Tristan Walker stands out in Silicon Valley.
Walker is black. Silicon Valley, for the most part, isn't. Research shows that only about 1 percent of tech entrepreneurs in that section of Northern California are African-American.
"There just aren't as many folks who look like me in the industry," the 29-year-old told All Things Considered host Audie Cornish.
Until last year, Walker ran business development for Foursquare, the social networking app that now has some 40 million users. He was then handpicked by a team of heavy-hitting venture capitalists to work on his own big idea. Walker wants to create the next Twitter, the next Spotify. In short, the next big idea.
Now established in Silicon Valley, Walker is also working to tackle the tech industry's dearth of diversity. He's set up an internship program called Code2040 to bring black and Latino engineering undergrads to the Valley.
From The Projects To Privilege
Walker is an unlikely candidate for success in Silicon Valley. Born into poverty and raised by a single mother in the projects of the New York City borough of Queens, Walker says the only way to make sure he didn't have to go back to it was to work hard — and make money.
"It was tough, and life definitely wasn't easy," Walker says. "And I realized that I didn't want to go back to that life."
First, he landed a full scholarship to a top-flight, New England boarding school. There, he got an early feel for what it's like to be an outsider in a world of white privilege.
"A lot of my classmates had a confidence that I'd never seen before," he says. "It was almost as if the world just worked for them in a way that they expected it to."
Next, Walker went to college — Stony Brook University on Long Island, N.Y. — again, with a big scholarship.
Then it was time for the career part of the plan. But he didn't have a lot of successful, career-minded role models growing up, he says. When it came time to make money, Walker says he figured there were just three ways to do it. One way, he thought, was to be an actor or an athlete. That, he says, clearly wasn't going to be his path.
His second idea was to work on Wall Street, which he did for a while. He landed a job as a trader after college, but says it was the worst two years of his life.
"I was caught up more in the allure, as opposed to the passion behind it," he says.
The Third Option
That left one option, in Walker's mind: entrepreneurship. So Walker headed to Stanford's business school and to Silicon Valley. But despite being in the center of the tech industry, Walker says he had a tough time breaking in.
Then he heard about a then-tiny tech startup called Foursquare. What happened next is now tech lore.
"So the story goes, I emailed the founders, Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai. Didn't get a reply. Emailed them again. Didn't get a reply. Ended up emailing them eight times," Walker says. "After the eighth email I got a reply back from Dennis. And he said, 'You know what, I just may take you up on some of this. Are you ever in New York?' "
Minutes later, Walker responded, saying he was planning to be in New York the next day. He booked a flight, flew out the next morning and hung out with Crowley for a week. A month later he was running business development for the company.
When Foursquare took off, so did Walker's career. Now, he has the leverage to work on his own startup — but he's been thinking a lot about how he can make the path a little easier for the next Tristan Walker.
Diversity As Business Opportunity
Part of the allure of the myth of Silicon Valley is that in the epicenter of the tech world, all that matters is the idea — that if you have a good idea, you've got a shot. But Walker says the notion of the Valley as a pure meritocracy doesn't always ring true. Even the most well-meaning people can discriminate without intending to, he says.
"There's looking at a resume with the name of a woman and forming some idea around the value set that person has, without realizing it," Walker says. "There is speaking on the phone with somebody and you happen to potentially sound white — and then meeting that person in person, shaking the hand and seeing this look of awe and shock, as if there was some other expectation around how you should look."
The question for Walker became how to get recruiters for tech companies to look explicitly for more diverse candidates. And that became Code2040.
The year 2040 is when demographers believe minorities will become the majority in the United States. Walker sees a golden business opportunity in this shift.
"If you're not including what will be the majority demographic in our country at the table in positions of leadership, your company just could not be destined for the level of success it should be destined for," Walker says. "If someone puts those two together and really understands that, they will have done something really special. And there are not enough people thinking about it like that."
That's where Walker's new startup comes in. It's still in the early stages, and he wouldn't talk on the record about his big idea. But Walker did say that he hopes one day his story — a young black outsider who makes it big in Silicon Valley — won't be so remarkable.