When we think of human progress, we usually picture a long list of white men and their “Eureka!” moments. This makes it easy to forget that advances in science and technology occur simultaneously in different parts of the world, and Black pioneers and visionaries deserve the same recognition as their peers.
As we celebrate Black History Month, we introduce Black people in tech and their contributions to advancing this field as we know it.
The Underrated Role of Black People in Tech History
Technology has come a long way, from discovering fire to charging pocket-sized devices remotely. As far back as antiquity, Africa has been making strides in how humans understand the world around them.
Classical Period to the Middle Ages
For instance, the Ancient Greeks frequently get credit for coining the term “astrology,” which we still use today. However, the fact is that, as ancient as they are, they were considered latecomers. You have the Indus Valley Civilization, the Chinese, the Sumerians, and the Africans of the Nile—with the Greeks learning only from the latter.
The world’s understanding of the stars then affected everything, from agriculture to navigation. Fast forward to the Middle Ages, which began in Europe as a period of chaos and stagnation after the fall of the Roman Empire. By the time the Renaissance picked up in the 1300s, Mali had already begun its Golden Age under Mansa Musa.
The universities of Sankore, Sidi Yahya, and Djinguereber were hot spots for knowledge, accepting scholars from all over the world. These educational institutions were engineering feats in and of themselves and contributed to the period’s progress. This progress included the first accurate astronomical calendar.
The Industrial Revolution
Of course, the age of exploration also led to conquest and eventual slavery. In the United States, people of African descent were enslaved and forced into into a life as workers and laborers. Their conditions, however, would become one of the main reasons behind the American Civil War. After this bloody war tore the nation apart, the young former British colony emerged as an industrial giant.
Black people were more than just laborers and workers during the first Industrial Revolution. They were artisans, engineers, and inventors, too!
The so-called “Golden Age of Invention,” from 1870 to 1940, was when Black scientists filed patents in a society that was still hesitant to accept them. Here are a few of the Black inventors advancing tech in the new world:
- George Washington Carver: He was among the first to explore the use of nitrogen-fixing plants, such as peanuts and soybeans, with over 300 ideas for using peanuts. Carver was a pioneering agricultural scientist with hundreds of products attributed to him, including an original process for developing dyes and paints.
- Elijah McCoy: This Canadian-American engineer had 57 US patents. Yet, his most famous contribution to mechanical engineering was a lubrication system for machines without stopping them, finding widespread applications for steam engines. Not only did this reduce the downtimes, but it also reduced safety risks.
- Frederick McKinley Jones: An entrepreneur, engineer, and a National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee, McKinley Jones earned 61 patents, most of which were related to refrigeration. His significant contributions include the design of truck refrigeration, a portable x-ray machine, and an early prototype for snowmobiles.
- Alice H. Parker: Not to be confused with the esteemed musician, Parker is best known for her gas furnace design. She invented the first air-duct heating system before central gas heating was available. Filing her patent before the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement, Parker was ahead of her time in race and gender.
Many Black scientists and inventors made it possible for more men and women to find their place in the fast-growing science and technology field. While women had to take a longer route than their male counterparts, their unrelenting drive inspired others.
Black Leaders in Modern Tech
Black people in America have come a long way. Still, there’s a lot of work to be done regarding equity and representation. While Black professionals make up 13% of the overall labor force, only 3.7% occupy technical positions. Furthermore, only 4% of US-based tech execs are Black, while 4.4% of board members belong to the same ethnicity.
That’s not to say that standing at the top of the tech world is impossible. Despite the uphill battle, some modern Black tech leaders are blazing the way for other people.
Dr. Dre (Andre Romell Young)
Kicking off this list is Dr. Dre, popularly known as a rapper and record producer. Aside from being a key figure in the popularization of the West Coast G-funk subgenre, he’s also behind one of the largest tech brands of the previous decade.
Andre Romell Young, aside from his legendary on-stage persona, is also known as the founder of Beats Electronics LLC, a consumer electronics producer focused on audio devices. Popularly known as “Beats by Dre,” it had a stellar run in the market. Founded in 2006, it quickly captured 64% of the US headphone market for items costing more than $100.
It was valued at one billion dollars in 2013 and was acquired by Apple for $3.2 billion the following year, the largest purchase of the Silicon Valley tech leader to date.
The 48-year-old visionary has taken the helm as Microsoft’s Executive Vice President for Business Development, Strategy, and Ventures. He’s responsible for forging strategic partnerships for the tech giant and developing the company’s corporate strategy.
Young also has an impressive resume in computing and cybersecurity, having worked with Cisco and America Online (AOL). He also served as McAfee’s CEO from 2014 to 2020.
Aside from his seat at Microsoft, the Black tech exec also serves on the American Express board of directors and is a member of the Cybersecurity Advisory Committee for the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
A social entrepreneur and justice advocate, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins dedicated her resources to establishing Promise. This California company focuses on modernizing and streamlining the US bail system, making it faster and more accessible to the public.
Ellis-Lamkins also worked as the CEO of Green for All. She spearheaded the environmental agenda from various environmental groups that ultimately helped direct the efforts of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, better known as ACES, and the US Climate Bill.
As a tech sector household name, she served as the Executive Director of Working Partnerships USA. This coalition of community groups aims to address the economic disparities in Silicon Valley.
The Importance of Diversity in the Tech Sector
With more opportunities for Black minds in the tech industry, the field will benefit from more perspectives. In turn, this helps accelerate progress and addresses more concerns. Furthermore, diverse brands tend to attract broader market segments and remain relevant for longer.
While we now have Black professionals taking on specialized roles and sitting on executive boards, actions can still be taken to bring greater diversity to tech. It opens additional opportunities for the community while creating exciting industry growth prospects.
Education programs could use changes that would make it easier for people of color to get the education and skills they need to enter the market. Yellow Tail Tech is a rising education technology (EdTech) company designed to help people land careers in IT, even without prior education in the field.
Since its inception in 2014, Yellow Tail Tech has grown to train and educate learners from various racial groups. As the brainchild of two people of color—Jubee Leroy Vilceus, a Haitian, and Paloma Rivera Vilceus, a Dominican—the EdTech firm is all for diversity and inclusivity, from the virtual classrooms to the real-world workplace.
71% of its students are of African-American descent. As more young Black people access education, they become professionals with better odds of taking leadership positions in the IT industry.
As we celebrate Black History Month, let’s take the opportunity to recognize that the Black influence on tech is more significant and profound than we previously thought. On the one hand, you have brave innovators and pioneers who overcame challenges to bring ideas forth.
Meanwhile, there’s no better time to be a Black person in technology. If you’re interested in entering the tech world through IT, Book a 10-minute intro call with our Enrollment Advisor to get started!