Less than one percent of all venture capital money in 2010 went to digital startups with African-American founders, according to CB Insights, an industry analyst.
For her fourth "Black in America" documentary, "The New Promised Land -- Silicon Valley" (CNN, Sunday, 8 p.m. & 11 p.m.) reporter Soledad O'Brien aims to explore why that is. She takes a look at Silicon Valley and the opportunities in the tech world, through the eyes of 8 African-Americans with Internet-based businesses looking for funding.
At least I think that's what O'Brien is exploring. Although inspiring, "The New Promised Land" isn't very insightful; often it seemed on the verge of a good story only to succumb to the need to be 'interesting' in a reality show kind of way.
O'Brien follows the first class of the NewMe accelerator program, founded by Raleigh's own Wayne Sutton and former Charlotte resident Angela Benton. (Tiffani Bell, a 26-year-old Fayetteville native, is also in the group.) The two started the program to try to raise that less than one percent figure; they bring together a group of entrepreneurs to a small house in Mountain View, CA to live together for nine weeks. During the program, the members support each other, get advice and mentoring from successful Internet professionals, and get the opportunity to pitch to venture capitalists for funding.
The best parts of the report show the members facing the tough atmosphere that is Silicon Valley; on the first day, several are surprised (and unprepared) when they are asked to pitch right away. In another segment, a mentor points out that they need to work together, rather than in silos, and suggests that if race is an obstacle, get another face in front of your audience.
But O'Brien faced two challenges with her story. First, these are Internet-based businesses, so that means a lot of time (and footage) of people tapping at computers, which is not exactly riveting TV. Second, the central question, whether race is a factor in the lack of funding for black startups, is answered fairly easily and has little drama. (That answer pretty much adds up to 'maybe, maybe not, but probably.')
So, it seems, to fill the time O'Brien (and her producers) put together a piece that offers little new, and is off topic. We hear about Sutton getting stopped, when heading home one night, in a "walking while black" incident. (That's not a special challenge of a black techie, that's routine for many a black male.) We learn of house hostility toward the white girlfriend of one of the developers, although that may or may not be racially based.
That's a shame because I think O'Brien had some rich veins to tap. For instance, I would have loved to know more about Anthony Frazier, a 25-year-old, who worked as a big box store clerk, yet because of his love of online gaming, developed a site catering to that audience. How did that happen? He seems to embody the opportunities of this 'promised land'; that it doesn't take an advanced degree to find some measure of success, making it accessible to many. Indeed, all of these entrepreneurs are impressive. They jumped into this world fearlessly, knowing their numbers were small, in terms of race. Although they seek a sense of community, it seems wrong that the focus on them should be about race. After all, their pursuit of this line of work says race doesn't matter; ability does. They're not the ones with the problem, if there is one.
Which leads to another issue; the lack of context in the documentary. It seems there are few black companies funded in great part because few black companies pitch and fewer exist. Why is that? Why aren't more African-Americans seeing the tech world as a promised land? What do these 8 know that others don't?
The cliffhanger on the screener (that certainly will be answered on air) is whether any of the members got funding. Either way, I'd proclaimed them all winners. I can't say the same for "The New Promised Land."