African-Americans in Tech
In honor of Black History Month, 42 Silicon Valley is taking a look into the lives of African-Americans who have made an impact on technology. Both in the past when African-Americans worked as “human computers” for NASA, and those in the present who are making a positive impact in their fields and creating equal opportunities in tech. Thank you to all of these innovative trailblazers who have helped us create a better today and will lead us into a brighter future.
Katherine Johnson is known to many of us after Taraji P. Henson’s inspirational portrayal of her in the 2016 hit film “Hidden Figures.” Katherine was one of only three black students who was allowed to attend graduate school in West Virginia. After earning a degree in mathematics and starting a family, Katherine began working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ in 1953. Five years later, Katherine transferred to the space travel program that became known as NASA.
According to NASA, Katherine was the first woman in the Flight Research Division to be credited as a co-author on a research report about equations for the landing position of a spacecraft in 1960 and did trajectory analysis for America’s first human spaceflight in 1961. Her official NASA biography shares the high level of trust that astronaut John Glenn had in her work before his orbital mission in 1962, “As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to ‘get the girl’—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. ‘If she says they’re good,’ Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, ‘then I’m ready to go.’”
Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville
Evelyn Boyd Granville became the second African-American woman to receive a P.h.D in math at a U.S. university after she earned her doctorate from Yale in 1949. According to UnDark, Granville grew up in Washington, D.C. during the Great Depression, but always maintained a positive attitude because she knew the power of education, “Our parents and teachers preached over and over again that education is the vehicle to a productive life, and through diligent study and application we could succeed at whatever we attempted to do.”
Initially starting a career in academia, Evelyn accepted a job at IBM in 1956. This later led to an opportunity with NASA after IBM won a NASA contract, “Granville immediately requested to join the space agency’s Vanguard Computing Center in Washington, D.C. That request was granted, and she was instrumental in developing orbital calculations for the nation’s burgeoning efforts to put rockets — and eventually people — into space.” According to UnDark, Granville worked on orbit computation and computer procedures for the following space projects, “Project Vanguard (originally managed by the Naval Research Laboratory and later transferred to NASA); Project Mercury (the nation’s first effort to put a man in space); and the program that eventually put a man on the moon, Project Apollo.”
Annie Easley was one of the first American American computer scientists to work for NASA. According to NASA, in 1955 she read about the “human computers” who analyzed problems and did math calculations by hand for NACA, “Two weeks after reading the article, Easley began a career that would span 34 years. She would contribute to numerous programs as a computer scientist, inspire many through her enthusiastic participation in outreach programs, break down barriers for women and people of color in STEM fields, and win the admiration and respect of her coworkers.” When she began her career, she was only one of four African-Americans employed by the lab.
According to Massive Science, when there was a shift from humans to machines, “she learned assembly language and FORTRAN and became a programmer. She worked on batteries, including studies on battery-powered vehicles similar to modern hybrid cars…Her most famous work was on the Centaur rocket.” Easley went back to school to complete her degree in math from Cleveland State in the 1970s while still working full time. She experienced discrimination such as being cut out of NASA promotional photographs and being denied financial aid that NASA gave to other employees. Wanting to help others, Easley became an equal employment opportunity counselor to help supervisors address issues surrounding discrimination.
Dr. Gladys West
According to an official press release from the Air Force Space Command, “Dr. Gladys West is among a small group of women who did computing for the U.S. military in the era before electronic systems. Hired in 1956 as a mathematician at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory, she participated in a path-breaking, award-winning astronomical study that proved, during the early 1960s, the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. Thereafter, from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, using complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape, she programmed an IBM 7030 ‘Stretch’ computer to deliver increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the Global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.”
West was one of only four African American working in her lab at the time, and shared with BBC, “I carried that load round, thinking that I had to be the best that I could be…Always doing things just right, to set an example for other people who were coming behind me, especially women.”
Dr. Clarence “Skip” Ellis
Dr. Clarence “Skip” Ellis was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in computer science in 1969. Ellis grew up as one of five children raised by a single mother in the Southside of Chicago. According to Computer Scientists of the African Diaspora, he was first exposed to computers when he was working his first job, “At 15, Skip took a job at a local company to help support his family. He was assigned the ‘graveyard shift,’ which meant he had to work all night long. His job was to prevent break-ins and, most importantly, not to touch the company’s brand new computer…Since he had lots of free time, he read the computer manuals that came with the machines. He became a self-taught computer expert.”
After earning a scholarship at Beloit College, Skip discovered he was the only African American attending his school and suffered from feelings of isolation. According to the Computer Scientists of the African Diaspora, after earning a BS degree in both math and physics, he attended graduate school at the University of Illinois where he worked on hardware and software as well as applications for a supercomputer. Afterward, Ellis worked in the industry before going into academia where he taught at various institutions including Stanford and MIT.
Dr. Mark Dean
Dr. Mark Dean is, according to Biography, “credited with helping to launch the personal computer age with work that made the machines more accessible and powerful.” Born in 1957 in Tennessee, Mark loved building things and even built a tractor from scratch with his dad. Probably most well known for being the co-creator of IBM’s first personal computer, Dean joined the company in 1980 after studying engineering at the University of Tennessee.
According to Biography, “Dean helped develop a number of landmark technologies for IBM, including the color PC monitor and the first gigahertz chip. He holds three of the company’s original nine patents. He also invented the Industry Standard Architecture system bus with engineer Dennis Moeller, allowing for computer plug-ins such as disk drives and printers.” Although already a successful computer scientist and engineer, Mark continued his higher education while at IBM, eventually earning his P.h.D in electrical engineering from Stanford University in the early nineties. According to Biography, in 1996 he was the first African-American to be named an IBM fellow.
M.K. Palmore is the Head of the FBI’s San Francisco Cyber Security Branch and serves as Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge (ASAC). According to Crunchbase, Palmore earned a B.S. degree from the United States Naval Academy and an MBA from Pepperdine University. M.K. also served as a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps prior to entering the FBI in 1997.
As the leader of the San Francisco FBI Cyber Branch, “His responsibilities include the strategic and operational management of several teams of cyber intrusion investigators, computer scientists, analysts and digital forensics personnel charged with investigations of cyber threat actors in both the criminal and national security intrusion realms. Mr. Palmore’s leadership and investigative experiences include: Cyber Security, Crisis Management/Response, Risk-Management Advisory and Counter-Terrorism.”
Palmore has a blog about security leadership in which he shared his thoughts about success and failure, “I have been a student of leadership for more than 30 years. In those 30 plus years I’ve had my fair share of success, but I’ve achieved the greatest growth through failures and near misses. I wish I could hit a home run every time, but the reality of dealing with people means you won’t always get it right.”
Lisa Mae Brunson
Lisa Mae Brunson is, “a Creative Visionary, Speaker, Author & Social Innovator that is committed to impacting humanity on a global scale” and she serves as Commissioner for Technology and Innovation for the City of Long Beach. She has cultivated the “Art of Fearless Asking” to manifest her visions and is the founder of several organizations including, “Wonder Women Tech, a global conference platform highlighting, celebrating, and educating women and diversity in STEAM, and has launched Junior Innovation Camps for underprivileged kids. She is founder of two hackathons–Hacks 4 Humanity, a hackathon for Social Good, and Wonder Women Hacks, a hackathon to address challenges facing women and girls.”
There are others ways in which she makes an impact, “Lisa Mae organizes socially innovative projects, like the global ‘I Am Equality’ photographic campaign, which launched in 17 cities and 5 countries around the world.” In a recent interview, Brunson shared, “Women constitute more than half of the population, yet only about 20 percent of executive roles at tech companies are filled by women…STEAM industries are driving our future and we demand a seat at the table. Wonder Women Tech aims to provide a platform for women and underrepresented groups in STEAM fields to network, share stories and empower each other.”
Jimmy Sanders is Vice President of Information Security at Netflix with a focus on securing the company’s internal and external environment. He also serves as the current president of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of ISSA (Information Systems Security Association). According to Crunchbase, after earning a B.A. degree from San Jose State University, “Jimmy has been involved in computer technology for over 17 years with 11 years focused on security…Prior to Netflix, Jimmy was the Security Architect for Samsung Research of America. He has built and maintained security environments for companies large and small.”
In a recent interview about his role at Netflix, Sanders shared, “I love my job. I’m at a company where it’s not me dictating things. The culture is visible, it is upfront, and we adhere to it. People can push back against you if they don’t think you have a valid idea. And I love the fact that the best idea wins at the company. It’s not who is most politically motivated, it’s not the person who spends the most money, it’s not the person with the most patents. It’s not even the person with the best title. It’s the person with the best idea.”
Angelica Ross is an entrepreneur, businesswoman, military veteran, and transgender activist. According to Advocate, Ross is originally from Wisconsin and joined the Navy after high school. Ross noticed a lack of support when it came to employing transgender people, even within the LGBT community, “I’m not seeing a single trans person serving me a drink, or ringing me out at the local gay-owned shop. None, or at least hardly none, I should say, actually employed by LGBT businesses.”
After working for TransLife Care in Chicago, Ross was inspired to work in non-profit, “That was my introduction to the non-profit, social work sector. And it’s where I learned how to steer clear of discriminatory hiring practices.” The founder and Executive Director/CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, Ross established the nonprofit in 2014, “to follow a vision: A social enterprise that provides education, support, and jobs for trans people facing high levels of discrimination.” Ross shared, “At TransTech, we’ve created a space for trans people to come together, work together, laugh together, go to lunch together. There’s strength in numbers. They’re building networks, and down the line they’ll think of each other when it comes to jobs.”
Oscar Robles serves as Director of Community for Lesbians Who Tech, an organization that is committed, “to convening queer women in technology (and our allies) in a vibrant and inclusive community. We work together to promote the visibility and inclusion of women, LGBTQ people, and people from other backgrounds under-represented in technology.” According to WNPR, Oscar started to socially transition when he was in college. Oscar shared with WNPR that he was, “having a hard time with my body and with my life,” and after getting through that difficult time he reflected, “ It was almost like, I want to say, a life making experience because in my mind, when I look at the timeline of my life, it was the end of that old self and the beginning of that new self.”
Afterward, Oscar started to medically transition and moved from Florida to Connecticut to work for national service program AmeriCorps VISTA. Robles shared in an interview with WNPR, “I think the goal is that I want to live in the world without any barriers. And I think that is the goal — is for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals — that their orientation is not influential on what their goals are — getting to whatever they wanted from life — getting whatever they want from life — as far as employment, education.”
Ryan Diew is the Founder and CEO of an app called Trippie, which is a mobile mapping service that helps users navigate big airports. Originally from Oakland, Diew was an NCAA Division-1 Basketball player at Colgate University where he majored in computer science. Ryan was contacted by the producers of Shark Tank and even appeared on the show to pitch Trippie. Diew explained the inspiration behind Trippie to Black Enterprise, “On my layover, I wanted to get food but I had no idea where anything was. I immediately searched the app store for ‘airport app with airport maps’ to see if there was anything out there, but I couldn’t find anything…It was at this moment I decided to build a solution myself.”
Diew shared advice with Black Enterprise about app development, “If you want to do something, just do it…I didn’t learn how to build this app in class. I decided to use sources like YouTube to watch tutorials on how to build every single feature I wanted in the app. The internet has significantly made knowledge more accessible and easier.” Diew’s advice aligns with the 42 pedagogy where students are encouraged to use a diverse array of online resources as learning tutorials.
Arlan Hamilton is the founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital, “a seed investment fund that backs overachieving, underrepresented startup founders.” Hamilton’s journey to Venture Capitalism was not easy. According to Inc, she met with every investor she could connect with, spent all her money to fund her dream, and experienced homelessness for months before a text message changed her life, “‘I’m in,’ read the text from Susan Kimberlin, a tech veteran who made a name for herself at Salesforce and PayPal. Kimberlin was ready to bet on Hamilton to bring more diversity to tech–and her check was the lifeline Hamilton needed to get Backstage Capital up and running.”
Since then, Hamilton has invested in several companies that want to serve markets that have been ignored by Silicon Valley elites, investing in women, people of color and members of the LGBT community. According to Inc, Arlan focuses on founders that are looking for their big break and will bring diversity to Silicon Valley, “With her $5 million fund, Hamilton looks to capture 1 percent ownership in early-stage companies that are seeking their first round of funding. Arlan’s focus on diversity will unlock access to valuable talent and huge markets that haven’t been on the radar of traditional investors.”
Creating a Model of Education that Promotes Equity and Inclusion
The 42 community is grateful for those who have come before us and those who work with us to make education more accessible for everyone. We believe that quality education should be open to all regardless of their background. It is well known that the tech world needs to do more to recruit, hire and retain African-American tech talent, with the State of Black America 2018 reporting that there are less than 5% of African Americans working for the majority of tech companies. 42 is all about being on the forefront and breaking down barriers to help underrepresented groups get into tech. Here are a few things we have done to create more accessibility:
1. The piscine, the only step in our admissions process, gives everyone a chance to prove that they can learn to code.
2. We do not charge tuition and students don’t need to purchase devices or books to complete our program.
3. The 42 program is flexible. A self-paced curriculum makes it so students can work and/or seek internships at the same time they are pursuing their education.
Expanding educational access and creating a model of education that promotes equity and inclusion is at the heart of our mission, which is to offer people a chance to succeed as we strive to uncover the talents in the field of programming.