Google employees Jackson Georges, Torie Bates, Willie Lamar, Chris Clark, Larisse Voufo and James Goree teach children in Charleston, S.C., about computer science during the Black Googlers Network annual outreach trip in August 2015.
Courtesy of Google

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

“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.

Advertisement

“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.”

Clennita Justice, who holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer science, says that Google is the first company where she sees others who look like her on a daily basis. “From that perspective, it feels better than it has been at other companies that I’ve worked for in the valley,” she states.

In addition to welcoming newcomers into the fold, black Googlers are sharing their culture with other ethnic groups within the company. For Google’s annual Black History Month celebration, Justice sat on a committee that organized a black film series. She also conducted a Talks at Google interview with Amma Asante, who directed the 2013 film Belle.

Advertisement

BGN’s focus on building a community within Google extends to its overseas offices. Fabian Elliott, an advertising technology consultant with the company, is involved in connecting black Googlers globally.

“I’ve come to realize that the diversity issue in the technology industry is a global phenomenon—not just an issue in the U.S.,” explains Elliott, a three-year employee who launched the Chicago chapter of BGN.

A few months ago, the company sponsored its first Global BGN Leadership Summit, which included chapters around the world—from Sao Paulo to Dublin and several sub-Saharan-African countries.

Advertisement

Looking outward, black Googlers are also finding ways to support local black communities. Elliott was instrumental in organizing a leadership panel in Chicago, consisting of experts who examined how technology could be used to solve community issues. He shared with Ebony his vision for transforming Chicago into the “global black tech mecca.”

The group organizes an annual community outreach trip, which began in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. This year, black Googlers visited Charleston, S.C., to empower black leaders, consult with entrepreneurs and provide mentorships to students.

Although BGN is a key part of the solution, Google has a more comprehensive diversity strategy comprising four pillars: hiring practices, expanding the pool of qualified job candidates, bringing technology to underserved communities and nurturing a culture of inclusiveness within the company.

Advertisement

Even with these efforts, a recent incident reveals the difficult task Google and other tech companies still face in addressing diversity issues. Erica Baker, a former black Googler, recently published a series of tweets saying that she and former co-workers had created a spreadsheet with their salaries, which uncovered pay disparities at the tech giant. Though it was not directly stated, Baker seemed to imply that the disparities were linked to gender and ethnicity.

Baker posted the spreadsheet on an internal Google network and caused a firestorm when Googlers discovered salary disparities. There were consequences for Baker’s actions, which led to this tweet: “Fighting for justice and fairness inside Google doesn’t go over well.”

In a widely reported statement, Google denied salary inequality but declined to respond directly to Baker, saying that the salary spreadsheet failed to include factors such as tenure. But according to Baker, some Googlers demanded and received raises based on the self-reported spreadsheet salaries.

It’s not enough to hire diverse folks. You also want them to stay and flourish here.

Advertisement

Baker revealed the episode on Twitter because of the recognition Google received for honoring civil right advocate and newspaper editor Ida B. Wells with a search-page doodle. Last November, Baker wrote on Medium about the challenges she faced working in the tech industry as an African American. She mentions instances of microaggressions from a white male Googler and feeling racially isolated.

When it comes to changing the company’s culture, Mangolini says, “It’s not enough to hire diverse folks. You also want them to stay and flourish here.” To that end, an effort is under way to make Google employees aware of their own unconscious bias. This undertaking is sparking private conversations outside the workshop setting, she adds.

Mangolini reports that all this diversity training is making a difference: “I feel that there’s a heightened sense of awareness, particularly in the last two to three years. People pay attention to who’s onstage. Managers will observe that, ‘Hey, there are five white dudes [onstage],’ and make things more diverse.”

Advertisement

But at the same time, change doesn’t come easy. Creech speculates that at Google and across Silicon Valley, “there are probably inside conversations going on over resentment of having to dumb things down, lower standards to enable blacks, Hispanics and women in the door.” He explains that there’s a “meritocracy mindset” among many who work in and finance the tech industry.

Clearly, things will not change overnight. Mangolini declines to reveal specific numbers about Google’s plans to diversify its workforce. Instead, she says that Google will know that its diversity goal is achieved “when the workforce reflects the diversity of Google’s users.” 

Nigel Roberts is a New York City-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.