Black Innovation Thrives in the UK Despite Low Minority Representation in Tech

The United Kingdom tech sector shares common characteristics with its U.S. counterpart: the industry is a shining beacon of cutting-edge innovation, home to several startup ‘unicorns’, and operates with a noticeable lack of minority representation in technical and leadership roles. Similar to Silicon Valley, the overused “pipeline problem” narrative in Britain suggests there are not enough qualified Black candidates to fulfill technical roles at major companies.

Abadesi Osunsade, Head of Maker Outreach at Product Hunt and founder of Hustle Crew, an organization that works with companies and individuals to make tech more inclusive, penned an op-ed for The Independent about her experiences as a Black woman in the tech. “I’ve had my hair touched without my permission, participated in drinking games out of peer pressure and have been the victim of double standards countless times. I’ve been labelled emotional for speaking out against a mid-quarter increase of my sales targets (which my compensation was tied to) while a male colleague who threw a keyboard across the office, smashing it into a wall, was never even questioned, let alone reprimanded,” she wrote. Last year, she was listed as one of the UK’s top 100 Black and minority ethnic leaders in technology and in her most striking observation, Osunsade says she’s encountered tech leaders who fear that they are ultimately lowering the bar by hiring Black workers.

The UK ranks number four on the Global Innovation Index, positioning itself as a leading hub of digital innovation, its global relevance also depends on a workforce that is reflective of the world it wants to revolutionize. According to a 2018 Tech Nation report, 15% of tech workers in the UK are from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds, which is slightly higher than the national average of 13% in the rest of the workforce.  Out of 3,428 people surveyed in the UK tech community, Tech Nation says none of them listed talent diversity among their top three most pressing issues in the industry.  An Inclusive Boards November 2018 report shows 8.5% of senior leaders in tech are from a BAME background. Diversity and inclusion are major talking points in the tech industry, but institutional discrimination underpinned by racial bias continues to be a problem beyond the industry. Black tech workers and founders navigate the industry with a keen awareness that they may be the only one in any given room, but they’re also bringing change to the industry through their day-to-day work and advocacy efforts.

There are several organizations tackling the issue of Black representation in tech through targeted initiatives. Founded by leaders from various parts of the industry, UK Black Tech’s mission is to make the UK tech sector the most diverse in the world. Through the organization’s “100 Year Plan” launched in 2017, the initiative is comprised of 5 cornerstone principles; Participation, Visibility, Community Building, Generational Economics, and Self-Sustainability. Last year, JP Morgan partnered with London-based Capital Enterprise on an initiative called “OneTech” which aims to double the number of diverse founders getting access to investment by 2020.  Communities like Your Startup Your Story (YSYS) and organizations like Colorintech are launching pre-accelerator programs for Black founders seeking to turn their tech startup ideas into viable businesses. U.S.-based venture capital firm, Backstage Capital recently expanded to London with a 3-month accelerator giving underrepresented founder support and access to investment capital.

Despite new programs to create equal opportunities for minorities in tech by targeting institutional gaps and addressing inequalities, this is merely half of the story for Black innovators and professionals in the UK What’s equally important is their gumption to defy stereotypes and disparities.

For Kurt Henderson, co-founder and Chief Product Officer of city discovery app Kompas, being a Black founder in tech is about adopting a visionary mindset.  Henderson says Kompas is currently undergoing a company rebrand and will go by the name NAVA. The award-winning app uses artificial intelligence to curate a personalized city exploration guide and itinerary. Henderson told ThePLUG, “It is important that Black founders take the plunge and have self-belief that they can be leading entrepreneurs and pave the way for others to follow in their footsteps.”

As 76% of British millennials want to start a business in a post-Brexit UK, stories of entrepreneurship are increasingly becoming the norm. For Black innovators to thrive, Henderson believes it’s important that narratives of Black founders and innovators are shared globally to spur industrywide change. “Success stories that already exist need to be publicized in the right institutions, societies and media publications in order to inspire.”

Joshua Ogunnote, founder of music discovery app Chune, quickly became one of those success stories in less than 60 seconds. Ogunnote’s company made waves last October when he spontaneously pitched his app to Ashton Kutcher on stage at the WeWork Creator Awards in London. Impressed by Ogunnote’s presentation, Kutcher invested £13,000 ($17,000 USD) in Chune on the spot, becoming the app’s first investor. Citing the influence of Black trendsetters as a conduit of popular global trends, Ogunnote wants Chune to become  “the culture spot for music.” Chune will be available to download this spring. 

Speaking on the challenges of running his startup Ogunnote is undeterred by obstacles he faces. “I feel like one of the biggest challenges is just dealing with self-doubt, the expectancies, and always trying to maintain that mindset of ‘we can conquer the world’, even though we’re small and a five-person company right now. In five years time, we can actually do the impossible,” Ogunnote said.

Attracted to the ideation and impact of tech entrepreneurialism, Ogunnote sees the future of UK tech as a place where ideas from Black innovators will rise to the top. He says it’s just a matter of time, execution, and vision.  “The next billion-dollar idea can really come from a black boy from ends (the UK equivalent of the hood). I really want that narrative out there. We’ve just got to go out and kill it.”

ThePLUG Staff

Our stories move beyond popular deficit narratives to show the substantive ways that Black people are affected by and engaged with the innovation economy, including analyses of modern technologies and the structures and cultures.