Being the only black person in the room is normal to me. I didn’t grow up that way, but since I began working in the tech industry, it has become commonplace to walk into an event and never come across another black or brown face. It’s not surprising; a severe lack of diversity has plagued the industry and Silicon Valley for years. But as one modern philosopher recently said, “the tides they are-a changing."
Black leaders from Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Intel were in attendance
On a sunny Sunday morning in Palo Alto, over 200 of the most powerful black leaders in Silicon Valley gathered en masse for the first ever Silicon Valley Diversity Brunch. They had come to discuss how to bring about change in an industry that has managed to keep minorities at an arm’s length for decades. Leaders from nearly every company of consequence, including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Intel were in attendance. So were prominent venture capitalists, health care executives, and startup CEOs. It was a room full of black men and women who, by all metrics, have "made it" in the tech industry and now want use their positions to make it easier for the next generation of black tech workers to be accepted and succeed in Silicon Valley.
"I was very, very intentional about who I put in the room," Andrea Hoffman, the CEO of Culture Shift Labs and organizer of the event told me. Hoffman, a short red-headed white woman, has been a champion of diversity in the industry for well over a decade. Through her consultancy, Hoffman has taught businesses how to better connect with people of color and has connected companies with a more diverse pool of executive talent. She is one of the few people with a rolodex large enough to assemble this many black leaders in one place.
Based in New York, Hoffman has organized a diversity brunch for the last five years in the Hamptons, and has now expanded the event, bringing it to the heart of Silicon Valley. An additional 200 people wanted to attend the brunch but couldn’t due to spacing constraints. "I wanted to keep it at senior levels," Hoffman said. "I wanted to keep it focused on people who were part of the solution."
This brunch was about three things: getting many of the most powerful black leaders in the industry in one room, honoring four leaders for their contributions to diversity in tech — MetricStream CEO Shellye Archambeau; Intuit VP Hugo Molotsi; #YesWeCode co-founder Van Jones; and chairman of Saama Technologies and special adviser to Andreessen Horowitz, Ken Coleman — and figuring out what the next steps need to be to ensure the current generation of black leaders in Silicon Valley isn’t the last.
Many of the people in attendance noted how rare a gathering of this many black leaders in Silicon Valley was. Despite the still minuscule numbers of African-Americans in the tech industry, gatherings of this magnitude are not commonplace, and many people were meeting for the first time. "This is a way for people of goodwill, common interests, and common experience to come together and deepen and broaden their social networks, and at the same time reaffirm that they are not the only one or one of a small number," Ben Jealous, a partner at Kapor Capital and emcee for the event told me. Formerly the president and CEO of the NAACP, Jealous helped make the 104-year-old organization relevant again. Under Jealous’ leadership, the NAACP endorsed marriage equality, increased its donor base from 16,000 to 132,000, and nearly doubled its revenue. "At this moment, that’s especially important, because all of us in different ways have taken on a responsibility to help expand the pipeline into the Valley for people from the communities that we came from."
That pipeline was the topic of the day. Expanding the flow of African-American and Latino talent into the industry has been a target of companies including Intel, Google, and Apple, which have combined to donate over $350 million to organizations promoting diversity in tech. While just about everyone agrees that the investments are a great start, money alone won’t solve the issue. Many black and Latino kids don’t even know going into tech is an option, and the few that do don’t have the tools or the training to take a great idea to the next level.
"We are wasting genius in the black community."
"We are wasting genius in the black community," Van Jones told Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond during a chat on stage after he was honored for his work promoting diversity within Silicon Valley. Jones is much more than a commentator on CNN. An entrepreneur and former advisor to the Obama administration, Jones has founded five non-profit organizations dedicated to improving the plight of African-Americans including Green for All, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and most recently #YesWeCode, an organization that is dedicated to training 100,000 kids of color to become high-level coders.
#YesWeCode currently holds hackathons across the country for underprivileged youths, but Jones envisions the future of the organization as an overarching support system that will be able to finance and support smaller groups supporting minority youths getting involved in technology, much like the United Negro College Fund does with the over 450 scholarships it administers. Of all the speakers, Jones had the most to say about Silicon Valley’s relationship with people of color.
"We go in these hackathons, and these young people of color are asked to identify and solve a problem," Jones said. "We bring in engineers from Google, engineers from Facebook, engineers from Salesforce. They sit down across the table from these young people — they’re coming from some of the worst schools in America — and these young people blow these engineers’ minds with how smart they are. With how creative they are. With how tenacious they are."
"These young people blow these engineers’ minds with how smart they are."
Jones told the audience a story about a girl in the foster care system who wanted to build an app that would allow her to choose her own clothes. All of her clothes were donated to her, and she wanted to create an app that would allow people donating clothes to upload pictures of the items, and allow girls in foster care to pick their own clothes. "The problems that they identify are problems that Silicon Valley doesn't even know exists." Jones said. "We have young children walking around with billion-dollar ideas in their mind, but they have not been given the tools, the training, and the technology to turn those ideas into solutions, into companies."
While most of the money from tech companies earmarked for improvements in diversity have been given to organizations targeting college students, Jones and #YesWeCode are going after younger students, who don’t even realize that going into the tech industry is a possibility. "Please do not let anybody tell you that African-American, Latino, and Native American young people, girls and boys, don’t want to code. That is a lie. Nobody’s told them that they could," Jones said.
"The way you make money in this world today is you create your own app and you upload it."
"Every single time we get a room full of African-American, Latino, Native American young people — I don’t care if it’s 10 or 100, we’ve done as many as 2,000 — you can get them to want to become coders in 90 seconds by just three questions. First thing, does anybody in here have a smartphone? They all raise their hand. Second question I ask them: has anybody in this room ever downloaded an app? They all raise their hand. Proud. Okay third question: has anybody in here ever uploaded one? And not one hand goes up. That’s because we are suckers. Nobody told you that when you download somebody else’s app and use it, you are making money for them. You’re making money for somebody you have never met. Nobody ever told you that. You’re sitting here moving your thumbs around making money for somebody you’ve never met. Black people moving their thumbs around making money for other people used to be called picking cotton. Us doing stuff to make money for other people is nothing new. The way you make money in this world today is you create your own app and you upload it. People around the world can use your app. Now who here wants to be an uploader too? And every hand goes up."
While Jones doesn’t believe that Silicon Valley is maliciously keeping minorities out, he did say that the lack of diversity is a product of the environment in which people work. Jones used a word coined by Ben Jealous — "mirrortocracy" — to describe what is happening in the industry. People get used to working with the people they have known for years, who often look just like them, and don’t consider changing the formula.
#YesWeCode co-founder Cheryl Contee told me before it was extremely difficult to get initial funding for her startup Attentive.ly, a now successful social marketing company, despite having over 15 years of experience as an entrepreneur and vice president at PR and marketing firm FleishmanHillard, partly because "I don't look like the typical Silicon Valley startup founder," Contee said. "And that's a common experience I've heard from my fellow black and female founders." It’s a story many in that room could echo, and a pattern that everyone in attendance is fighting to end.
"I don't look like the typical Silicon Valley startup founder."
While everyone I spoke with was happy about the investments in diversity from tech firms, they were not counting on funding alone to solve all the issues. As many noted, awareness and access are the keys to long-term change. As long as young black kids don’t realize tech is an option, little is going to change. "Once we know where the solutions are, we tend to do very well," Jones said. "African-Americans have done well in sports — they didn’t want us to play sports. We’ve done well in music; they said we could never be a music producer. You can sing but you can’t be a producer, then Berry Gordy came along. You can’t imagine music now without African-American producers. They wouldn’t let us vote in the lifetime of people here, and now we have a black president. We tend to do well once we focus on where the opportunity is, we just have to do a better job of making sure our young people know where it is."
Ken Coleman, a tech pioneer in Silicon Valley and the black "godfather," as Ben Jealous dubbed him, sees change beginning to take hold, with or without the money. "I think in general we’re moving towards a better landscape, and I think we’re going to make very good progress. Whether or not the money will be effective yet or not, I think it’s too early to tell, but I think the motivation is right on."
Awareness and access are the keys to long-term change
If you compare diversity in the Valley to a roller coaster, we’re still working our way up to the big drop. We’re slowly clicking up the hill, and we know it’s coming, but we aren’t there. Not yet. But now we can finally see change on the horizon. "There’s certainly progress," AccuWeather’s chief marketing officer, John Dokes, told me after the event. Dokes also sits on the advisory board for Culture Shift Labs. "I think this [event] is evidence of a little bit of progress. I think with things like #YesWeCode, like Level Playing Field [Institute] — all of these are evidence of progress. I’m excited about those, I’m excited about these investments coming from larger companies, so there’s movement." Hoffman noted that even though progress may be slow, we shouldn’t overlook the smaller wins. "It’s important to celebrate the small victories. Do not ignore it because we’re looking for euphoria," Hoffman said.
Hope was in the air after the talks ended. No promises were made, but they weren’t needed. Increasing diversity in Silicon Valley is personal to every person who was in the room. For the first time in Silicon Valley’s history, there are dozens of black men and women in positions of power, positions that can bring true diversity to the industry. And this brunch was one of the few times they were all in the same room.
Terrell Jones, an engineer at Visa, said to me something most people in that room could directly identify with. "Most of my life, I’ve been the only African-American in the room, trying to be exceptional in mathematics and science and business. I’ve always been like one in a million, but now, being here, I really have felt that I’m one of a million, which is the best feeling in the world."