New America Media, News Report, Semany Gashaw
SAN FRANCISCO -- In a thriving Bay Area technology sector where black and brown faces are the exception and not the norm, Chris Cruz, a Filipino American, and Isaac Reed, an African American, are crashing the party.
“Stereotypes are one hell of a drug,” says the 25-year-old Reed. Being judged on appearance by other industry professionals, he adds, is something he’s come to expect. “Until I open my mouth, [then] they understand I’m educated. But I don’t let it intimidate me. It actually empowers me.”
When it comes to California’s technology sector, Cruz and Reed surely aren’t alone in feeling racially isolated.
A study conducted in 2011 by three California-based groups – the Black Economic Council, Latino Business Chamber of Greater Los Angeles, and the National Asian American Coalition – looked at workforce diversity at a dozen companies in Silicon Valley, including industry giants Intel, Cisco and Ebay, and found an industry where African Americans and Latinos are grossly underrepresented when compared to their percentages of the state population. In the study, Blacks comprised less than 3 percent of company employees on average (they are 6.8 percent of the state population), while Hispanics comprised anywhere from 4 to 9 percent of employees at those companies surveyed, despite accounting for 38 percent of the California’s population according to the 2010 Census.
Another study conducted in 2011 by CNN Money culled workforce data from California-based technology companies Intel, Dell and Ingram Data. CNN, too, found diversity in the tech sector to be seriously lacking: whites comprised 64 percent of the workforce in companies surveyed. The next largest group was Asian at 20 percent. Meanwhile, Hispanics comprised only 9 percent and Blacks 6 percent of all employees. The CNN study did not include major companies like Facebook, Apple, Google or Amazon since those companies do not make such employee information public.
Racial stereotyping within the tech sector is perpetuated by the lack of diversity within the industry, says Dr. James Lai, director of the Ethnic Studies Program at Santa Clara University. Overcoming those stereotypes, he says, can be a real barrier for young minority entrepreneurs, like Cruz and Reed, who are trying to make a name for themself.
“If you’ve got to pitch [an idea], you have to have an image. And that image can be used against you, because there are stereotypes that people bring,” says Lai. “They [employers] may see an African American and they may think, ‘Well, how many African Americans do I know in the computer industry?’ And the truth is that there are not that – about one percent in most companies.”
Beating the Odds
The young duo’s efforts – Cruz, like his partner Reed, is also 25 -- to break into the tech industry began in January 2011, with the development of a mobile application for smartphones that they called Zuggol.
Zuggol allows users to set a personal goal and track progress toward that goal, which is assigned to one of six given categories: art, business, fitness, fashion, education and music. Users can update their goal status according to progress made, and “follow” others on Zuggol pursuing similar quests, to get helpful tips or advice on what is or isn’t working for other people.
For those inevitable moments of hopelessness, users can look to Zuggol’s “push” page for extra motivation -- the page contains quotes from successful individuals across a variety of professions, from Babe Ruth to Maya Angelou.
In February of 2013, Zuggol became available on the open market, joining thousands of other mobile applications available for purchase through the Apple Store.
Fittingly, the path taken by Cruz and Reed to create Zuggol was one forged by perseverance and self-sacrifice in service of a shared goal.
They couldn’t afford to hire a programmer to build the application, says Cruz, so he taught himself Objective-C, a programming language used in Apple’s current operating systems, over a six-month period.
While Cruz worked on the technical side, Reed secured investment deals and corporate sponsors such as Muscle Milk and Velvety Wine.
“Initially, motivation was probably the only thing that kept me going,” Cruz says. “There were times during those six months of coding, I lost all hope -- same with Isaac -- and every single time, I would read quotes or talk to somebody in the tech industry, which helped reignite my motivation.”
Overcoming the odds was nothing new to either Cruz or Reed.
Raised in a family of seven, Reed was the eldest of five siblings. At the age of 12, the family lost their home to foreclosure and was homeless for about a year. They couch-surfed, sleeping in different people’s living rooms until they were able to move into a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, where there were “shootings on a regular basis.” Adding to their troubles, Reed’s father left the family at that same time, leaving his mother to care for her five children.
“I’d seen a very large spectrum of the African American community in a negative fashion and I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “And so I asked myself, ‘What can I do to not be in this realm?’ I decided that everything that they’re doing, I’m going to do the exact opposite and see where I go.”
Reed attended the Bay Area School of Enterprise in Alameda, a public charter high school where his entrepreneurial tendencies flourished. He eventually went on to graduate from San Francisco State University, becoming the first in his family to obtain a college degree.
Like his business partner, Cruz was also raised by his mother and had a father who was in and out of his life. He lived in a house in Hercules, a city 25 miles from San Francisco, until the age of six, when his father was incarcerated for selling drugs. Soon after, the family was evicted from their home and rented a bedroom in a house in San Francisco. For 16 years, his mother raised him in that bedroom, saving up all her money so he could attend Archbishop Riordan High School, an all-boys private school. But his mother could only afford two years at Riordan, so Cruz spent his junior and senior years at Philip & Sala Burton High School, a public school with a tougher reputation.
“It taught me a lot more about just surviving and about how life is,” says Cruz.
Back then, being an app developer never crossed his mind, admits Cruz. Growing up, he was a rapper who won awards and produced music with storied Bay Area rap artists like Big Rich and San Quinn.
He credits having to care for his ailing mother -- she almost died twice, once from a heart attack that Cruz attributes to stress -- for shaping his work ethic.
“It really pushes me beyond what anything else would,” he says.
Changing the Culture
Now entrenched in the tech industry, Reed and Cruz face a different kind of struggle, not with poverty, but with the biases within their chosen profession.
When asked if race is still an issue for them in the tech world, both agree that as people of color they have to work harder to impress. “Sometimes I’ll talk to people and say I’m a programmer, or I develop -- but if I say that I coded Objective-C in six months, then they will pay attention to me. If I don’t, I’ll usually get ignored,” says Cruz.
“It’s also disheartening to see, for me especially, [that] I am the only African American at many of the [tech] events I go to,” adds Reed. “Sometimes I see African American women, but… the males, you don’t see any.”
Cruz once tested the environment by changing his appearance to see how people would treat him. “If I let my hair grow out, I’ll look more Caucasian. But if I’m shaved I get completely ignored because it seems like the people [in tech companies] keep to themselves a lot at many of the startups, especially all the mixers that I go to.” As a result, the men have stopped going to industry mixers, a crucial environment for networking opportunities and pitching ideas.
Today in the Zuggol office in San Francisco’s financial district, Cruz and Reed’s idea has grown into a budding enterprise of 20 employees, nearly all from non-white ethnic backgrounds ranging from Filipino to African American to Hispanic. The company is experiencing steady growth – their user base increases by about 10 percent each week -- and the partners say they are busy fundraising and securing private investments deals.
Cruz and Reed are proud of what they’ve accomplished so far and say they will strive to continue to make a difference, by doing whatever they can within their own company to diversify the tech sector.
“I feel like we’re the underdogs and that Isaac and I are doing it for our people,” says Cruz. “I feel we have our ethnicities on our shoulders in the tech industry.”
This article by Semany Gashaw was originally posted on the New America Media website on May 7, 2013.