital; their new partner and former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous; attorney, activist and cofounder of Rebuild the Dream, Van Jones; and other technology influencers have anything to do with it, change is afoot for students of color looking to enter the STEM fields. Those “other technology influencers,” James I. Cash, Jr., professor & senior associate dean, Harvard Business School; Marian Croak, senior vice president, Domain 2.0 Architecture & Advanced Services Development, AT&T Labs; and Chinedu Echeruo, partner and head of principal investing, Constant Capital; as well as the Kapors, were honored in late July at Andrea Hoffman’s 5th Annual Diversity Affluence Brunch in The Hamptons.
Van Jones served as host.
Other attendees included Goldman Sachs partner Valetino D. Carlotti; Booz Allen partner Reginald Van Lee; international businessman Gbenga Oyebode; Marva Smalls of Viacom; Deb Elam, GE; Debra Lee, Chairman of BET; Business partners and restaurateurs B. Smith and Dan Gasby; and Lucinda Martinez of HBO.
Held at Harlow East in Sag Harbor, N.Y., an airy, sun-lit venue on the marina that formerly housed B. Smith’s restaurant, the early afternoon event inspired engaging conversation about the current state of the tech landscape and the lack of African Americans in that space.
“It’s easy to sit here and feel congratulatory in Sag Harbor or in The Inkwell. Politics and commerce go hand-in-hand. But if we do nothing else, let us be recommitted to the hard work to make sure that 50 years from now, we have rooms that look like this,” said Ben Jealous. Jealous spoke of “unmet markets and untapped potential” and described the important work that he and his colleagues are doing via the Level Playing Field Institute at Kapor Capital. A mission to eliminate the barriers faced by underrepresented people of color in STEM, the 13-year old program provides access, education and opportunities to Black & Latino high school kids in Oakland, California’s Bay area.
Jealous’ suggestion that we recommit to the cause was perfectly befitting of this year’s honorees. But judging by their bios, they’ve clearly been committed all along.
Honoree Marian Croak, for example, owns more technology patents than any other woman in the United States – 180 to be exact. She manages the development of AT&T’s next generation network and services and meta-data analytics and researches advanced technologies. Known for inspiring young people for STEM fields, Croak told TNJ.com, “Young people suffer from a lack of encouragement. They need mentors and role models. We must develop ways to do mass communication that appeals to them through social networking technology.”
Deb Elam of General Electric agreed. “Promoting STEM is the big challenge we face for young African Americans. The key is to engage them early. Role models can show how Math, for example, is interesting. Right now, there’s a funnel regarding STEM, and we’ve got to get kids into that funnel,” she said.
Honoree Chinedu Echeruo, who heads a West-African based investment bank, also spoke to TNJ.com about the diversity gap in technology. “Inspiration is within the family structure,” he said. “You essentially do what your family tells you to do. It’s also about exposure. Young people should be exposed to situations where they are engaged and where they can have fun. For example, they can be exposed to hackathons, and other forms of entertainment, that help promote STEM interest.”
Jones expanded the conversation by regarding kids who buy and play video games, instead of CREATING video games as "digital cotton pickers." He explained, "The future is not being written in laws. It's being written in code in Silicon Valley. It's about making change happen and disrupting industries. We have not thought to include ourselves. Are our kids supposed to be digital cotton pickers who make money for other people? If our kids are going to be sitting down and moving their fingers, they need to be creating something and making money."
As if all of the brilliant ideas and plans for innovation weren't enough, the brunch ended on a high note to the tune of $11,000, a pledge from Dan Gasby.
Bellluci Napoli; Belvedere; HBO; News One; Viacom; BET; General Electric; Microsoft; and South African Tourism served as sponsors.
(For a related article on the tech gap, CLICK HERE.)