The Uber fallout of recent weeks makes something my grandmother used to tell me more important than ever now: “To get something you don’t have, you’ll have to do something you haven’t done. You’re a black woman. So, to do that, you’ll have to work twice as hard to get half as far.”
However, the onus isn’t just on us. There are two things tech must acknowledge and fix to make change:
1. “Pipeline issues” ignore the 6,000 black STEM graduates, from bachelor degrees to Ph.D.s, and 200,000 black college graduates annually.
The problem is tech’s belief that it is a meritocratic industry. It is an oligarchy, rife with privilege, with heaping sides of favoritism and nepotism. It isn’t about who you know, it’s who knows you. Roughly 52 percent of tech employees are referred by employees. The average tech employee is a cookie-cutter version of the person who referred him or her, promoting homogeny of ethnic backgrounds, class, age and hobbies. This model ensures “fit,” which can be a candidate barrier in itself, even with stellar qualifications. You’re a black engineer with Harvard and Stanford degrees? No matter, because you don’t enjoy artisan candles, Burning Man, microbreweries and the DNCE album.
The black tech employee isn’t immune. She or he is a Carlton Banks composite: usually a graduate of Stanford, Berkeley or an Ivy League school (including graduate degree), raised in a middle- to upper-class family, who wears the finest of J. Crew fashions. To be truly diverse, include diversity within the Diaspora.
What tech can do: Tech companies must expand recruitment activities to schools outside their comfort zones. While Morehouse, Spelman, Howard, Hampton and Florida A&M have some name recognition in mainstream circles, what about North Carolina A&T? Your loss, tech. The school leads the nation in the number of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded to blacks, according to Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine, and holds the No. 3 spot for doctoral degrees awarded to blacks in engineering. Other schools with great engineering programs include Tuskegee, Southern and Morgan State.
Tech companies must holistically assess candidates’ qualifications. There’s a story behind the résumé. A candidate with a slightly lower GPA than desired, but who worked while in college, demonstrates great work ethic and the ability to multitask. No computer science degree? Most black engineers receive mechanical or electrical engineering degrees, which are deemed not as marketable at tech companies. However, engineering is about how you learn, think and problem-solve. That is directly transferable. Because we’re indoctrinated to work twice as hard for half as much, we’ll often do more for less (though we shouldn’t), can stretch thin resources and use that spirit to solve problems others haven’t even identified yet.
Lastly, fun fact: Fifty percent of tech company’s jobs are not in the areas of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Every company needs personnel in accounting, legal, policy, marketing, sales and partnerships. Think about the demographic that drives the culture forward—from fashion and music to language and social movements—and then really consider who’ll you hire to create your ad campaigns, handle your public relations and social media accounts, and what partnerships are clutch to drive revenue. Remember who accounts for $1.25 trillion in spending power while setting the world on fire. What we do, the world follows. That all adds up. Get money or get left behind. Your move, tech industry.
What you can do: Be seen. People, by nature, tend to self-segregate. When it comes to employment and investing opportunities, people will reach out to who they know to offer said opportunities. This means the onus is on us to broaden our circles. For tech circles, this means you need to attend meet-ups, join coding classes and attend conferences. SXSW is a huge tech conference that offers organic opportunities to meet people, learn about new opportunities, or create one of your own. Start small and attend a Startup Grind event in your city. Blavity puts on both the EmpowerHer conference in the summer and AfroTech in the fall, with a black tech crowd.
2. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come, or they will come reluctantly.
Silicon Valley is not the most hospitable place. The cities for tech work in the area—San Jose, Mountain View, Menlo Park and San Francisco—are not diverse areas. A community will never feel like home if you can’t find somewhere to get your haircut, some non-Neiman Marcus greens, a communal gathering place for your people or a dating pool.
What tech can do: In order to change this, tech first has to acknowledge that its main location isn’t one where black folks want to live. To combat that, it needs to consider branching out to cities with larger, diverse populations—Los Angeles and Oakland in California, Atlanta, New York City, Philadelphia, Houston, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C., are all good places to start.
What you can do: Be open to moving. I know. The idea of living in San Francisco for the fabulous startup job of your dreams is daunting when you think about the city having a 5 percent black population and rent the equivalent of a Tesla payment. Just know that there are others doing the same, and they are building community through kinship with co-workers.
Finally, let’s talk about inclusion. Diversity is fine, but that’s getting people the job and often underpaid and under-leveled. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, less than 1 percent of Silicon Valley management is black. We won’t mention board members. People of color in tech leave the field at more than 3.5 times the rate of white men. We’re promoted less quickly and paid less than white peers. If there isn’t true inclusion—opportunity for growth, prominent projects and leadership roles—people leave. You can only pay someone for complacency for so long. Diversity gets people in the door; inclusion keeps them there.
Bärí A. Williams, Esq., is the Head of Business Operations, North America at StubHub. Formerly an attorney at Facebook, she is also a diversity expert with a passion for expanding opportunities for black and brown people in tech. Follow her on Twitter.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.