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Tech pioneer Ken Coleman talks diversity

As a pioneering African-American in the land of tech, Ken Coleman has earned the respect of venture capitalists and the friendship of presidents.

And yet as a black man in America, Coleman shudders when police lights flash.

“When I’m stopped I want to say, ‘I’m not what you think, I’ve got an MBA, I live in Los Altos Hills, I own a home in Maui.’ I want to say that,” says Coleman, 69. “Because I know through experience that person might have an image of what I might be and view me as dangerous. And to not feel that way would be foolish.”

The duality of such an existence would enrage many. But Coleman has guided his personal and professional life with a simple philosophy: “You will experience lots of racism and prejudice. But you can’t look under the bed for it, because then it becomes an obstacle to your success.”

That mantra saw the son of a Centralia, Ill., maid and a heater-factory laborer graduate from Ohio State University and become one of the first African-Americans in Silicon Valley when he joined Hewlett-Packard in the ’70s as a human resources exec.

Leadership roles at Silicon Graphics followed, where Coleman hired a summer intern by the name of Ben Horowitz, co-founder of VC powerhouse Andreessen Horowitz. The firm recently named Coleman as a special adviser with a mission to both counsel young tech company founders and spearhead a networking effort aimed at increasing the ranks of minorities in tech.

 

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