ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
Today, we're going to dig into the challenges people of color face when it comes to navigating the tech industry. For African-Americans, rising through the ranks of the tech world is challenging on its own. Aaron Saunders is taking what he's learned and using it to prepare young black programmers-in-training for the tough realities of a career where almost everyone is white. As part of our Black History Month series called BlackAnd, where we bring you stories of people navigating more than one identity, today we're going to talk about being black in the tech industry. Aaron Saunders is CEO of Clearly Innovative, a tech company here in Washington, D.C., that builds a range of digital products. He joins us in our studio in Washington. Aaron, welcome to the program.
AARON SAUNDERS: Thank you very much.
WESTERVELT: So tell us your story. You're in your 50s. Growing up, did you have a mentor that guided you toward tech, or did you find it on your own?
SAUNDERS: Actually, it is a funny story. I found tech on my own in school. I was small, got picked up quite frequently. And so I chose to stay in the library during lunch time. There was a large box sitting in the corner which happened to be a Commodore 64 that the librarians did not really understand what to do with it. So I said hey, can I open it up? So I opened up the box, read the manuals, taught myself how to program in BASIC. And that's kind of where it all started. And that was in sixth grade.
WESTERVELT: Started schooling the librarians a little bit...
WESTERVELT: ...On how to use their computer?
SAUNDERS: (Laughter) Yes, yes.
WESTERVELT: In your early years starting out, how common was it to run into other African-Americans in the tech field?
SAUNDERS: It was nonexistent. In the early years and even after - you know, when I was working in New York in the '80s, I was a consultant for IBM. And I would go into meetings, and they were literally no other people of color in the room on either side of the table in most cases. I was senior-level architect. I would lead teams; I would lead projects and I spent a lot of time doing client-facing work. I would usually go into meetings and sit down and far too often, the client assumed that the person next to me was Aaron Saunders and that I was not Aaron Saunders the architect. And the person next to me was not African-American. It was very frustrating because especially in the consulting business, you're basically selling yourself, right? You're walking in a room; you're telling the client hey, we're going to get this done for you. Please pay us a lot of money to do this before you even do any work. And I think for African-Americans it's a huge challenge because people come to the table with preconceived notions about our capabilities and what we can do. So you have to try even harder to get that point across that yes, I can get this done for you, yes, I am capable, yes, I belong here.
WESTERVELT: Silicon Valley tech companies have pledged to do more to create a more diverse workforce. Why do you think it's taking so long and it's so hard for them?
SAUNDERS: Because there aren't any black people there. I mean, you're - you know what I mean? It's real simple. As well-intentioned as they are, right, it's still challenging for a room full of nondiverse people to figure out how to address diversity, right? I know there's a big push right now to address the lack of diversity in tech through HBCUs.
WESTERVELT: Historically black colleges and universities.
SAUNDERS: Yes. The bulk of the HBCUs are on the East Coast. The bulk of the tech companies are on the West Coast. You're not going to solve this problem by just dropping in for a weekend or for a job fair. It's going to take a committed kind of - for lack of a better word, you know, on-the-ground war.
WESTERVELT: When you meet tech companies there and talk about diversity, do you feel like you're coming at it from really different places?
SAUNDERS: I think as an African-American when I discuss tech and tech diversity, I definitely am coming from a different place than most of the people that I'm talking to because you're discussing things with them that they simply can't wrap their head around. For example, take a person of color who's grown up in a black community, went to high school in a prominent black community, probably went to a predominantly-black college. And even if they got that job at that great tech company now, it's a complete culture shock. Beyond even what they're capable of doing technically, they now need to kind of handled this, you know, this dualism of who they are and who they believe they need to be to be successful in the workplace.
WESTERVELT: It's not just as simple as hiring? It's...
SAUNDERS: It's not just as simple as hiring.
WESTERVELT: You're also teaching in Howard University's computer science department. How do you approach preparing young students of color not just technically but in a tech world that's still not inclusive?
SAUNDERS: So one of the things that I do when I first start my class is I ask my students how much programming experience they have. And the very first semester that I taught, what I found interesting was that some of my students had never programmed before they'd got to college. And I clearly articulated to them that if you want a job in the Valley, the people that you're competing with for those jobs, a lot them probably started programming sixth, seventh, eighth grade and have been doing it for years. And so it's a focus on making that extra effort and that extra commitment to kind of get back on track to be successful and be competitive.
WESTERVELT: Aaron Saunders is CEO of Clearly Innovative. He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Aaron's story BlackAnd in tech is the final part of our Black History Month series BlackAnd, which features different voices of those balancing multiple identities. To look back on the series, you can search for #BlackAnd on Twitter as well as on npr.org. Aaron, thanks for coming in.
SAUNDERS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.