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The AtlanticLive: Helping Silicon Valley's Diversity Problem

The Atlantic magazine, based in Washington, D.C. organized a well-attended one-day conference in San Francisco on improving diversity in the US tech industry.

It might seem strange that The Atlantic, an East Coast organization is trying to solve Silicon Valley’s inclusivity problem. But clearly Silicon Valley needs help. It is doing a very bad job. Countless Uber scandals, countless office harassment scandals, countless venture capitalist scandals… and stubbornly low counts on the recruitment of women and minorities.

Inclusivity in Tech…

It was a good turnout and each one the speakers and moderators had something good to say. The audience was just as interesting as the podium when they shared questions and many of them were members and leaders of a variety of activist groups.

I’m positive that the organizers could have picked people at random from the audience for the panels and we would have a great conversation.

- The conference “Inclusion in Tech” is part of AtlanticLIVE events. It began with a town hall discussion on the topic “Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women, And What’s Being Done About it?

I did not catch this session. But my observation is that many Silicon Valley workplaces are awful and the addition of gender discrimination must makes it far worse.]

I caught all of the afternoon sessions: Here’s some of my notes… [My comments are in square brackets.]

- Executive remarks:

Yolanda Mangolini, (above) Director, Global Diversity and Inclusion, Google spoke about how diversity on its teams makes for better products. She showed a video of how a Google camera product had a bug in taking photos of dark-skinned people. The narrator said technology is not racist. The error was due to inadequate product testing against the Google team’s unconscious bias!

[Technology is neutral and independent of its user or developer — this is a running theme in the Google credo — that culture is a factor that can be abstracted and quantified.] 

[The Google video had a confused message: it showed the camera bug being discovered at a party and not by a diverse product team at Google. It did not make a distinction between the value of diversity in product development teams versus and the value of customer usability testing. Also: she made no mention of the infamous email by a Google engineer earlier this year that questioned female attributes in relation to tech jobs! It was a very short presentation and it should have been much more. ]


- Fireside chat: 

Amy Weaver, President, Legal and General Counsel, Salesforce spoke with Steve Clemons, Washington Editor at Large, The Atlantic — mostly about what a great guy Marc Benioff, the CEO and founder of Salesforce is and how Salesforce employees donate so much time to charitable work. Salesforce staff are paid to give seven days of charity work. [If they are paid does this count as volunteering?!] They’ve made a big difference in San Francisco’s middle schools.

[I’m a big fan of Marc Benioff. Charity begins at home and he and Salesforce have made massive contributions locally. Let’s make sure that San Francisco and Silicon Valley public schools become showcases and not basket cases — as many of them are with insanely high drop-out rates. The future is bright but our infrastructure is failing?! It doesn’t add up.]


- Tech in the Heartland

Chris Olsen, Partner, Drive Capital, Mark Orttung, CEO, Nexient chatting with Alison Stewart, The Atlantic.

This was a very awkward session. [Two white middle-aged middle-class guys working as venture capitalists — these are the models for voodoo dolls in this community.]

The VCs talked about working with entrepreneurs in places outside of Silicon Valley and how great it was. The conversation had little to do with the key issues of the conference. When they did fleetingly discuss inclusivity, a person in the audience took them to task on their use of language and asked them to “own” the problem of diversity in the words they choose.

[Language was a key theme here. Time and again speakers and audience would question the words being used in reference to a wide range of diversity issues. This is an incredibly important point. Words matter and they matter more than most people realize. Words make this world and we need to use the right words — and in the right order.]

- The Black Coders of Tomorrow

Kimberly Bryant, CEO, Black Girls Code spoke with Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic. Bryant is a dynamite speaker and immediately hit back at the use of “pipeline” as an excuse by tech companies on their low diversity numbers. Pipeline refers to the small percentage of qualified job applicants that are women and/or minorities. She said there are plenty of qualified people available but they are not being offered tech jobs.


- In Our Own Backyard - 

Mayor Libby Schaaf, City of Oakland with Steve Clemons, The Atlantic. They spoke about Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco, who had died that morning. They said he was a champion of diversity.

The mayor said she refused to give Uber a tax break when it announced its HQ in Oakland — unlike Ed Lee with Twitter. She expressed frustration with dealing with the tech community. She said that voters believed she controlled “tech money” which she does not.

She said she wants the tech jobs to go to her community. Oakland kids should be the ones that grow up ajnd take those Silicon Valley jobs.

[Good luck with that, mayor. It’s a marvelous ambition and totally fair but Silicon Valley companies have no connection with their local communities. They hire people based on where they themselves went to school and where they grew up and that wasn’t any place like Oakland. To put it simply: they hire from within their social-economic class — more on that subject later.]

- Where Do We Go From Here? A Town Hall Conversation:

Natalia Oberti Noguera, Founder and CEO, Pipeline Angels; Tariq Meyers, Head of Inclusion and Diversity, Lyft; Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Atlassian, Tom McLeod, Founder and CEO, Omni; Stephanie Lampkin, Founder and CEO, Blendoor; with Alison Stewart, The Atlantic.

A fabulous panel. Natalia Oberti Noguera CEO of Pipeline Angels had a lot of great points to make. I especially liked: “When you see minorities leading the discussions on diversity that’s when we’ve made progress.” [Was she describing the panel?!].

- Stephanie Lampkin told a story of how she taught herself programming as a teenager, studied engineering at Stanford university, post-grad at MIT and was told by Silicon Valley firms she wasn’t technical enough. She started a company so that she could employ her own technical skills. [Pipeline is not an excuse.]

- Tom McLeod shared funny stories of his look being accepted in the mainstream business world yet he is a black man. He understands what makes people comfortable.

- Tariq Meyers spoke about needing to recognize 400 years of American history and how that legacy affects people in the office.

- Aubrey Blanche said she was fed up with the word diversity and that people kept telling her that they were not diverse enough. She said an individual cannot be diverse. However, she did admit to being a “secret Mexican” as if to explain her mainstream look.

[Good point that diversity is found in teams and not individuals. But each of the“ diversity” executives from various companies at the conference was clearly representative of at least one minority, and sometimes more. Employers are clearly choosing people for the job that look diverse.]

Foremski’s Take: The conversation on inclusivity is a tough one and it is a necessarily long one because education and cultural change are hard to speed up.

But also, the conversation needs to add additional dimensions. There was no discussion of class — the social-economic status of job applicants is important.

The subject of class was color-coded but not directly addressed at the conference. When people spoke about minorities, people of color, and other terms they referred to social-economic issues but not directly. Words matter and it matters in understanding why there is a problem of diversity in tech companies.

Tech recruiters hunt in the talent pools of their class environments because they have none other.

If class is not discussed in the context of diversity there will be problems later.

A tech company might look diverse — with Chinese, Indian, African and Argentine software engineers and they might represent a rainbow skin-colors and countries. But they all come from the same class — an international class of privilege. What diversity can be found from their shared experience of private schools and the same middle class values?

Recognition of economic classes and the measure of social mobility is important in understanding the lack of progress on inclusivity in tech.


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