In the last week of Black History Month, Nava is celebrating the contributions of Black men and women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).
In 1821, Thomas Jennings, a free Black man born in New York City, obtained a patent for a new method of cleaning clothes that he called “dry scouring.” Though the record of his patent was lost in a fire, historians believe Jennings was the first Black American to receive a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). He was so proud of his invention (which is the precursor to modern dry-cleaning) that he put his patent letter in a gilt frame and hung it over his bed.
Patent no. 77,494 was issued in 1868 to Martha Jones, the first known Black woman to obtain a U.S. patent. A resident of Amelia County, VA (which lies a 2-hour drive south of Nava’s DC headquarters), Jones’ invention represented “a significant step forward in the automation of agricultural processes.”
Jones and Jennings are only two of the many recognized and unrecognized Black innovators in American history.
Yesterday: Honoring Black Contributions
We celebrate Black history this February to remember the people who paved the way for us and our work. Black history matters because representation matters. Because Black history is American history. Because it allows us to honor people who have played a vital role in our past but who were too often overlooked — as many Black innovators were and still are today.
So, this month, we recognize and celebrate Alan Emtage. Emtage — who was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame three years ago — invented the world’s first search engine in 1989. Way before Google or even Ask Jeeves.
We recognize and celebrate Marian Rogers Croak. Croak holds over 200 patents for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies and her work is the backbone of modern text-to-donate systems and video conferencing tech like Google Hangouts and Skype.
We recognize and celebrate Mark Dean. As an engineer at IBM, he led the team that designed the original Personal Computer (PC) in the early ’80s. Dean developed the first color PC monitor and the first gigahertz chip, and holds three of IBM’s first nine patents.
We recognize and celebrate Janet Emerson Bashen, the first Black woman to obtain a U.S. software patent. Bashen is a lawyer by training who in 1997 started a company that investigated Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) claims. She and her cousin developed the compliance and case management software that became Patent no. 6,985,922 in 2006.
Emtage, Croak, Dean, and Bashen — along with many other unnamed or unknown Black technologists — built the foundations for the work that every Navanaut does each day. At Nava in 2020, it’s pretty obvious we couldn’t work without online search, video chat, or our laptops.
Like Bashen’s software, one of our signature products (Caseflow) is a case management tool. While Bashen was working toward equal opportunity under the law, Nava’s CaseFlow team works in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs to streamline the appeals process for Veterans applying for benefits.
The work that Black people in STEM have done, the contributions they have made, are a crucial part of our history. They have helped form the bedrock of modern technology and every line of code we deploy builds on their achievements.
Today: More Work To Do
STEM may be a driving force in our economy, but Black scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians are still few and far between.
As Sara Harrison wrote in Wired, five years of tech diversity reports, outside pressure, and company promises have led to very little progress in racial or gender diversity in the tech industry. At the biggest and most well-known firms — Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft — the number of Latinx and Black employees hovers at 5 percent and 3.25 percent, respectively. The percentages get even smaller as you move up the ladder into the executive ranks.
And it’s not just representation that is lacking. Erica Baker made waves a few years ago when she boldly pushed for salary transparency at Google, where she worked as an engineer. Baker initially focused on pay inequity between men and women. Her Google spreadsheet led to a New York Times article revealing a significant gender pay gap, and eventually vaulted her into the spotlight to become an advocate for gender pay equity and inclusion in tech. Black women like Baker have been important “disruptors” of the very industry that coined disruption in the first place.
At Nava, inclusion is one of our core values, and we can proudly say that our diversity stats are better than the tech industry as a whole. (We’re growing fast and we’re hiring!) But quite frankly, that is a low bar.
In order to have a real place in the legacy of transforming tech into a more diverse and inclusive place than it is today, we have to live out those values in very actionable ways. Right now, we keep ourselves accountable by tracking our diversity numbers (across several factors, including race, gender, and age, among others) through regular surveys. As part of our ongoing efforts to recruit people from under-represented backgrounds, we started an engineering apprenticeship, which we will be expanding in 2020 to include design. (Look out for more information in the next few months.) This month, our Black employee resource group, earthtones, is hosting a lunch celebration as part of Black History Month. Plus, we made four printable Black (technology) History Month posters to put up around the office in order to further highlight the technologists recognized in this post. (Available for download in this Google Drive folder.)
Senior Designer / Researcher