Article: A Technopreneur who Learned from African American Inventors

My parents never missed an opportunity to tell me about George Washington Carver. They also ensured I knew that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but it was Lewis Latimer who patented a new filament that extended its lifespan.

A Technopreneur who Learned from African American Inventors

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Recently, I was asked the question, and I agreed that African American (Black) History Month was as good a time as any to discuss the strides and struggles of African American technology innovators and technopreneurs in the United States.

When I think about these things, it takes me back to the countless hours I spent at Founders’ Library at Howard University as a graduate student. Howard University is an HBCU founded in Washington, DC shortly after the Civil War.

In that library I learned about people like Dr. Shirley Jackson who was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate (PhD) from MIT. I learned about a nurse by the name of Mary Van Brittan Brown who, in 1966, invented the home security system.

Without getting too far into the politics, one thing many of us can point to as being helpful is the tenure of President Barack Obama. His presidency was historic for obvious reasons, but many forget he was the candidate and later president who used social media in ways others had not done. For many, the campaign and later administration’s use of technology “rubbed off” on all technology innovators, African Americans included.

My Parents Filled in the Gaps

Going back even further, there at home. My parents got master’s degrees from Iowa State, so they never missed an opportunity to tell me about George Washington Carver. They also ensured I knew that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but it was Lewis Latimer who patented a new filament that extended its lifespan.

The lessons kept coming. There was Frederick McKinley Jones, whose inventions included the refrigerated truck, which played a crucial role in preserving food and medical supplies in World War II. I could keep going, but I think you get the idea.

My Parents set me into Orbit

Looking back, I can’t emphasize enough how powerful those lessons were. I never felt like there was something I could not do if I put forth enough effort.

Once my parents set me into “orbit”, I began to pick up things on my own. For example, I eventually learned the popular super soaker toy was invented by Lonnie Johnson.

How do we Increase Participation in the Innovation Economy?

You don’t have to be an African American technopreneur long to know you are part of an underrepresented group in the tech industry. If you do a little digging, you realize this is not surprising because African Americans are underrepresented when it comes to STEM degrees. That is, if African American students getting degrees in majors like Computer Science are underrepresented, then African American graduates are more than likely going to be underrepresented in the Computer Scientist profession. The same could be applied to the Electrical Engineer profession.

Some researchers have gone further. For example, some researchers have examined the available US patent data to study the gaps between African American (Black) inventors and their counterparts.

In 2020, researcher Lisa D. Cook did a 2020 study entitled “Policies to Broaden Participation in the Innovation Process.” In this study, she examined how racial and gender gaps in the innovation economy are manifested through different stages of the innovation process. She first provides longitudinal quantitative evidence and then complements this with historical and contemporary examples of female and African American (Black) innovators who were impacted by racial and gender discrimination during the innovation process. One of the things she found was the starkest difference between these groups and their counterparts was in the practice and commercialization of invention.

Who am I?

I have studied Steve Jobs and to a lesser extent the other successful technopreneurs such as Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk. I realized our circumstances were different, but I was able to get value out of learning as much as I could from them and combined it with what I know about the African American Experience. I realized if I did that, then there would be a path to me being just as impactful.

I am not naive. Realizing technological advancements requires things like cloud compute, which is not free, but you do what you can with what you have. You eventually make peace with that because doing what you can with what you have is the essence of innovation.

I realized that no matter how much money they had, science did not belong to them. The mathematics behind Artificial Intelligence also did not belong to them. It was shared by all of us. I realized it came down to being able to solve problems with your products and services. We do our best as business world citizens.

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