“Stereotypes are one hell of a drag,” says the 25-year-old Reed. “Until I open my mouth, [then] they understand I’m educated. But I don’t let it intimidate me. It actually empowers me.”
The young duo’s efforts–Cruz is also 25–to break into the tech industry began in January 2011, with the development of a mobile application for smart phones, which they call Zuggol.
Zuggol allows users to set a personal goal and track progress toward that goal, which is assigned to one of six categories: art, business, fitness, fashion, education and music. Users can update their goal status according to progress made and “follow” others on Zuggol who are pursuing similar quests, to get helpful tips or advice on what is or isn’t working for other people.
For those inevitable moments of hopelessness, users can look to Zuggol’s “push” page for extra motivation–the page contains quotes from successful individuals across a variety of professions, from Babe Ruth to Maya Angelou.
In February of 2013, Zuggol became available on the open market, joining thousands of other mobile applications available for purchase through the Apple Store.
Not Very Diverse
The duo’s breakthrough is notable in an industry that is dominated by whites and non-Filipino Asians. In 2011 CNN Money collected data from Intel, Dell and Ingram Data on diversity in the tech workforce, specifically in Silicon Valley. The report–it did not include major companies such as Facebook, Apple, Google or Amazon since those companies do not make such information public–exposed a workforce comprised mostly by Caucasians (64 percent) and Asians (20 percent). Hispanics made up nine percent and blacks only six percent of employees in the companies surveyed.
That same year another study was done by three nonprofits in California, The Black Economic Council, the Latino Business Chamber of Greater LA and the National Asian American Coalition. They hired a researcher to conduct a study on diversity in the workforce for 34 companies in the Silicon Valley. Only 12 companies responded including Intel, Cisco and Ebay, yet similar to the CNN Money report, major companies such as Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon did not make this information public.
“If you got to pitch it you have to have an image and that image can be used against you because there are stereotypes that people bring,” says James Lai, the director of Santa Clara University’s Ethnic Studies Program.
“They may see an African American and they may think ‘well how many African Americans do I know in the computer industry,’ and the truth is that there are not that many as you can see from the study.”
The results revealed that blacks made up on average less than three percent while Hispanics ranged from four to nine percent, a dismal proportion considering that Latinos make up 38 percent of California’s population.
Doing More With Less
Fittingly, the path taken by Cruz and Reed to create Zuggol was one blazed with perseverance and self-sacrifice in service of a shared goal.
They couldn’t afford to hire a programmer to build the application, so over a six-month period Cruz taught himself Objective-C, a programming language used in Apple’s current operating systems.
While Cruz worked on the technical side, Reed secured investment deals and corporate sponsors such as Muscle Milk and Velvety Wine.
“Initially, motivation was probably the only thing that kept me going,” Cruz says. “There were times during those six months of coding, I lost all hope–same with Isaac--and every single time, I would read quotes or talk to somebody in the tech industry, which helped reignite my motivation.”
Overcoming the odds was nothing new to either Cruz or Reed.
Raised in a family of seven, Reed was the eldest of five siblings. At age 12, the family lost their home to foreclosure and was homeless for about a year. They couch-surfed, sleeping in different people’s living rooms until they were able to move into a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, where there were “shootings on a regular basis.” Adding to their troubles, Reed’s father left the family at that same time, leaving his mother to care for her five children.
“I’d seen a very large spectrum of the African American community in a negative fashion and I couldn’t stand it,” he says. “And so I asked myself, ‘What can I do to not be in this realm?’ I decided that everything that they’re doing, I’m going to do the exact opposite and see where I go.”
Reed attended the Bay Area School of Enterprise in Alameda, where young people are encouraged to “own their education” with the guidance of their teachers. It is where Reed’s entrepreneurial tendencies flourished. He eventually went on to graduate from San Francisco State University, becoming the first in his family to obtain a college degree.
Like his business partner, Cruz was also raised by his mother and had a father who was in and out of his life. He lived in a house in Hercules, 25 miles from San Francisco, until the age of six, when his father was incarcerated for selling drugs. Soon after, the family was evicted from their home and rented a bedroom in a house in San Francisco. For 16 years, his mother raised him in that bedroom, saving up all her money so he could attend Archbishop Riordan High School, an all-boys private school. But his mother could only afford two years at Riordan, so Cruz spent his junior and senior years at Philip & Sala Burton High School, a public school with a tougher reputation.
“It taught me a lot more about just surviving and about how life is,” says Cruz.
Back then, being an app developer never crossed his mind. Growing up, he was a rapper who won awards and produced music with storied Bay Area rap artists like Big Rich and San Quinn.
He credits having to care for his ailing mother--she almost died twice, once from a heart attack that Cruz attributes to stress—with shaping his work ethic.
“It really pushes me beyond what anything else would,” he says.
Changing the Culture
Now entrenched in the tech industry, Reed and Cruz face a different kind of struggle, not with poverty, but with the biases within their chosen profession. When asked if race is an issue in the tech world, both agree that as people of color they have to work harder to impress.
“Sometimes I’ll talk to people and say I’m a programmer, or I develop–but if I say that I coded Objective-C in six months, then they will pay attention to me. If I don’t, I’ll usually get ignored,” says Cruz.
“It’s also disheartening to see, for me especially, (that) I am the only African American at many of the (tech) events I go to,” adds Reed. “Sometimes I see African American women, but … the males, you don’t see any.”
Cruz once tested the environment by changing his appearance to see how people would treat him. “If I let my hair grow out, I’ll look more Caucasian. But if I’m shaved I get completely ignored.” As a result, the two have stopped going to industry mixers, a crucial environment for networking opportunities and pitching ideas.
Today, in their office in San Francisco’s financial district, Zuggol has grown to a team of 20 employees, nearly all from non-white ethnic backgrounds ranging from Filipino to African American to Hispanic. In addition seeing a ten-percent increase in users per week, the Zuggol partners recently raised funds and secured private investments deals. The founders are proud of what they’ve accomplished and say they will strive to continue to make a difference by doing what they can to diversify the sector.
“I feel like we’re the underdogs and that Isaac and I are doing it for our people,” says Cruz. “I feel we have our ethnicities on our shoulders in the tech industry.”
Reprinted with permission from New America Media.
Semany Gashaw is an Ethiopian American aspiring journalist, currently interning at New America Media.