Make It Black

25-year-old Black tech lead in Silicon Valley: I want to use my influence to combat systemic racism

Kyle Woumn, founding team member of the tech start-up Overflow, coding.
Photo courtesy Gabriel Galarza

This is part of CNBC Make It's series on what it's like to be Black in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley has long been a culture dominated by white men, with a fraught record of following up on commitments to fix its race problem, from major tech companies that have barely moved their numbers on diversity to a lack of funding for Black founders. Here, CNBC Make It spoke with Black professionals to hear their experiences.

Already in his young career, Kyle Woumn, 25, has had disappointing experiences that are too typical for a Black techie in white Silicon Valley. 

While a computer science student at Georgia Tech, Woumn remembers being one of only one or two Black interns at cloud platform Twilio in San Francisco for two summers running. When he took a job there in 2017 he was one of about six or eight Black engineers at the company, he says.

When Shopr, a clothing delivery start-up Woumn helped start, was invited to interview with Y Combinator, an alum of the accelerator alluded to the fact that the business was picked because the accelerator was trying to increase the number of Black-founded companies in its portfolio. The alum then suggested pitching Y Combinator on the idea that ShopR could be used by stores to prevent theft in low-income and Black neighborhoods. 

"It was just like, 'Wow, is this what people think in terms of Black entrepreneurship?'" Woumn says. "Are these the kinds of things that they talk about, you know, when we are not in the room?" 

(Twilio says it did not formally track diversity numbers at the times Woumn refers to but currently, 3% of its global staff is Black, with a goal to have 30% underrepresented populations by 2023. Y Combinator says the accelerator is "disheartened" to hear about the founders' experience and it is "actively doing outreach to raise awareness of entrepreneurship and computer science to underrepresented groups.")  

"Definitely, when it comes to working at Silicon Valley, and working as a software engineer, and being Black, I feel like you have to overemphasize sometimes the value that you provide," Woumn tells CNBC Make It.

But as he finds success, Woumn also feels a responsibility to help effect cultural change in Silicon Valley, especially since the killing of George Floyd. 

Shortly after Woumn left ShopR in May (for reasons unrelated to the experience with the Y Combinator alum) he became a founding team member at philanthropy start-up Overflow. Just weeks later, George Floyd was killed by police.

It made it hard for Woumn to function, he says. "I was just kind of paralyzed and, I was obsessively on Twitter," he says. "It was very unsettling. And it was hard for me to sleep — even be productive, honestly."

Woumn's mom, who still lives in Atlanta where he is from, pleaded with him to comply with officers if he is ever to get pulled over. "That was really heartbreaking," he says.

A screenshot of the text Woumn's mom sent to him.
Courtesy Kyle Woumn

With such a systemic problem, "there's not one magic fix that will fix it all, so I'm always constantly thinking, 'What's my role in this?'" Woumn says.

With a resume littered with corporate and tech positions, Woumn feels a responsibility to help change things. 

"I don't have privilege, privilege," he says, because he is not white. But "I've gotten to a point that I have some kind of influence, that I can effect change," he says. 

"I'm in a lot of spaces that a lot of my fellow people in the Black community may not be in, so it's up to me to use my voice."

Woumn also feels that he is in a position to help change preconceived notions about Black people because he has been embraced by non-Black people.

"Walking down the street ... all Black people can be seen as a threat... sometimes, but when you are in a corporate office, there is this sense of safety to non-Black people or white people," Woumn says. With his top-rate education and professional clothes, Woumn says, non-Black people see him as a "good Black person" or a Black person who is "non-threatening."

Woumn currently works as a founding team member at Overflow, a platform with the goal of making philanthropy frictionless. The team is diverse — one team member is from Mexico, another is from Brazil, one is Korean American and the founder, Vance Rouch, is Filipino American. There are also white team members.

Rouch, whom Woumn met at church in San Francisco, has been vocal within the start-up about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and advocating that it is important for everybody, not just Black people.  

Generally, Woumn has been encouraged to see the "wave of support" for Black people since the killing of Floyd.

"But one of the things I'm wondering is how long it's going to last?" he says. "I do think there's been an inkling of change, but I feel like there's so much more work to do."

See also:

Being a Black founder in Silicon Valley after George Floyd: 'I honestly feel more safe'

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