Soledad O’Brien explores Silicon Valley in new “Black in America”

By Stacey Harrison

Bringing together a group of strangers to live in one house while they strive for professional success may sound like an irreverent cross between The Real World and The Apprentice, but CNN’s latest Black in America special has some very serious issues in mind.

“The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley” — which premieres tonight at 8pm — has Soledad O’Brien following eight African-Americans seeking to become tech entrepreneurs. While it would be a tough path for anyone — the special states that 80% of tech ventures fail — the odds are especially high seeing as African-Americans have virtually no presence in the nation’s technology capital. In one memorable scene, O’Brien interviews Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch and a bona fide Silicon Valley insider, and he fails to name one black entrepreneur in his industry. Arrington’s comments have come under fire by some, but his point isn’t lost that the industry is somewhat uncharted territory for African-Americans.

The budding entrepreneurs selected to take part in the New Media Accelerator include the founders of such websites as,,,,, and Their dreams are big, and they must learn not only to adjust to each other, but to navigate the ins and outs of what is essentially a foreign land.

“Part of the problem in the economy is going to be if African-Americans … are left out of amazing economic growth at a time when the economy overall is struggling,” O’Brien says. “There is a real risk to an underclass if blacks and Latinos don’t have access to capital to be entrepreneurs. But also if African-American students aren’t studying science, technology, engineering and math, they’re really going to have a problem. We all know that manufacturing jobs for the most part are leaving America, that a high school diploma isn’t enough. … We really want to explore what’s the role of race in all that.”

Race comes to the forefront in a scene when one of the housemates is questioned by police while simply out walking one night. It also is highlighted in what is no doubt the special’s most buzzworthy scene when a mentor, who is Indian, addresses the group and basically says black people struggle because they don’t support each other. It’s a moment of brutal honesty from one party, which brings an issue rarely discussed in polite society to the forefront. It’s exactly what good news documentaries are supposed to do.