It’s a challenge for African Americans working in California’s Silicon Valley to have a sense of community. Clennita Justice has worked for several technology companies there over the past 25 years.
“At many of those companies, you could go for days without seeing another black person,” says the senior engineering program manager, who now works at Google.
That sense of isolation is common. For years, tech companies kept their workforce demographics under lock and key. And they refused to acknowledge what was obvious to everyone: The industry has a diversity problem. They’ve now come clean and are finally addressing the issue.
In 2014 Google was one of the first tech giants to disclose its figures. The company revealed that its workforce consisted mainly of white and Asian men. African Americans represented a paltry 2 percent of the company, and Hispanics only 3 percent. Women were just 30 percent of Google’s workforce.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for this situation, says Donell Creech, director of MVMT50 (Movement 50), a coalition of black tech thought leaders. He’s calling for a timeout to take a closer look at all the components of the problem—which is largely unexamined—to find solutions.
MVMT50 is working on a project that takes a comprehensive look at diversifying the tech industry. Its 360-degree view would evaluate, for example, how many schools in the black community are implementing the proper curriculum to fill technology jobs, as well as the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations involved in increasing diversity in the tech industry.
Some of the tech giants are now throwing money into various efforts to fix their diversity problem. According to reports, Apple is spending $50 million, Intel is pulling $125 million from its wallet and Google is investing $150 million.
But money isn’t the only solution. At Google, black employees are taking the initiative—with the company’s backing—to build a community within the organization and beyond its four walls.
New African-American employees are usually delighted to discover the Black Googlers Network when they join the company. The group formed in 2006 and now has more than 600 members, with 10 chapters companywide. It has a three-pronged mission: to cultivate black leaders, empower communities and transform technology.
On a practical level, BGN is a forum for black Googlers and their allies (anyone who shares its goals, regardless of race) to connect with one another and provide a sense of community.
Yolanda Mangolini, Google’s director of diversity and inclusion, is no stranger to being the sole person of color in a group. She grew up in a “very white town” in Connecticut, where there were only two black families. And she attended a college that’s less than 1 percent black.
“So you would think that I’m accustomed to being in that environment, which I am, but I notice when I’m the only one in the room,” says Mangolini, who has been at Google for 10 years.
Mangolini notes that Silicon Valley lacks a black community. So black Googlers often feel just a bit out of touch when they arrive at the company’s global headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Inevitably a newcomer will inquire about finding a beauty salon or barbershop on BGN’s message board.
“We all laugh because it’s the first question to come out,” she says, chuckling. “There’s really a sense of community in BGN. So when you come to Google, you instantly have that family.”