Tristan Walker and race in Silicon Valley

The latest feature in Fast Company leads with a statistic: Just 1-2% of employees at Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and Google are black.

As an industry known for it's white frat boy and white geek boy communities, Silicon Valley is severely lacking in diversity both with regards to female leaders and leaders of color. And this is why Tristan Walker's story is novel. As an African American post-graduate, Walker first worked on Wall Street, then as an intern at Twitter, then as Foursquare's first bizdev leader, and finally as entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz. Today he runs his start-up Walker & Co., which is focused on providing personal care products for people of color.

(I won’t lie about how my biased excitement for Tristan Walker's feature in Fast Company is based on the fact that the man was schooled through New York City's Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO), a program that works to place students of color with colleges and job opportunities for upward mobility. For context, I've been working with SEO as a mentor for two years and have been following their work for four.)

When topics of race filter through my feeds, conversations tend to focus on how the dynamics of race are embedded in government systemic structures that then bleed into the day-to-day (Hello, Ferguson). But this also holds for the corporate structures set up in the largest tech companies.

From Fast Company:

It is racist, for example, to approach a recruiting firm with the mandate to fill an engineering position only with someone from one particular Ivy League school, where blacks comprise a single-digit percentage of the student population. it is racist to rely on employee referrals for hires, when the typical social network of a white American is 1% black.

In the entrepreneur courses I've taken and the millions of articles bouncing around Twitter, I always see an emphasis placed on consumer research (also known as bottom-up research). When I look at Walker's mission, I'm surprised how something like Walker & Co.'s mission hasn't been tackled yet. Of course, this is the point of Fast Company's feature but it's still worth emphasizing.

Silicon Valley wants its founders to shoot for the biggest customer base possible, but in so doing they risk missing a chance to back companies that might very profitable rule a strong minority niche. Late last year, Nielsen published a report on the spending habits and media consumption of African-Americans, urging corporations to 'think and behave differently toward valuing African-Americans and their economic impact.' The report indicated that black consumers, whose buying power is estimated at $1 trillion, spend nine times as much on products in the 'ethnic hair and beauty aids' category than other groups. In other words, it's a lucrative market that deserves much more than copper-tone boxes on a shelf.

I don't often put my Bachelor's Degree in Race and Ethnicity lens on in application to business related issues (but clearly I should). And I suspect this is the conversation that people like Tristan Walker (and David Drummond, and Tyler Scriven, and Erin Teague, and even Ben Horowitz) are asking us to have more and more often. 

For an industry that thrives on disrupting the mainstream, it might be worth asking whose mainstream is the focus of disruption.