A Platform Rocks The House For Tech Diversity At Morehouse College

A Platform Rocks The House For Tech Diversity At Morehouse College

Last time I visited Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia (disclosure: I consulted for them in 2013), John Silvanus Wilson was deep in thought. It was Christmas 2014 — a great time for reflection — and he was just ending his second year as president of a college best known for one of its alumni: Dr. Martin Luther King.

But during Dr. Wilson’s tenure, the Morehouse brand has evolved in another direction: as a place committed to STEM education for African American men. The school boasts a lot of number one’s in STEM. It’s the number one institution of “baccalaureate origin for black men earning a PhD in science and engineering.” It also boasts a lot of mores, in keeping with its namesake. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, Morehouse produced more black male applicants to medical school between 2010 and 2014 than any other college in the US.

The focus on STEM preceded Wilson’s reign. But he’s found new ways to reimagine, deepen and scale the Morehouse brand, and to grow these impressive numbers. To do that, he’s been working with a wide range of partners, including Platform.org, a community that’s become a major force in “diversifying the innovation economy” (their slogan).

The new narrative

Platform – which just last week staged its annual event at Morehouse for the second year in a row — is the brainchild of Hank Williams (no, not that Hank Williams), a former denizen of Silicon Valley, and survivor of the first diversity wars in the Valley earlier this decade. Back then — when Techcrunch founder Michael Arrington clashed with Silicon Valley minorities and women who found the courage to complain about the Valley’s resistance to change — the narrative on diversity was negative. Now — at a time when companies like Intel are committing hundreds of millions to engage women and minorities — that narrative has a constructive if not entirely positive character.

The new narrative: not only is diversity the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do, as well. As Silicon Valley investor Mitch Kapor (a Platform supporter) has said, women, African Americans, Hispanics and others can help businesses “see around corners” in new markets that are fast emerging in the global economy.

The narrative has changed in another way: different groups that have felt disenfranchised are learning to work with one another. One of the things that truly differentiates Platform is that it is wholly committed to bringing these groups together. The annual event features entrepreneurs, speakers, and investors across gender and ethnic divides.

They are also crossing technology divides at a time when STEM is beginning to expand its own narrative beyond the virtues of coding. Among the speakers this year was one Rubi Sanchez, a Silicon Valley Latina who recently demoed her product, Cocoon Cam — a new data-driven system for monitoring infants — at The White House. In many ways, Rubi is a poster child (though I hate the term) for organizations like Platform. She’s not just a woman. She’s not just a Latina. She’s an entrepreneur in health-and-medical sciences, just one of many markets that are getting more real with the help of people who can see around cultural corners.

The new ecosystem

It’s also one of many tech markets that have special relevance at Morehouse, where health and med have long been strong. According to reports, the Morehouse men and (sister school) Spelman women showed up. In fact, Platform’s partnership with Morehouse is helping it connect with a network of other HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) that also graduate large numbers of students in the sciences. But there are other reasons why Platform’s partnership with Morehouse makes sense. Morehouse President Wilson has this to say:

“Doing Platform at Morehouse College makes perfect sense, not only because it is a great match for our current STEM strengths, but also because it has everything to do with our agenda to be a far more measurable and meaningful answer to the lack of diversity in the innovation economy, nationally and globally.”

But Platform has had success attracting other partners with similar missions, including Google GOOGL +0.14% for Entrepreneurs, an organization that’s leveraging some of Google’s many assets to nurture diversity in the startup world. Danny Navarro, marketing manager for Google for Entrepreneurs, threw a party last week at Platform @ Morehouse that drew hundreds of entrepreneurs. And he also served hundreds of arepas — a Latam flatbread made of maize (corn) dough — and hundreds of pieces of southern corn bread. Platform provides partners like Google with the space and context to do what it does best: bring people together in a fun and unobtrusive way. Navarro:

“One of our favorite parts of the Platform experience is the participants — when they meet each other, they’re supportive and always looking to help each other. When we were planning for our event, we simply wanted to get out of the way and provide a fun space to help make that happen. What better way to do it than with great food and music?”

The new platform

This is all very nice. Platform’s leader, Hank Williams, deserves credit for helping to alter the narrative about diversity in tech, and for accommodating partners like Morehouse and Google. But like all smart leaders, Williams too is thinking about scale. The future of Platform? To become an online platform for the long tail of diversity that he’s been building offline. In beta today, Platform is looking to extend its offline community “to the online world and to expand to tens or hundreds of thousands,” says Williams.

When I hear numbers like this, I always ask, who is the likely suitor? LinkedIn LNKD -1.04% today may not even be thinking of this kind of opportunity. But if it has an eye on our diverse future — and is committed to see around the corners of the new global marketplace — it might find common cause with Platform, too.