The National Urban League’s Digital Equality Index reveals tech’s diversity problem. Black women entrepreneurs pay the biggest price. (Credit: #WOCinTech Chat)
The National Urban League’s Digital Equality Index reveals tech’s diversity problem. Black women entrepreneurs pay the biggest price. (Credit: #WOCinTech Chat)

The technology world’s lack of diversity disproportionally hurts African-American women entrepreneurs, according to experts.

Black women in the United States are leading the country in starting new ventures, U.S. government data shows. Yet their businesses tend to be smaller and grow at slower rates than those owned by members of other demographic groups. The “digital divide” helps to explain why, researchers behind a new report from the National Urban League (NUL) say.

A particular disparity in access to technology training for African-American women intensifies their struggle to scale up, says Dr. Karen Campbell, a director at research firm IHS Markit who participated in the NUL’s new Digital Equality Index, which was released on Friday. The report zeroes in on African-Americans’ lack of access to job and education opportunities in the tech sector compared to Caucasian-Americans.

“Technology is becoming so much a part of business these days — from how we operate to the way we reach customers and manage our supply chain,” Campbell said in an interview. If your access to technology education and on-the-job training is more limited, as it is for black people, that hurts your chances of thriving in the modern economy. “For African-American women, you have that double whammy of racial and gender disparity” creating even greater obstacles to advancement in the business world.

The report’s findings were grim. Data from three tech giants — Google, Facebook and Twitter — reported a combined workforce over 41,000 people. But only 758 of their employees — less than 2 percent — are African-American. “I was surprised … to find that the lack of diversity in major tech firms is even more extreme and stark than I anticipated,” Marc Morial, president and CEO of the NUL, said during a teleconference.

The report also found that only 8 percent of tech-focused incubators are geared toward minority business owners. Access to such resources are “important not only for getting into business, but staying in business and growing a business,” Dr. Valerie Wilson, former vice president of the NUL and a current director at the Economic Policy Institute, said on the call.

[Related: Read more about women business owners of color from The Story Exchange]

Other findings in the Digital Equality Index present something of a paradox, Morial said, noting that African-Americans are heavy users — and often trendsetters — on key social media platforms. Their social media use shows that, when access to a resource is democratized, black people make the most of the opportunity, Campbell says. “On an open internet, you see African-Americans out there, in droves.”

If given the same access to training and job opportunities, she adds, “it could mean a huge market opportunity for entrepreneurs” who are marginalized.

[Related: Here’s how black women entrepreneurs can successfully — and authentically — brand their businesses, from an expert member of the community.]

So how can we do better? Companies could diversify the tech workforces where people hone their skills, for one thing, Morial says. Companies that succeed in having more diverse teams tend to have a formal, transparent diversity plans or advisory committees, he said. “When it comes to diversity, intentionality is what’s important. It doesn’t just happen serendipitously.”

Ensuring representation on all levels of tech companies, in particular, matters for future African-American women business owners and leaders, Campbell adds. African-American women seeing founders, executives and other techies who look like them “gives them ideas, and the courage to think, ‘I can do this.’”

But the benefits go beyond inspiration, she says. Training programs can “help give not just the skills, but also that surrounding of networking and mentorship,” which helps entrepreneurs forge critical connections and access startup and growth capital.

To do its part, the NUL has entrepreneurship centers in 13 U.S. cities, from New Orleans to Philadelphia, that offer coaching, tech assistance and more. And “over 60 percent of the entrepreneurs we serve are women,” Morial said. To date, the NUL has helped more than 600 minority women business owners access training, secure contracts and take other steps to grow their businesses.

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