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Cheryl Contee at #PDF12: The Death and Rebirth of the Digital Divide

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, June 12 2012

Cheryl Contee. Photo: Esty Stein / PDM

There's a new digital divide in the United States, and it's got nothing to do with a lack of access to computers and the Internet.

That's the idea posed by Cheryl Contee, a partner web development and strategy firm Fission Strategy.

Instead, a new divide has emerged in the form of a massive skills gap, and a mismatch between undereducated and undertrained minorities and the demands of the high-tech labor workforce, she said in a talk delivered Tuesday at Personal Democracy Media's annual conference in New York City.

“The old digital divide is dead. We now face a new digital divide: A lack of training, and a lack of skilled workers – not a lack of ability or a lack of jobs," she said. "There’s a lack of investment, and the creation of content consciously aimed at women and minorities.”

Here's video of her full talk:


Watch live streaming video from pdf2012 at livestream.com

Citing San Francisco as an example, she noted that only 15 black high school students took calculus last year, noting that that's the kind of skill needed for the kind of high-tech jobs of the future. The number of vacancies at high-tech recruiting companies tripled in the past year, she said, as there's an untapped pool of labor that's lacking in the necessary set of skills in the U.S. market.

But she also pointed to an underlying bias in the assumptions in the world of startups and venture investing, pointing specifically to John Doerr at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

“Right now, we have a situation where resources are not finding the best investments because of false assumptions, lack of information and straight-up bigotry," Contee said. "In a conference full of venture capitalists, John Doerr said: 'When you look at all the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, they all seem to be white male nerds who dropped out of Harvard or Stanford, and they have absolutely no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in, which was true of Google, it was very easy to decide to invest.'”

Contee said that contrary to Doerr's assumption, history has seen its share of important black inventors such as Elijah McCoy, whose landmark invention for steam engines made them more efficient. His name is the genesis for the phrase "the real McCoy."

"Elijah McCoy was the son of slaves," she said. "He was black."

“Yet even though we use this invention today in trains, he struggled to find capital investment for this groundbreaking innovation that changed a nation. 150 years later, not much has changed,” she said.

To change the situation, she urged large tech companies to invest in free or low-cost training to teach people programming and/or robotics skills. Smaller companies could hire interns. Teachers need to inspire kids in the field of science. Elected leaders should advocate for more funding for tech training programs and education in general.

Contee, who is black, used her own story to make her point. When she attended Yale — thanks in part to scholarships — she had to find a job to support herself. Being an assistant in the computer lab and library was the second-highest paying job after dishwashing, she said.

She took the job and was mentored by Yale's computer lab director Margaret Krebs and her colleagues.

"My new superdork friends invested in training me, and gave me the confidence to learn what I needed to know, and after a few stumbles, actually came to enjoy it," she said. "I steered my career in a direction that united my newfound love for gear and gadgets with my passion for connecting people, and creating new ways for people to make their voices heard. I’ve worked with some of the most amazing people on the planet, [including] some of you in this room, and this is all because of Margaret and her computer assistants and saw someone who could."

Contee has met with success in her years after university. In addition to Fission, she's landed some angel investors in a new social software product she's working on called Attentive.ly.

“According to a study by the Kauffman Foundation, only 4 to 9% of venture capital has gone to women entrepreneurs," she said. "So according to my friend Rachel Payne, who heads up global strategic alliances at Google, if you’re a woman who’s been successful in this business like me, you have bootstrapped, dodged, darted, begged, borrowed and ultimately innovated beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.”

While broadband Internet access is ubiquitous and spreading quickly, the skills necessary to start a business and the capital necessary to scale one still aren't easy to get to for people of color. In an emotional thank-you towards the end of her talk, Contee credited Krebs with her own success, and called on other mentors to reach out to potential innovators who have yet to get started.

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