By Jonathan Spalter and Cornell Belcher
As children, when we think about what we want to be when we grow up, the sky is often the limit: Musician, astronaut, professional athlete, president. Some attain these heights. Most, as we mature, begin to look around for role models and examples in our community to emulate. One need only lift the door on roughly every third garage in Silicon Valley to see this pattern play out.
For that reason, amid a bevy of findings in a new nationwide survey of African-Americans and their engagement with wireless technology for economic empowerment, one sobering statistic stands alone: A full half of respondents say they do not know a single person in their community who works in the technology industry.
Thanks to pioneering work by the Pew Research Center, we have known for years that African-Americans are among the most active and engaged consumers of wireless technology, over-indexing in both smartphone adoption and mobile internet usage. But we also know that African-Americans lag far behind in terms of participation in the $548 billion and seven million jobs mobile innovation contributes each year to the U.S. economy.
This new survey, conducted by Brilliant Corners for Mobile Future, breaks fresh ground by engaging the African-American community directly to better understand why this opportunity gap persists, and what concrete actions can help turn things around.
According to the White House, 99 percent of the country now has access to advanced 4G LTE wireless connectivity. Yet our survey begins with a dead-air disconnect: Despite African-Americans' enthusiastic embrace of wireless technology as a consumer tool, a clear majority (59 percent) have little or no interest in mobile as a potential job, entrepreneurial or other economic opportunity.
The biggest game-changer? Those who know someone who works in the technology sector are 33 percent more likely to express interest in a mobile technology career, and 56 percent more likely to be open to being a wireless entrepreneur. Simply put, if they can see it, then they are far more likely to want to be it.
Real-world models already exist to replicate this model on a grand scale. Morgan State University, a historically black institution, graduates 25 percent of all black engineers in the nation, and works with leading U.S. wireless companies AT&T and Verizon on programs that not only train university students but also engage the broader community.
One such effort brings "middle school makers" to campus — young boys who are taught to program, code and design their own innovations, which are then 3-D-printed. This allows the students to take home from the experience tangible proof of their capacity and a tantalizing glimpse at a broader horizon of possibilities their future might hold.
These kinds of interventions are even more important for young girls. Our survey finds that African-American women are far less likely to be interested in mobile tech jobs than their male counterparts. For example, while 45 percent of men expressed interest in becoming mobile app developers, just 31 percent of women said the same.
Fortunately, we don’t have to theorize about what might work. Our survey went to the source and got answers directly from the community. Low-cost training offered in communities and schools would increase interest and bolster the skill sets needed to participate in mobile tech opportunities. Classes that develop budding entrepreneurs and coach them on how to access financial capital also help.
Women were particularly attracted to the flexibility associated with many technology-related jobs. And exposure to career opportunities, as well as mentoring, internships and other ways of making that all-important personal connection, allows more people in the community to know someone in the technology space, see them find success and have that lightbulb go off that "this might be an opportunity for me."
Technology policy debates can get very esoteric very fast. This project is a reminder that real-world opportunities abound where we can all "lean in" — whether we work in government, the private sector or community organizations — and make a real and lasting difference that can transform lives and whole communities.
This is the highest calling of technology-fueled progress. If we make the effort to connect the dots to the opportunities identified in this report, the technology industry will undoubtedly be more inclusive. It is our firm belief that our nation will be stronger, more competitive and more innovative for it.
Jonathan Spalter is chair of Mobile Future, the national mobile technology association. He is a Berkeley-based entrepreneur and a former senior national security and technology official in the Clinton Administration. Reach him @Jspalter.
Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies, is a pollster who was instrumental in the election of President Barack Obama. Reach him @cornellbelcher.
Originally posted on Recode