When you think “tech,” chances are you don’t think black people, you probably don’t think brown people and you surely don’t think women.
This is a disturbing trend that Hank Williams, the founder of Platform, noticed about three years ago while he was living in the tech mecca of California’s Silicon Valley.
“I was part of a documentary that Soledad O’Brien did on the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, and it was really the first time I’d ever thought really deeply about the issue,” the tech entrepreneur recalled to The Root.
“I lived in Silicon Valley … for about three months, and during that time … I never saw a black or Latino person sitting in a café or doing things that a local person would do,” he said. “There were a few Latino people working there, but basically there was no one.”
Of course, that wasn’t to say Williams was naive, but to see diversity so lacking in the heart of the industry was disheartening.
“I was aware that there weren’t a lot of black people … in tech, but it’s a much more visceral experience to live in a place that’s the heart of Silicon Valley and the heart of the most important part of the economy and not see any people that look like you. My impetus [for launching Platform] was viewing that at the end of those three months,” he explained.
And so he created Platform in 2013 as an annual summit that highlights diversity issues and gathers a community of people working in technology, science, art and entrepreneurship with the goals of inspiring the next generation of innovators to participate in the tech industry and, more broadly, the innovation economy. It is also intended to be an area where people of color and women can have a collective voice.
“It’s really to find role models for a young black boy or a young Latina girl who might want to see [someone] who looks like them. … So the first part was to make it easy … for those young people to be able to see an example of other people that look like them doing this kind of work,” Williams said.
This year’s summit will be held Oct. 24-26 in Atlanta, and Williams is excited about the range of speakers, from celebrities such as Janelle Monáe and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to the less well known—but luminaries and thought leaders in their fields nonetheless—to help stir up the crowd of innovators, young and not so young alike.
“Whether we’re young or we’re old, we all have the capacity to be inspired and the capacity to learn from each other,” Williams said. “We also want to support people. So if you’re a seasoned [techie] … we’re tapping you into a very powerful network of intellectual people and connecting you to resources that you otherwise almost certainly wouldn’t have had access to. … We want to catalyze success.
“Platform is about getting you to think about things in a way that you haven’t thought before that inspires you and that gives you insight into how to take and leverage who you are to be more successful than you otherwise might have been,” he added.
There are many reasons for the lack of diversity within the tech industry, beginning with its very structure, Williams mused. The tech industry, he explained, would blame it solely on the educational pipeline and the fact that there aren’t enough people of color or women studying the hard skills, such as computer science. However, while there is some truth to that, it’s only the surface of the problem.
“If you look at Silicon Valley, at least half the jobs are [for] people that never write a line of code; they never do any engineering. They’re marketing … there are all kinds of other jobs [for which] we have plenty of people coming out of business school, even the elite business schools, and those people are not being hired in Silicon Valley, either,” he said.
It also happens that, although the industry would have you believe it is a meritocracy, “It is about as far away [from that] as it is possible to imagine,” Williams stated. “Tech is a sort of very clubby network environment. I think the bigger issue is that we’re not visible. … It’s really that we’re not being invited to the party in sufficient numbers. Again, obviously … particularly on … the hard, engineering side, there’s a pipeline issue, but tech is broader than that, and the reality is that the way people get jobs in this industry and in many industries is, they invite their buddy. They invite the people they work with, they invite the people they grew up with, the people they went to school with, the people that are in their social circles … it’s a hierarchy.”
People of color have always been great creators, but we need great creators in this field as much as we are great creators in music and in dance and the arts.
However, Williams noted, there is no doubt that people of color are great creators, and something he truly believes in is the power and value of creation—in any area of endeavor.
“People of color have always been great creators, but we need great creators in this field as much as we are great creators in music and in dance and the arts. Those are fields where we very clearly demonstrate our ability to be creators, and there’s no difference [between] that and creating in tech,” he insisted. “It’s just that we have not, for a variety of … structural reasons, sufficiently engaged.
“I don’t want to say that being techie, for example, is something that everyone needs to do,” he added. “I think we need to do it in the same sorts of numbers we do other things because we need a seat at the table. We need to be participating in this because it’s the most important part of the economy. Tech is reinventing pretty much every other field, so we’ve got to be players here.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.