Celebrating Black History Month and Black leadership in tech
It’s Black History Month, and we’re celebrating by taking a look at some of the most inspiring Black leaders in the technology industry.
From pioneers in the field of computer science to CEOs of major technology companies, these leaders have and are making a huge impact on the world of technology. By inspiring the next generation of Black entrepreneurs and innovators, they are changing the face of the industry.
Black leaders in technology are underrepresented
Although the technology industry is booming, it’s no secret that it lacks diversity. Women and people of color are severely underrepresented in the field, and this is especially true for Black professionals.
According to a Tuesday analysis from The Kapor Center and the NAACP, the percentage of Black professionals in technical roles at major technology companies climbed barely 1% between 2014 and 2021. This alarming statistic demonstrates how underrepresented Black professionals are in the tech industry.
At the management level, the situation is even bleaker. A mere 4% of Black professionals hold management positions, and the road to the top remains challenging. Sadly, this means it can be hard to find successful Black role models that can encourage aspiring individuals to join the field. Unfortunately, this also means that Black voices and perspectives are not represented in the industry.
Despite being underrepresented, Black leaders have been at the forefront of some of the most significant technological advancements in human history. We believe it’s critical to acknowledge the untold stories of key Black leaders in technology.
Learning from the past
Let’s start with the past. Looking back at the history of Black pioneers can provide us with invaluable insights into the current state of the industry. Countless leaders have paved the way for those in the industry today, but three stand out: Granville Woods, Tom Burrell, and Katherine Johnson.
Granville Woods was a pioneer who left his mark on history. While working as a mechanic, Woods became fascinated with railroad machinery and paid close attention to learning electrical engineering.
After settling in Cincinnati, Ohio, he established the Woods Electric Company, specializing in the production of electric vehicles. In 1887, Woods developed the synchronous multiplex railway telegraph, which allowed communication between moving trains and train depots. This was the most influential of his inventions.
One year later, he developed a system for overhead electric conductors that helped power locomotives. Then, in 1889, he filed his first patent for an improved steam boiler furnace. His inventions have had an impact on society as we know it today, leaving Woods to be remembered as “Black Edison.”
In 1961, Tom Burrell became the first Black professional to break into Chicago advertising. As a mailroom employee, he learned about the industry and found a job as a copywriter. Despite this achievement, there was still a long way to go in addressing the problems of representation in advertising.
Burrell highlighted that advertising was aimed at a mass market—meaning white people. He saw campaigns that often had racist undertones. When advertisers did try to reach a Black audience, they were ignorant of Black culture and history. Burrell had a mission to change this narrative.
In 1971, he opened his own agency, Burrell Communications Group. He coined the term “Black people are not dark-skinned white people” and pioneered what is now known as “targeted advertising.” Here, he produced groundbreaking campaigns that incorporated elements of Black culture and changed the way advertising was viewed in the US.
His commercials for companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are among his most notable works. He was also one of the first Black men to appear on a Wheaties box, an iconic achievement at the time.
As NASA’s first female mathematician, Katherine Johnson was instrumental in the early days of the United States space program. She calculated the trajectories of the Mercury and Apollo space capsules, as well as the 1969 moon landing.
Johnson’s work was critical to the success of the space program. Her story is an inspiring example of what can be accomplished with hard work and dedication.
In recent years, Johnson’s story has gained renewed attention, thanks in part to the 2016 film Hidden Figures. The film tells the story of Johnson and several other African-American women who worked behind the scenes at NASA during the Space Race.
As we celebrate Johnson’s accomplishments, we should also remember the important role that she and other women like her played in the development of technology. Johnson’s story is a reminder that women have always been at the forefront of innovation.
Learning from the present
In the present day, some new Black leaders are making their mark on the world. By learning about their stories, we can gain a better understanding of the challenges and triumphs facing Black professionals today. This can help us to appreciate the progress that has been made and to build on the momentum for change.
Strive Masiyiwa, Timnit Gebru, and Steven Bartlett are three notable individuals that immediately came to mind.
Strive Masiyiwa is a technology entrepreneur who has made a vast impact in Africa. He is the founder and executive chairman of Econet Global, a leading international telecommunications group.
Econet is a pioneering force in the development of mobile networks and mobile money services in Africa. It’s also a major player in the provision of other innovative services such as EcoCash, a mobile money service that has transformed the lives of millions of people in Zimbabwe.
Masiyiwa’s work in technology has helped connect people all over the continent and has improved the quality of life for many. He’s an inspirational figure who is making a real difference in the world.
Dr. Timnit Gebru is a technology leader who is making a huge impact in the field of artificial intelligence. After publishing studies on bias in search algorithms and criticizing the company’s bias and lack of diversity, Dr. Gebru was sacked by Google’s AI Ethics team. Subsequently, she went on to co-found the nonprofit group Black in AI. Black in AI is dedicated to increasing the participation of Black people in the field and more ethical and responsible AI technologies.
Dr. Gebru is a powerful voice in the fight for diversity and inclusion in technology. She’s a strong advocate for the need to have more Black people in leadership positions in the technology industry. Through her work, she’s helping to break down barriers and make the technology industry more accessible to everyone.
Steven Bartlett is a globally recognized technology leader and the co-founder and CEO of Social Chain. This is a social-first marketing agency with millions of followers across its social platforms, specializing in social media, content marketing, and influencer marketing. Bartlett is also a published author, having released his first book, “Results: How to Achieve Your Goals and Fast-Track Your Success,” in August 2019.
In an article for Forbes, Bartlett detailed how social media allows companies to connect with potential customers, understand their needs, and create valuable content that resonates with them.
Bartlett’s own LinkedIn profile is a notable example of how social media can be used to build thought leadership and brand awareness. He regularly shares insightful articles and blog posts, which has helped him become one of the top voices in the marketing industry. Bartlett’s social media presence is a great inspiration for marketers who want to use social media to build their businesses.
A dynamic and driven entrepreneur, Bartlett is passionate about using technology and social media to create opportunities, empower young people, and level the playing field. Under his guidance, Social Chain has become one of the world’s most innovative and effective digital marketing companies, working with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Apple, Manchester United, YouTube, Nike, and Coca-Cola.
From visionaries like Granville Woods and Katherine Johnson to modern-day trailblazers like Strive Masiyiwa and Steven Bartlett, these inspiring individuals’ actions have served as both a catalyst and a blueprint for change in the technology industry.
This industry has a long way to go in terms of diversity, but supporting these notable leaders will help pave the way for a more inclusive future for everyone.
We’re excited to see what these talented Black leaders in technology accomplish in the years to come.