Abernathy Man: Wayne Sutton

Abernathy Man is a series that spotlights remarkable black men and the work they’re doing.

Wayne Sutton
Name: Wayne Sutton
From: Teachey, North Carolina; Currently: San Francisco, California
Occupation: Serial entrepreneur. Co-founder and general partner of BUILDUP.vc

The tech industry has a problem with diversity. In the summer of 2015, Facebook released demographic statistics about its workforce: “…nearly 70% of its employees are men; 57% are white; Hispanics represent just 4%. Black employees comprised just 2% of their workforce.” Industry blog TechCrunch shared equally stunning numbers: “Only 2% of the tech workforce is black vs. 12% of the U.S. workforce.” Mother Jones published a headline which fully explains just how terrible diversity is in the tech industry. The article’s title? “The Combined Black Workforces of Google, Facebook, and Twitter Could Fit on a Single Jumbo Jet.”

A person reading this information might be inclined to ask, “well, there’s a problem here. How does one go about fixing it?” Enter Wayne Sutton, the founder of BuildUp Fund Inc, a non-profit, aimed at supporting an “inclusive ecosystem of entrepreneurs focused on building new technologies to solve the world’s most critical challenges.”

Sutton is already a superstar in his own right, being listed as “one of the 46 Most Important African Americans in Technology” by Business Insider, one of the top 100 most influential black people on social media in 2014, and if you can take his word for it, possibly “one of the first black people to use Twitter.” Sutton’s goal is a simple, yet difficult one. He’s on a mission to bring more underrepresented people into the tech industry.

Sutton’s most recent success came by way of Tech Inclusion, a two-day seminar for “exploring innovative solutions to tech diversity and inclusion.” Sutton spoke with Abernathy about the reason he started this conference. “People say tech is a pipeline problem. ‘We can’t find diverse talent. We don’t know where to go to find it.’ We decided to start this conference as a way to offer solutions.”

“People say tech is a pipeline problem. ‘We can’t find diverse talent. We don’t know where to go to find it.’ We decided to start this conference as a way to offer solutions.”

He went further, stating “everybody’s talking about the problem and the numbers, everybody’s talking about how hard it’s going to be, where did it go, and how did it start. But, this is a human problem. It’s about people and relationships.” The Tech Inclusion conference has earned rave reviews by those who’ve attended. Mandela Schumacher-Hodge, recalling her experiences wrote on Medium:

“It’s fair to say that I’ve been to over a hundred tech/entrepreneurship conferences, summits, meetups, happy hours, hackathons, etc. at this point. I’ve seen a variety of branding, missions, and structures centered on bringing people together in-person around the shared interests of using tech and entrepreneurship to make a difference in the world, or to be honest: “Just do cool sh*t. But a new conference — one I just left about an hour ago — was different. In fact, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before.”

Sutton acknowledges the diversity issue and has made positioned himself as a man that’s going to find the way to solve the problem. “It’s become my life mission to advocate for inclusion and diversity in tech to create more diverse tech founders,” he said. “Not only do we need more founders, but we need more people who are diverse inside the workforce inside these tech companies.” The conference furthered this purpose, as his primary goal was to “have people learn from talking with other people you normally don’t interact with.”

Sutton isn’t interested in lip service when it comes to this space. “If you care, you’ll figure out a way. If you really care, you are going to do something. Stand for something.” In addition to the conference, Sutton created the BuildUp Fellows Program which is used to “educate a group of underrepresented entrepreneurs. We want to discover them and put them on a path to success.”

The program lasts for two weeks. The first week is curriculum-focused, designed to discuss “leadership, HR, legal, pitching, and product marketing.” The second week is about “building relationships and meeting with investors, which concludes with a demo day at Twitter.” Both weeks also have office hours for mentorship, where fellows will be able to get individual guidance on working in the tech space. This program and the Tech Inclusion conference circle back to Sutton’s overarching goal of kicking down the homogenous doors of the tech space.

“In talking about the tech companies that get funded, the numbers of diverse candidates are paltry. How can we create more founders, to where we have an impact on this [tech] ecosystem? To increase diverse founders? To help create successful founders? Help founders that are underrepresented to get funded? Because those founders change the world. Those founders create work. Those founders hire people that look like them.”

If any of this sounds like monumental work, it is. Sutton is from about as far from Silicon Valley as one can possibly get. “I’m from a place called Teachey, North Carolina. The last time I checked, the population was about 300 people.” When asked about how this passion for diversity started, Sutton referred to himself as an “old school geek” who was a designer and an artist. “I used to go to people’s houses with a floppy disk to help them get online with dial-up networking.”

What Sutton is doing is important. Where others are busy asking questions about how to solve this problem, he is already providing powerful solutions. What is noteworthy here is that he is willing to teach these solutions to others in hopes that the entire industry will change for the better. His own words tell the story.

“I want the content to be shared [so] that people speaking can share one solution that someone can take back and say, ‘I might be one person, even if I can’t do this internally, I can do this on my own to make a difference.’ I’m only looking for people to do one thing. Introduce a diverse candidate, provide a scholarship, making a LinkedIn connection, try to provide a hand in the hiring process. Anything is better than doing nothing, because nothing has been happening for years.”

Further reading:

By Garfield Hylton

Garfield Hylton, J.D., is a dark-humored, self-deprecating misanthropist whose only hope of redemption is turning blank Google Word documents into piles of well-executed thoughts. He likes to add the suffix "J.D." on everything he writes because he understands that everything sounds better when coming from a doctor. You can listen to his podcast here: @NWAPcast.