Whose boats is tech really lifting? (The Agenda)

Whose boats is tech really lifting?

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In October 2017, Reps. Barbara Lee and G.K. Butterfield traveled to Silicon Valley to deliver a message to the executives of major tech companies: They need to get serious about diversifying their workforces and adding black members to their boards.

The tech executives weren’t exactly blindsided. The visit was part of a five-year-long campaign by the Congressional Black Caucus to change the composition of one of America’s most lucrative industries. Members of the caucus had previously flown out in 2015, and Lee (D-Calif.) and Butterfield (D-N.C.) considered their fall visit something of a checkup. They met with Uber, Airbnb, Intel and Facebook, along with black venture capitalists and nonprofit organizations.

Lee described the tech meetings to POLITICO as "forthright and candid." What she did not see, she said, was any progress on the diversity front, particularly in adding black board members. Intel, one of Silicon Valley’s longest-established firms, had filled four open board seats in the past two years and none with African-Americans. It currently has no black members on its board. "They need to be real and come clean on this," Lee said.

The U.S. technology industry has grown into one of America’s most powerful and prestigious business sectors, now including 4 of the 5 most valuable companies in the world. But as the United States becomes a more diverse country overall, tech has increasingly come under fire for its striking lack of diversity. Its employees are whiter and more male than the overall private-sector average, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. Although Asian-Americans are overrepresented, African-Americans and Hispanics are few and far between. Strikingly, tech firms have just half the percentage of black employees as private companies more broadly — and despite the attention paid to the problem, the report found no significant growth occurred for either women or African-Americans from 2005 to 2015.

The problem is more than just symbolic. Tech jobs offer ambitious young Americans a ticket to high salaries and, often, wealth-building equity packages. Technology is also a business with a huge impact on the landscape of American life: Firms like Facebook and Google, as well as newer arrivals like Uber and Airbnb, are reshaping the culture in real time. As observers have noted, if tech just keeps solving the problems of its upscale white male executives and engineers and investors, it’s likely to make inequalities worse rather than better.

The industry is well-aware of the critique. As part of his much-scrutinized national listening tour last year, visiting all 50 states, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg included a stop at North Carolina A&T, a historically black college. “Frankly, I think that’s our problem to figure out,” he said in response to a question from a Ph.D. student who asked what he intended to do about the whiteness of Silicon Valley. “I think that responsibility rests on us and our companies in the industry to make sure that we get to that.”

Tech’s diversity challenge isn’t just a social-equity issue; many leaders think it’s becoming an issue for the companies themselves. America is projected to become a majority-minority nation sometime in the 2040s, with markets and workforce to match. Zuckerberg, in his North Carolina stop, flagged diversity as an issue for Facebook’s bottom line. “[T]here’s so much research that shows that you need diverse teams to do the best work," he said. "So it’s important that we do better on diversity, not only because it’s the right thing to do for the country and for people, but because that’s the only way we’re going to serve our community the best."

Even the most sincere efforts to fix the problem face one big obstacle, however: There are frustratingly few corporate policies that have been shown to work, over the long term, to improve diversity.

The tech industry has long complained of a "pipeline problem" of qualified young candidates: black and Hispanic students, especially, are underrepresented among the science and engineering graduates that tech firms recruit. But the numbers suggest the pipeline isn’t totally to blame: Tech firms employ those students at a lower rate than they graduate. About 12 percent of Americans are black, but African-Americans make up only 6 percent of technical graduates and a vanishingly small 1 percent of technical workers at the top Silicon Valley firms.

It’s easy to assume the problem is recruiting, and that’s likely to be some of it. But many industry-watchers say that even aggressive recruiting for diverse candidates can leave firms right where they started if the environment isn’t welcoming, and if tech companies aren’t places people enjoy working.

“It’s incredibly difficult to come up with an example of a company that’s gotten it right,” said Freada Kapor Klein, a venture capitalist at Kapor Capital, an Oakland, California, firm that focuses its investments on companies helping to close the access gap.

“The focus has been on increasing diversity,” she said, “which actually isn’t much good if you aren’t simultaneously working on the culture to make sure it’s welcoming to people from people from all different backgrounds. We’ve been filling the bathtub with the drain open.”

Those who work in the technology industry, never lacking for confidence, do think they have a shot at getting it right. Tech firms are obsessed with metrics and data, and they have a huge ability to attract employees, lured by hip offices, meals at work, transit benefits and high salaries. The purpose of technology is often to solve a problem people have and scale it for users, so why can’t technology solve the problem of hiring diverse employees, somewhere, and scale that?

Tech has taken at least one cue from other industries. One tactic that started in the National Football League is the “Rooney Rule” — the requirement that employers interview at least one minority candidate for every open leadership position. Both Facebook and Pinterest have implemented variations of this rule, and although its effectiveness has been questioned — a recent study from Indiana University found it has had little impact on hiring for football teams — Pinterest said it hit its hiring goals on increasing minority engineers and non-engineers in 2016.

Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents a Silicon Valley district, said the tech industry has some assets that could give it a chance to succeed where others have struggled. Tech companies tend to have a strong sense of mission and want to be thought of as doing a public good beyond just profitability. And the industry is becoming acutely sensitive to withering headlines maligning its culture, from gender discrimination lawsuits to tales of sexual harassment, to more recently, a tough meeting between Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. In the meeting, lawmakers pressed Sandberg on the lack of black members on Facebook’s board and the platform’s role in sowing discord among black people during the 2016 presidential election.

The companies also have an advantage they may not be capitalizing on, said Ruben Harris, director of sales and special adviser at Hustle, a peer-to-peer texting startup which was used by the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Harris, who is black, co-founded a podcast called “Breaking Into Startups,” featuring people from diverse backgrounds talking about landing jobs in the tech industry.

Harris said he is frustrated when he talks to companies because of their limited vision for hiring candidates. “Employers are still very hesitant to hire people that didn’t go to a certain school,” Harris said in an interview. “I send them candidates that have every skill they want — and they reject them. Well — how are you going to hire diverse candidates?”

Harris also pointed out that tech firms do have a huge number of nonwhite employees — they just aren’t in the most prestigious tech-focused jobs. If those companies, with their sprawling campuses around Silicon Valley, focused on giving their employees in janitorial, secretarial and administrative roles a pipeline to other jobs within the company, they could make big progress on diversifying their white-collar workforce, he suggests.

It might be a stretch to imagine huge, ultracompetitive tech companies training their food-service workers to code, but the solution may already be in sight, said Harris. Many companies already contract with third-party training firms to help their current workforce build skills, using services like CodePath; they also partner with universities to give students opportunities to learn tech skills.

Harris pointed to a report from Silicon Valley Rising about tech’s “invisible workforce” — those food service contractors, landscapers and security guards who work cheek-by-jowl with tech’s young stars but are left out of its promise of wealth-earning jobs. Tech companies would do well to offer apprenticeships and training for this untapped pool of diverse candidates, he said. That study, published in March 2016, found that only 10 percent of direct tech workers are black or Latino – but 58 percent of blue-collar contract industry workers are black or Latino.

Harris suggests companies have apprenticeship or training programs for those workers so they can learn the skills needed to move up at tech companies into higher-paying jobs. They could take a page from YearUp, a successful apprenticeship program that places low-income students as interns at companies, many of them tech, for six months after training provided by the program. According to its 2016 annual report, 16,000 students have graduated from YearUp, often going on to work in tech.

But even as a diverse candidate gets in the door at a tech company, he or she is surrounded by a culture that still overlooks women and people of color for ideas and promotions. That lack of diversity results in less original ideas, worse places to work and a homogeneity that keeps people from the industry altogether. The hope is that tech is trying to take this reality seriously.

Once diverse candidates arrive, they still face a tech culture dominated by "tech bros" — CEOs and founders who are overwhelmingly white and male, and investors who look much the same. Faced with bad press from events such as Google’s “diversity memo” scandal last year, and frat-party-esque company events, they’re starting to take more public responsibility, even as problems at the companies linger. The author of the Google memo, James Damore, was fired. Lyft recently expanded its paid medical and family leave. Uber founder Travis Kalanick, whose firm was dogged by allegations of sexism and bias, is long gone.

Some see genuine hope in this shift. Bozoma Saint John, the first female black executive at Uber, told the Financial Times in December that she felt optimistic. “Companies can change. Culture can change. We have seen our society and our world change dramatically in the last 50 years, in terms of how people are treated, by their gender or by the color of their skin,” Saint John told the paper.

And when all else fails, last October’s trip by Reps. Lee and Butterfield suggests that some old-fashioned political pressure can work. Since the CBC launched its Tech2020 initiative in 2015, Apple, HP, Twitter and Uber have added African-American members to their boards. And most recently, a few months after the CBC’s disappointing trip, Facebook announced Kenneth Chenault, the former CEO of American Express, would become a director, the first black member to join its board.

Ashley Gold is a technology reporter for POLITICO Pro.

via The Agenda

February 11, 2018 at 03:53AM

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