Representation Matters! Improving Black American Participation in Tech

by Pranav Ramesh
February 14, 2023
Tech Equity: Elevating Black Voices in the Digital Frontier

Think of any influential modern technology and chances are you associate it with a name, maybe the inventor or the person who transformed the technology in innovative ways. Thomas Edison with electricity, Henry Ford with the automobile, and Steve Jobs with smartphones.  

Yet, you’ve probably never heard of Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, the “father of the videogame cartridge.”   

In the 1970s, Jerry was one of the very few Black men working in the whole of the tech industry at the time, much less the video game sector. But as the Director of Engineering and Marketing for Fairchild Semiconductors, an early computer company, he developed a gaming console whereby users could swap out games via cartridges. It was the first of its kind, and it forever changed the gaming industry, directly influencing the titans that followed – Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Xbox, and PlayStation.  

In short, Jerry did for video games what those previous gentlemen did for their respective fields. Indeed, the over three billion active video game players worldwide, and an industry that is expected to have revenues of over $350 billion this year alone, largely have Jerry to thank.  

History is full of black men and women who have pioneered, transformed, innovated or invented something that changed the world. Garrett Morgan – inventor of the three-way traffic light, which greatly improved safety on the roads. Frederick Jones – inventor of refrigerated trucks, railroad cars, ships, and planes that transformed not only how food is transported, but our very eating habits. Or perhaps Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson – the three mathematicians, all Black women, who helped NASA get astronauts to the moon. 


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Black innovators are underrepresented in tech 

History has shown repeatedly that, when presented with opportunities, black men and women not only succeed in tech, but they also thrive. And so do the companies that employ them. Research shows that there is a strong correlation between diverse teams and success. Indeed, McKinsey found that diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors.  

So, naturally, one would think that Black workers would be well represented, or at least proportionally represented compared to the population as a whole. Sadly, that is far from the case.  

There are roughly 48 million Black Americans, accounting for over 14% of the total population. Yet, Black professionals make up less than 8% of the tech workforce, and only 3.7% in roles with large tech firms – a figure that increased by only 1% point from 2014-2021. Women as a whole make up a paltry 29% of tech workers, but Black women are especially underrepresented at only 1.7%, according to a 2021 report. When looking at executive roles and seats at the board table, the numbers are even more humbling. Black professionals occupy just 4.4% of seats in boardrooms. And, unfortunately, the recent waves of layoffs within tech may further hurt these figures and diversity initiatives across the sector.  


Organizations championing representation within IT 

History has also shown that where there is injustice, there are those who work to eliminate it. And in the case of Black representation in tech, or a lack thereof, several people and organizations are working to reverse those abysmal numbers mentioned above.  

One of those is Project Black, a private-equity fund that seeks to acquire or invest in up to 10 middle-market companies and install Black executives to manage them. The brainchild of Mellody Hobson, President and co-CEO of Ariel Investments, she characterizes it as “minoritizing” the companies. One of the goals is to position these companies to grow and be competitive. And with $1.45 billion, it promises to make a significant impact.  

Jobs for the Future (JFF), a nonprofit organization “driving transformation in the American workforce and education systems,” work on a more comprehensive approach, tackling the problem at various fronts. “The most successful models are not only helping Black talent build skills and secure employment, but also making long-term investments in mentorship, social capital, and networks that enable Black professionals to access – and sustain – careers in technology,” according to Michael Collins, VP at JFF 

Some of those long-term investments have been done by JFF itself, recently acquiring Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation, a nonprofit that worked to create career opportunities for those with criminal records. This is just two months after launching JFF Ventures, an investment arm of the organization that will manage funds focused on emerging technologies to help underserved communities.  

Blacks in Technology LLC has been fighting the problem of underrepresented communities in tech since its founding in 2008. In 2007, it launched the Blacks in Technology Foundation, “the largest non-profit community of Black people in the technology industry.” It offers career support, mentorship opportunities, networking, and resources to help Black tech workers get jobs and advance within the industry.  



There’s no denying that there’s plenty of work that still needs to be done to increase the representation of Black men and women in tech. Yet through the increase of programs aimed at correcting these issues, there’s hope that the future of the tech workforce in the US will be more representative of our population. After all, increased representation is a win-win for everyone involved.  


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