Equality is essential. Equity in the realm of employment, entrepreneurship, and opportunity is imperative. Yet, institutional employment inequities plague Silicon Valley, where the majority of the workforce and leadership are white and male in spite of the increasing population of qualified minorities and women across the nation.
What can we do to abate the disparities plaguing multicultural communities in the tech space?
This was the center of the recent “Closing the Tech Divide: Getting to Equal in Employment, Entrepreneurship, and Opportunity” panel at the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council’s (MMTC) recent Broadband and Social Justice Summit. Accomplished entrepreneurs and experts discussed institutional solutions to diversity in the tech workforce, while challenging the audience by presenting ways in which we could all help to close the tech divide. Ronald Johnson, chairman and CEO of Solutions4Change and treasurer of the MMTC Board of Directors, moderated the discussion.
Corporate Roles in Getting to Equal
The panel followed last year’s release of diversity data by some of the top tech companies in Silicon Valley, which revealed that, on average, just 3.2 percent and 1.8 percent of Silicon Valley’s workforce is made up of Hispanics and African Americans with math or science degrees, respectively. Similarly, women make up just 28 percent of the workforce, and there are few minority and women leaders to speak of in top company and board positions.
Since the release of this data, some tech companies have taken major steps to improve diversity. Intel announced a $300 million Diversity in Technology initiative last month, and Apple and Microsoft both included several minority-owned firms in debt offerings totaling over $17 billion this year. As heartening as these stories are, there is much more to do to close the tech industry’s enormous employment inequality gap.
During the panel, Dr. George Simmons, president of BingeNow (Black Interactive Next Generation Experience Now), cited his own entrepreneurial experiences as a success story and stated that progression comes from increased diversity in big companies. “This starts with changing the environment within the companies,” he said. “Insisting companies recognize the diversity issue and a willingness to change it. Company culture must also change. A shift in thinking must take place. Priority must be given to hiring the best of the best, regardless of color.”
Ron Busby, Sr., president of the U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce, told an impactful personal story of discrimination in the workplace and the discrimination felt by multicultural business owners trying to receive contracts. As the owner of a janitorial company in California, he spoke passionately of his experience trying to get a contract in Silicon Valley.
“They are not allowing us to play in the tech industry. They won’t even let us empty their trash and clean their floors,” Busby lamented. He stressed that focus needs to be placed on helping multicultural businesses by granting contracts, investing capital, and utilizing their services so they can grow into large corporations, which then can hire and financially empower multicultural communities.
Community Roles in Getting to Equal
Hon. Ronald Brisé, member and former chair of the Florida Public Service Commission, who delivered opening remarks, suggested that to close the tech divide, we must focus on our younger generation, specifically by educating our students. He expressed that if our younger generation doesn’t access broadband or know how to use the tools, they are simply not capable of being the next innovators and entrepreneurs.
“The reality is as we think of closing the digital divide, for some, that time has almost come and gone,” Brisé said. “The reality is that if we don’t approach this challenge appropriately, we’ll have a whole other generation that will be lost along the way.” According to Brisé, we must identify pipelines that are working, explore them, and utilize them. He illustrated broadband as a highway to success and urged the investment in that infrastructure.
Dr. Simmons added that positive images of minorities as qualified innovators are key drivers for diversity in tech. “To help urge this kind of diverse hiring, we must communicate positive stories about the impact and innovation that comes from multicultural communities,” he said. Dr. Simmons highlighted James West, the African American inventor of the electronic microphone, as an example of a success story that is not well-known. He then urged the spreading of these kinds of accomplishments and encouraged emphasizing that there is technological talent in diverse multicultural communities.
Joseph Miller, president and CEO of Washington Technology Project, noted the significance of women and people of color having a seat at the table and expressed the importance of partnership and collaborations to help them get there. “It is imperative that we work with one another,” he said, then offered his own partnership to the audience: “If you have ideas, I’d like to help you.”
Miller also spoke of non-substantive barriers that plague diverse communities today such as SAT scores, which are more closely correlated to the wealth of the household than academic success of the student.
Working Together Toward a Common Goal
The overarching theme that seemed to resonate most with the audience was the idea of communities helping each other. The main takeaway was that as members of diverse communities, we must support our own businesses, we must partner and collaborate with one another, we must hire from within, and we must promote our own accomplishments, all to demonstrate that we are capable of not only meeting the status quo, but exceeding the expectations of technological advancement.
There is much work to be done, but we can do it, together.
The Multicultural Media, Telecom & Internet Council (MMTC, formerly Minority Media and Telecommunications Council) is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving equal opportunity and civil rights in the mass media, telecommunications and broadband industries, and closing the digital divide. MMTC is generally recognized as the nation’s leading advocate for minority advancement in communications.