February 13, 2017

Meet the entrepreneur building an inclusive tech culture in D.C.

Software development CEO wants to create opportunities for minority youth

Aaron Saunders is the CEO and founder of Luma Lab, which will run an incubator for minority entrepreneurs at Howard University. Photo by Heather Cromartie

Tech insiders often describe the industry as a meritocracy, where the most innovative thinkers rise to the top and the others fall by the wayside, regardless of background or demographics.

But the data paints a different picture.

Ninety-five percent of entrepreneurs and 97 percent of venture capitalists are white or Asian, according to a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research released in January. And since entrepreneurs tend to invest in their friends and those like them, hiring often leads to more white and Asian entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Not a meritocracy, but a mirror-tocracy, as entrepreneur Mitch Kapor calls it.

Aaron Saunders, the CEO and founder of Clearly Innovative, a D.C.-based software development firm, and Luma Lab, a tech education and mentorship program, is seeking to change the trend. He thinks he may have his hands on a solution to tech’s diversity problem.

The National Bureau of Economic Research found that although “underrepresented minorities have done particularly well improving their representation among science and engineering masters degrees,” this hasn’t resulted in a proportional increase in representation in software and engineering fields: employment for African American and Hispanic graduates “has remained very low, staying between 3 percent and 5 percent over the past decade with no discernible trend.”

Maya A. Beasley, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, found that black students often fell into lower-paying, less prestigious jobs than their white peers because of the “anticipation of discrimination,” and a lack of adequate support networks in often-hostile work environments, among other factors.

One of the big problems, Saunders says, is the “incestuous” nature of hiring in tech. “It’s like, I might not be consciously not helping you because you’re black, but … if there’s a black guy there and there’s someone that I know through someone else, I’m probably gonna hook up the person that I know.”

The solution, as Saunders see it, is a tech ecosystem that gives minority entrepreneurs access to the resources and connections that will enable them to succeed—and then encourages those entrepreneurs to become resources to others. And that’s exactly what Saunders’s newest project, a culmination of his experience as an entrepreneur and educator, aims to do. He and Luma Lab have been tasked by the government of D.C. with launching and operating an incubator for minority entrepreneurs at Howard University.

Aaron Saunders hopes to bring DC's resources together at In3DC. Photo by Mikhail Klimentov

We need to get back to creating the social capital within our own networks.

Saunders, 53, attributes his interest in tech to his father, an electronic technician.

His father bought him a Timex Sinclair—a small computer in a keyboard that plugged into a TV—which is where Saunders’s story begins. From there, his trajectory can be traced from a stray Commodore 64 in his school library, to a win at the science fair, to pre-med, then out of pre-med (“pre-med didn’t work out for me,” he says, chuckling), and then to a series of internships and classes where he honed his programming skills.

In this respect, Saunders believes he is an outlier: exposed to technology at a young age, supported by an experienced family member, and taught how to maneuver hostile spaces by a private boarding school education, his experience is different from that of many of the youths he works with.

Saunders is not optimistic about the issues that underprivileged minority students who are looking to get involved in tech and entrepreneurship have to face.

“I think the first thing that needs to be addressed is this assumption that the solution to the problem is to bring all the black and brown folks to California,” he says. “No. It’s never going to address all the other problems.”

Saunders, an adjunct professor at Howard, often works with students who have attended all-black schools their entire lives: “You just expect them to hop on a plane and go to California and be successful?” he asks. “With all the other stress and challenges they have to deal with?”

Many of the kids he works with, he points out, don’t have access to the networks, job opportunities, and tech education more readily available to others at an early age. And even if they have the opportunity and the education, many, especially in Washington, D.C., simply can’t afford to take prestigious but unpaid internships. “We bring interns in and we pay them, and whenever I talk to people I make it very clear that we pay interns,” Saunders says.

Previous efforts to counteract these trends sometimes floundered. In an interview with the Washington City Paper, Saunders recalled approaching schools to run educational programs, only to be rebuffed. “We’d go into public schools and say, ‘We can run a program for you. We have a funder who will fund the program for you. All you need to do is give us space and give us students. It doesn’t cost you a dime.’ And schools still pushed back.”

Having a space now spares Saunders the trouble of relying on the benevolence of others to run his programming. The In3DC incubator at Howard, launching on the heels of an ambitious government initiative to “foster the most inclusive culture among tech ecosystems on the East Coast,” presents an opportunity to bring key ecosystems, power players, and thought leaders together in a single physical location as a low-cost resource for minorities interested in tech and entrepreneurship.

The space presents its own challenges, however: being in one location necessarily means not reaching some people. Part of In3DC’s target audience is economically challenged neighborhoods far from Howard University. Finding ways to serve those communities and strike a balance between entrepreneurship and the high cost of living in D.C. is a priority for Saunders.

“There are folks in D.C. that know where the money is. They know how to find the money, they know how to find the grants, they know how to find the loans, they know how to be successful, right?” he says. But finding and connecting with those people can be difficult. In3DC can serve as a meeting point for these various communities. Saunders believes that developing this kind of nexus—as opposed to shipping out potential members to California—can help solve tech’s diversity problems.

“We need to get back to creating the social capital within our own networks.”

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.
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