Silicon Valley is known for many things — it’s thriving startup culture, the birthplace of Apple and leading the world in innovative technology and engineering — but diversity is not one of them. Angela Benton knows this first hand. She’s a 32-year-old CEO who moved to the tech promise land in 2011. She’s also an African-American women.
The founder of Black Web 2.0 and NewMe Accelerator is constantly reminded that she’s one of few Black women in her industry, most recently by HBO’s new series, also titled “Silicon Valley.” “I wasn’t surprised by the lack of diversity,” she says of the comedy. “What’s interesting about humor in general, they always say, there’s a lot of honestly in it. The fact that there is not a lot of diversity in the show, I think it’s honest.”
This is true. According to a recent survey by law firm Fenwick & West, women at Silicon Valley companies — from startups to very large public companies — are significantly underrepresented when compared to the general population and the executive boards of our nation’s 100 biggest public companies, known as the Standard & Poor’s 100. This lack of gender diversity is not only in hiring, but also on companies’ executive boards. The research points out that nearly half of the 150 SV companies reviewed had no female executives at all, while 84 percent of the 500 S&P brands managed to have at least one.
For this reason, Ms. Benton devotes her life’s work to encouraging talented women to break into the boy’s club and pursue careers in high technology industries. She says it really became a passion when she noticed, “‘Wow, I am the only African American and the only women in my department. It just can’t only be me!’ When I started looking at it that way I just got really driven.,” she shares. NewME, which she debuted nearly three years ago on CNN’s “Black in America: The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley,” accelerates underrepresented entrepreneurs around the world. “All of our work at NewME is for minorities and women so my day to day is working on that,” she says. The company has been extremely successful, helping entrepreneurs raise over $12.9 million and receiving critical acclaim from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.
But things haven’t always been easy for Benton. She understands the sexism that many women in the industry face because she, too, was often questioned her work. ”I was actually a programmer at a company and I was coding page,” she recalls. “Something was not working with the code and what was interesting was the assumption was ‘Oh, there must be something wrong with the code.’ It wasn’t front-end code, it was back-end code so it wasn’t extremely difficult. I was the only Black person on the team, definitely the only Black female, and anytime there’s an issue with the code, it must be my code. So that was probably the first time I had experienced something like that in the technology industry.”
Even now as a CEO, she says, “It’s interesting to be in a leadership position as a female because sometimes you get people who don’t take you seriously, even people on your own team.”
As a result she’s able to better assist her clients. “There are great entrepreneurs who don’t necessarily look like the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world…I don’t think the [tech world] is behind necessarily, I think they are working on patterns,” Benton explains. “So if everyone who is successful looks like Mark Zuckerberg, they are going to continue to fund and support more things that are like that. What a lot of people think, especially when they think about entrepreneurship, it’s very risky. When you start to talk about investors and capital, people are investing in things that are most likely to succeed. So when they are doing that they are taking notes from other things that have been successful. So it’s really like this self-perpetuating problem, at least until we really break through.”
And as a mother of three, she understands that professional women wear multiple hats. “Most people didn’t even know I had children at all until the CNN documentary,” she reveals.”I didn’t feel comfortable talking about it, I also didn’t feel it was relevant at the time. What I was able to learn from the situation is that’s actually one of the things that makes me me and inspires other people to get in the industry and try it out.”
“A lot of times women of color may be the head of the household or a mother, and a lot of those things can be seen as something that can hold you back,” she adds, “so a lot of time people won’t even try. Or they think that it’s not an option for them. I think getting out of your own way and just being able to get the support that you need. Not necessarily directed toward family, but it might be going to an organization like NewMe that understands where you are in life and supports that.”
When working with her female clients, Benton always stresses that they should try to not plan too much. “By this year I want to do XYZ. It just doesn’t really happen that way, especially if you choose entrepreneurship, so a lot of women are very rigid at far as that’s concerned,” she shares. “I just try to encourage them to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s a large part of being an entrepreneur.”
This summer, Benton is taking the accelerator on the road for the second time. The team will hit five cities for pop-up tour. “We’re a for-profit business but we get to help people achieve their dreams everyday and that gives me an extreme amount of fulfillment,” she says. “Dreams are something that is very personal, it’s something that is very close to someone’s heart. I am so luckily to be able to literally help people achieve, accomplish and see those dreams transform right before my eyes.”
She leaves one piece of advice for any woman with dreams of kicking down doors in the tech world: Be open. “Just because you don’t see someone who looks like yourself right now doesn’t mean that there’s not a place for you,” she says. “You can always create a place for yourself.”
Learn more about NewME, here.
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