Hank Williams: ‘Tech is hard for even the most talented African Americans’

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Technologist Hank Williams believed there is an urgent need for everybody, including people of color and women, to be engaged in the information economy. Photograph: Hank Williams/Twitter

Technologist Hank Williams believed there is an urgent need for everybody, including people of color and women, to be engaged in the information economy. Photograph: Hank Williams/Twitter

The entrepreneur and diversity advocate, who died aged 50, spent three decades battling for a tech industry that better represented multicultural America

“Market makers,” wrote American entrepreneur and technologist Hank Williams shortly before he died, “are the folks that help new young companies and entrepreneurs by providing insight, mentoring, capital and relationships.

“This part of the tech world is driven by all the same types of biases that exist in the non-tech world. And it is much harder for even the most talented African Americans in the tech world to gain access to influential, insightful, connected mentors, let alone investors.”

Williams, who died unexpectedly on 15 November of a viral heart infection, spent much of the last three decades pushing for greater inclusion of women and people of color in an industry that has traditionally skewed heavily towards white men.

A respected technologist, Williams, 50, was the CEO of cloud storage company KloudCo, known for his directness and great conversation. Since 2012 his most public project had been the Platform Summit, a three day Ted-style conference that brought together a wide array of thinkers, tech executives and creative entrepreneurs to network and exchange ideas on the future of technology inclusion.

Williams maintained that the tech industry needs to more closely resemble the increasingly multicultural US population
“We set up Platform because there is an urgent need in the information economy for everybody – people of color, women – to be engaged,” Williams said in February 2015. “We wanted to foster a significantly greater level of diversity in the innovation economy.”

Williams had long maintained that special effort was needed to ensure that the emerging tech industry more closely resembled the increasingly multicultural US population. While census studies have shown that whites will no longer be a majority in the US by 2043, many well-known tech companies still rank in the single digits in terms of minority employees.

Williams believed that increasing access to capital and creating more diverse business networks were keys to accelerating change. “There are two big challenges for minorities in tech and innovation. One is finding the resources to do the things that you want to be able to do the capital. And the second is having access to networks that can support your efforts.”

Williams’ views on the need for greater diversity were forged during a long tenure as one of the only a handful of African-American executives in the tech industry. He first came to prominence in 1988 as CEO of Pastel Development Corporation, which developed DayMaker, one of the first personal information management systems.

In 1998 he founded ClickRadio, one of the first interactive radio services on the web. While serving as the company’s CEO, Williams raised $40m in investment and pioneered several concepts that inspired current streaming services like Spotify and Pandora.

Williams also wrote for Business Insider and until 2011 ran the popular blog Why Does Everything Suck, which featured his nuanced and often provocative ideas on tech systems, diversity and intellectual property.

In 2011 Williams was one of the first to graduate from the NewME Startup Accelerator, an eight-week entrepreneurial bootcamp for black tech company founders. The accelerator received nationwide attention for being the first of its kind in the country and was featured as part of the CNN documentary series Black in America.

New ME co-founder Angela Benton said she was “saddened and stunned” by the news of Williams’ death. “Hank Williams was one of the rare individuals working on diversifying the tech industry who also had an extensive body of work, credentials, and successes prior to the industry’s recent interest in the area,” Benton said.

He began to be seen as something of an elder statesmen for the tech diversity movement, freely sharing his knowledge and experience with younger tech entrepreneurs.

“Hank was filled with gems,” remembers Anthony Frasier, co-founder of The Phat Startup and another graduate of NewMe’s first class. “I used to love hearing his advice and stories about the tech industry around the kitchen table. He always showed a deep concern and care for what I was working on.”

While he was known for being a supportive figure, he believed many of the practices that made the tech community so unwelcoming to women and people of color were the result of deeply held unconscious bias carried over from larger systematic and cultural prejudices.

Hank was one of those people who you just knew had your back and really wanted to see you succeed
Jason Towns
The Platform Summit, which was held in October 2015, was designed as a way to combat these issues, convening well-known and emerging leaders across several disciplines to discuss how diversity and technology is beginning to influence education, health and the economy. Speakers included Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Google’s David Drummond and Kapor Foundation’s Mitch Kapor, as well as scientific and cultural innovators like aerospace engineer Aisha Bowe, Grammy-winning producer Quincy Jones and singer Janelle Monáe.

“Hank was one of those people who you just knew had your back and really wanted to see you succeed,” said Jason Towns, a startup investor and advisor and former director of entrepreneurship programs for the tech diversity organization Code2040. “I’m always gonna remember Hank for being the quintessential connector. Platform allowed him to do that at scale.”

While drawing on a wide group of cultural personalities and community partners in his quest for a more representative tech community, Williams maintained that the need for more diversity was a smart business decision as much as anything else. And while the community that he helped spark mourns his death, the seeds that he worked so hard to sow appear to finally be bearing some fruit in the form of the increased interest and investment in minority and women run ventures.

Companies including Google, Microsoft and Intel have all directed large sums of money towards education and funding for minority and women run enterprises. And organizations like NewME, Code2040 and Black Girls Code regularly advocate for more training and increased opportunities for communities that have been left out of the tech boom.

“[Williams’] work, having already impacted millions of people, has already left a legacy” said Benton. “I’m looking forward to seeing how the industry comes together to help support his vision and continue his work.”

Previously posted on theguardian.com

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