Successful African-American Silicon Valley Entrepreneur Feels ‘Like A Black Unicorn’
Originally from inner-city Baltimore, Maryland, successful tech entrepreneur Clarence Wooten, 46, got into tech and computers through video games as a kid. He played on the old Atari, ColecoVision and Commodore platforms.
From those modest beginnings, a career blossomed. As a youth, Wooten looked up to people like Bill Gates and Reginald Lewis as role models. Lewis, the richest African American in the 1980s was born and raised in Baltimore. He died in 1993 after taking control of and subsequently growing Beatrice—the first African American-owned billion-dollar company. The power of role models would stay with Wooten throughout his career.
Still in Baltimore in the late 90s, Wooten founded ImageCafe, a startup that provided website templates for small businesses, something like what Wix and Squarespace do today.
“We were getting ready to raise a big venture round when Network Solutions, who was the GoDaddy of that time, swooped in and acquired us,” Wooten says. The deal was concluded for $23 million at the end of 1999, near the top of the dot-com boom. “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”
While the deal price didn’t start with a “B,” the success and capital launched Wooten’s career. He moved to Silicon Valley and has started several companies since.
“I’m this guy who takes wacky ideas and turns them into things,” Wooten quips.
African American in Silicon Valley
To ignore race in the context of Wooten’s success would be to ignore one of the glaring issues facing Silicon Valley today. The treatment of women and minorities became the hot-button topic of 2017.
Wooten moved around a lot as a kid. Starting out in the inner city, virtually all his friends were black. Later he moved to a virtually all-white school. “I felt like I had a pretty diverse social upbringing and as a result you know I was never uncomfortable around anyone.”
Wooten’s personal philosophy doesn’t allow him to blame others for the challenges in his life. “You know you really can’t think about how you may be being held back for reasons that are beyond your control because if that enters your mind and stays in your mind you will not be successful because it will weigh you down.”
He has no apparent resentment toward the Silicon Valley culture—why should he? He’s been successful there. He says he’s treated about the same there as elsewhere. Still, he acknowledges the challenges. “I mean, being based in Palo Alto as an African-American entrepreneur who has had some success in tech and in Silicon Valley, you know, to some degree is like a black unicorn, which is unfortunate.”
“So, my dream is to see more success for African-Americans in tech.”
What is STEAM Role?
Wooten’s latest startup, STEAM Role, is his effort to fulfill that dream.
The name is first a reference to Silicon Valley’s areas of focus—science, technology, engineering, arts and math. He points out that Apple proved the value of adding the arts to STEM. The name also provides a clue to the secret sauce: role models.
“We aim to provide companies with a platform to inspire, track and hire diverse STEAM talent by leveraging their existing employees as role models to attract future hires,” he says.
Flipping the lens, he adds, “We aim to provide a roadmap for anyone to acquire their dream career by following and learning from role models that they can relate to.”
Ryan Scott, CEO of Causecast and an advisor to STEAM Role, says, “STEAM Role solves a gigantic issue for corporations. How to attract and retain a STEAM educated, diverse talent pool. As a corporate tool, it allows employees to be role models and clearly helps steamers to get the exact skills the employee has to get the position they are in.”
To build an audience for the enterprise clients, STEAM Role is partnering with middle through high school guidance counselors and the startup has created a brand ambassador program across colleges and universities.
“You can learn anything you want to know online and virtually for free. Information is widely available; however, inspiration is not,” Wooten says.
How STEAM Role Works
“Think Tinder,” Wooten says of how the mobile app works. “But instead of swiping through your potential dates we’re showcasing role models that you can relate to. We show you their company, their job title, a one-sentence description of what they do and we pull from Glassdoor their salary range.”
Don’t confuse role models with mentors. “Mentorship doesn’t really scale because it’s one to one,” he says. One role model can influence thousands of aspiring professionals on STEAM Role.
“So, if there’s an African-American, teenage female in Baltimore, we will try to show her African-American women who are STEAM professionals—successful.” Ultimately, the app will show her role models based on her interests, regardless of gender and ethnicity.
When she clicks on a role model, she can see all the skills that person acquired to get that position. She can also see where she can learn those skills and ultimately get someone to endorse her for having the skill.
Wooten says the design was inspired by watching his daughters use SnapChat and Instagram. The idea is to create a sense of intimacy and authenticity that today’s young people—who grew up with supercomputers in their pockets connected to all the world’s information—crave.
Scott believes STEAM Role will create wins for everyone involved, from the sponsoring enterprises, to the role models and ultimately for the “steamers,” the aspiring professionals.
Wooten hopes that the startup will allow him to fulfill a mission.
A purpose-driven life
“In the last ten years, I came to the realization that the first third of your life you learn, the second third you earn and in the last third you return.” This philosophy guided his thinking, allowing him to focus on giving back in the future. More recently, however, he concluded that “that the ultimate startup is when you can learn, earn and return all in the same company.”
“And so, we built a mission-driven company. My entire team they’re here because they believe in the mission. They think the world needs this,” Wooten says. “It’s a calling to me as much as it is a company.”
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