If you’re here, you’re likely wondering what it’s like to be a Black professional in tech. And we’re not going to lie, it could be better. So, in light of Black History Month, let’s actually talk about it.
Here’s the unvarnished truth of Black representation throughout tech — past, present, and future.
In 1951, Roy Clay Sr. graduated from St. Louis University with a BS in mathematics. It was as close as he could get to a major in computer science at the time. However, when he went out into the world with his considerable expertise, he couldn’t land the jobs he wanted. In fact, in one interview with McDonnel Aircraft, he was told, “Mr. Clay, we are very sorry but we have no jobs for professional Negros.” So instead, he became a teacher. Undeterred, in 1956, he returned and got a job at that same company as a computer programmer.
Following that, he had a successful career. He modeled nuclear fallout using Fortran, set HP up as a successful company by writing the software for their first computer, and then founded his own company, Rod-L, in 1977. It’s easy to see why he became known as the “Godfather of Silicon Valley.”
And Gladys West, the daughter of sharecroppers in rural Virginia, also got a BS in math. She graduated from what was then known as Virginia State College in 1952, returning and earning a master’s in the same subject in 1955 after also teaching at a segregated school.
From there, she climbed through numerous public sector tech jobs. Eventually, thanks to the work she did on Seasat, a satellite designed to gather data on the oceans, GEOSAT was born. It could calculate how satellites were orbiting, and these calculations built the model from which GPS was later born.
So there was representation. But there is a paucity of examples. You don’t need us to say it: it was difficult for Black folks to find work in a nascent tech industry.
In fact, West was one of the first four Black employees hired in her first public sector job. Not four percent. Just four.
It’s tragic, but no surprise. In fact, throughout US history, the primary relationship between Black bodies and tech has been one of exploitation. If we abstract “tech” to include all technology and not just computer science, as we’ve been using “tech” thus far, then technology was directly connected to the proliferation of chattel slavery. As any US high schooler could tell you, there is a bright line connecting the invention of the cotton gin to a sudden increase in Black slaves.
And we can even bring this exploitation back to the modern, more Silicon-Valley focused usage of the word “tech.” In August 2023, a biotech company settled a lawsuit for profiting off tissue that was collected from Henrietta Lacks without her consent. These HeLa cells, as they’re known, have been the foundation of numerous biotechnical advances because they can be easily and repeatedly grown within a lab. These cells were even used to develop vaccines for polio and covid. And they were harvested from a Black woman without her knowledge.
The history of tech in the US is, in a way, just the history of the country, with all the abuse of Black bodies that comes with it. And during Black History Month, as well as all year long, we can and should celebrate the successes of people like Roy Clay Sr. and Gladys West. But they succeeded against something, and we need to keep that in mind as well.
In the modern day, you can find success in tech just like they did. But we’re not going to pretend that equity has been reached and that the prejudices of history have been scrubbed from our current tech industry.
So now we get to today. Overt state-sanctioned racism is, at least in name, illegal. We had a Black president, and we patted ourselves on the back for being so wonderfully post-racial.
Of course, that doesn’t reflect any lived reality. As of the most recent census, Black Americans represented 13.6% of the population. Yet only 7% of people in tech in the US were black. Then, when we climb to the top levels of the industry, the picture gets worse. Only 3% of tech executives are Black.
According to one study, applicants with “Black” names are 50% less likely to land a job interview. Public school districts where students of color are the majority receive $2,700 less than comparable white-majority districts. And when we get to higher education, states have underfunded historically Black colleges and universities by $12 billion. Then, grads of these universities can have a hard time even landing an interview; one HBCU grad was told by a recruiter for one of the Big Four accounting firms, i.e., Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC, that they discard resumes they receive from HBCU applicants.
The injustice is staggering. But if you’re all the way down here in this article, you don’t need a bootcamp to tell you that. Probably, you’re looking for ways to address it.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the tech industry is projected to grow far quicker than others. It will keep needing qualified professionals. That means the future of Black representation in tech could be you.
In fact, tech is going to need your voice. As it starts defining more and more of our lives, especially in the case of AISolving the Trolley Problem Won’t Make AI Ethical, we’re going to need radically different people in the room helping craft our digital future. Without the voices of Black people in tech, it will only perpetuate entrenched systems of oppression.
Because the world needs people like you in tech and because representation matters, we have scholarships for Black students.
It’s just a start, and there’s a lot more to do. But we think the first step is to ensure that Black folks interested in tech are given more access to the careers that can redefine the world. We believe there should be more people like Roy Clay Sr. and Gladys West. We believe this is one small way to help make that real.
So let’s celebrate the contributions of Black tech pioneers and hold them up as prime role models showing just how transformative and significant Black voices can be within the tech industry. Let’s also make sure that we work to follow through on the promise they represent.