"So, there's only 3 chocolate chips in this whole cookie. Am I right?" After explaining the snarky metaphor to a member of the Legal team I had just joined, an Asian female I might add, she and I burst into laughter. And then we turned in our seats, looked around the huge open plan office together, and counted exactly 3 African American employees in the 350+ Square had at the time (2013). "Oh my God, you're right! Wow."Ironically, they were serving freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for lunch that day. They were delicious. Especially the chocolate chips.
So here's a perspective from a Black, gay, 40+ year old dude who typically works in tech in a profession (Executive Assistant) dominated by white, middle-aged women, in an industry (Tech) dominated by white, late 20s - 50 year old men, led by CEOs a majority of whom are white males, mid/late 40s - late 50s.
Tech, specifically, isn't very diverse. Duh. I've worked at a number of tech startups and early-stage companies and I continue to be one of very few chocolate chips in the cookie. A TechCrunch report dated March 27, 2017, pointed this out clearly when it compared Uber's diversity report with numbers from its powerhouse, Silicon Valley tech brethren:
Uber: 49.8% White, 30.9% Asian, 8.8% Black, 5.6% Latinx, 4.3% Multiracial
Facebook: 2% Black, 4% Latinx, 3% two or more races
Apple: 9% Black, 12% Latinx, 2% multiracial
Airbnb 2.9% Black, 6.5% Latinx
Pinterest 2% Black, 4% Latinx, 4% two or more races
I don't believe in any way that this is an attempt to exclude certain ethnicities from working at these companies. What I will say, however, is that I do believe there are several factors at play that continue to hamper the diversification of Tech.
The internal recruiters that I've come across of late have been really young, not the most prepared or experienced, and operating as if reading from a "how to" manual vs. really understanding how to build a diverse, talented team. I remember being disqualified from my dream job for which I was a perfect match simply because I didn't provide a comprehensive enough answer to an innocuous question asked about which apps I would use to make the life of the CEO I'd be supporting easier or more efficient. That CEO was Sam Shank, creator of the incredible app HotelTonight. Ironically, an app that I use almost as often as my toothbrush and advertise ad nauseam to anyone with ears. They should cut me a check.
It took me a solid month to get over the disappointment of what I viewed as an unforgivable sleight by someone who either wasn't qualified to do the job well or wasn't very forward thinking in her approach. She could simply have asked for a clarification or redirect if she wasn't getting the answer she needed. She could have actually studied my resume and usurped that after 25 years in C-suites supporting CEOs of some of the most successful companies on the planet, I'd probably know a few things about creating efficiencies in my Execs day-to-day, app or not. But, I was cut. Because of one question during a semi-final phone interview which was clearly being conducted "in the pit" with tons of distracting background noise and laughter instead of a conference room like a normal human being. Yep, still bitter.
My point here is that a company's first point of contact is recruiting. Specifically internal recruiters. These are the people responsible for making the determinations around whom they allow to pass through the gates. Unfortunately, many of these "kids" are simply working from a manual and a job requisition and not really thinking beyond those. They're not actively seeking candidates of color or intentionally presenting a wider spectrum of candidates so that there is more context to the conversation. If recruiters are only presenting a majority of candidates from one or two ethnic groups, they're not allowing for different points of view, different life experiences or, for instance, hearing how a difficult childhood somehow manifested in a full ride at Wharton, graduating with honors. Instead, they're essentially sorting based on a piece of paper and, I'll say it, the personal biases they might have from not being exposed to much diversity in their own lives. A majority of the internal recruiters I've met recently have been young, white women only a handful of years out of college. I can typically glean in conversation that their Facebook friends probably don't look like an ad for the United Nations. And I've usually had to run the interviews. I'm not impressed. Sorry.
Companies really need to focus on what I believe to be the most important function in the building. But they're continually dropping the ball. They're hiring a bunch of generalists, giving them no guidance aside from a job req, and setting them loose on behalf of the company. The candidates coming in all look like everyone that's already inside the building because, on paper, that's rationalized as culture fit. When it's sorting, plain and simple. May not be intentional. But it's certainly a product of bias based on the age, lack of training and foresight, and lack of diversity in the lives of the people at the helm, whether we'd like to admit it or not.
Awareness and Education
I don't believe companies are doing enough to bring awareness to the lack of diversity in their ranks. If your company doesn't match the diversity of the population in the community in which you plopped down your multi-billion dollar spaceship campus, you likely have an awareness and diversity problem.
There are scores of students of color in high schools across the nation who would love to be engaged by tech companies who would show interest in their education. I always find it ironic that kids (mostly ethnic) can be scouted heavily by colleges and given full-ride scholarships to prestigious universities to come and play ball for them, but who show very little interest in their actual education. So why don't ubiquitous companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook have similar programs to provide minority students, specifically, with full-ride scholarships, internships, and a job upon graduating at the company who financed their education?
Kids who come from nothing often suffer from poor self-esteem, no mentorship, and resign themselves to the fact that the world, especially business, thinks lesser of them. Education in this country continues to slip and is hitting communities of color harder than ever. We need to start having some tough conversations about race and diversity, especially in the Boardrooms, so that we can stop trying to assign blame or sinister hiring practices and start putting our time, energy and brain power into a solution to bring more diversity into our companies by actively manifesting it from the grade school level. These highly valued, highly adored tech companies have the opportunity to change the course of history by investing in the future of students of all ethnicities, but specifically, those underrepresented in their headcount.
Several million dollars invested in scholarships and programs that get kids engaged and excited about education from an early age would consistently yield incredible ROI. I'm living proof. I was in an accelerated course in 8th grade, funded by a major corporation, that allowed me to visit a college campus (UC Berkeley) once a week and sit through a day of lectures with a college sophomore. It completely changed the direction of my life, because I was exposed to something that I'd only heard about but never thought I'd be able to achieve. Getting a taste of it and having the support from my school and teachers literally changed my life and created a voracious appetite for learning that still consumes me.
It's Not a Competition
Diversity isn't an "us against them" thing. This isn't about forcing companies to hire a bunch of people of color in an effort to extract themselves from the negative headlines du jour. This is about building companies that reflect the diversity outside its doors. This is about companies creating awareness and opportunity in communities that are typically underserved and underrepresented and throwing down some cash to help manifest the change. This is an opportunity for a company to employ a workforce that is strengthened by the ethnic makeup and their diversity in upbringing, education and skill level. More importantly, it's an opportunity to provide a much broader context to the conversations you have within the walls, since the product you're building likely affects everyone of every ethnicity outside of them.
This isn't solely about race. This is about admitting to the fact that we've allowed companies to scale in size with very little thought and effort placed on making sure that everyone has a voice and is represented. Our Boardroom constituents don't look like the community outside. That's a problem. But it's changing. The more maverick companies are starting to get it and are making incremental changes to solve these inequities. But it will take time, some tough conversations and, yes, some media shaming and callouts from time-to-time. But it will come. And as long as we remain resolute in creating the change and doing it not to skew a metric but because IT'S THE RIGHT THING TO DO, we'll get there. And we'll have those insanely good cookies with all chocolate chips, caramel chips, white chocolate chunks, nuts, raisins, sprinkles, etc. in abundance. And be better as a team and culturally richer as a nation because of it.