As usual, Maya Angelou said it best.
“It is time for parents,” she said, “to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”
Most Americans understand the “beauty” of diversity. They recognize the social value it brings to the table. But too many — particularly those from privileged backgrounds — have yet to internalize the strength of diversity. However, in Silicon Valley, that may be about to change.
When Google released its own dismal diversity numbers last month, they showed what we already knew — that their workforce is overwhelmingly white and male. Their decision to set a baseline for improvement is an encouraging sign that they recognize Ms. Angelou’s lesson — that diversity brings beauty and brings strength. In short, this move is crucial to Google’s competitive advantage.
Entrepreneurs tend to scratch their own itch, meaning they develop products that address a gap in their own lived experiences. Right now, Silicon Valley is overflowing with companies building photo apps, mindless games (Flappy bird, anyone?) and time-wasting click-bait sites. This is hardly surprising, given the homogenous nature of Silicon Valley that is reflected in Google’s diversity data. This is a limited vision of what the tech world can offer.
At a recent Oakland hackathon hosted by the Level Playing Field Institute, the organization brought together low-income students of color for a weekend and taught them how to develop a mobile app to solve a real problem in their school or community. One team of students developed an app that matched local science, math, engineering and tech mentors with low-income mentees of color. And last year at an LPFI convening of 6th-8th grade African-American boys, participants built an app that not only helps people who live in food deserts find healthy food at affordable prices but also identifies stores’ hours and whether they take food stamps. Few people in the Silicon Valley ecosystem could have imagined that idea because they lack those life experiences to draw upon. In turn, many tech companies are missing out on entire markets that could both generate a profit and solve real-world problems.
Google, of course, is one of the most influential companies in the world, and it is seen as an inspiration to many budding tech startups. Their decision to voluntarily share their diversity data and find rigorous way to solve their problem may be a tipping point in Silicon Valley and throughout our economy.
Tech, however, will only achieve meaningful diversity by addressing the pipeline issues, hidden biases and workplace culture problems that perpetuate the status quo.
The Kapor Center for Social Impact is helping Google to address each of these concerns. As Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Bock explained, achieving diversity is difficult largely due to a “pipeline problem” — the fact that women and people of color are less likely to earn degrees that prepare them for work at a big tech company.
To solve this, we must help fill the pipeline with talent from diverse backgrounds through programs like SMASH, a summer STEM enrichment program for underrepresented high school students of color, which provides access to rigorous coursework, college preparation, and access to mentors, role models, and support networks of students of color. SMASH is beginning its eleventh summer this month. Investments like these are critical to solving the diversity problem in the long term.
Google must also combat the impact of hidden bias that affects all workplace cultures and leads to talent leaking from the pipeline. Advances in Neuroscience show that, despite our best intentions to be fair and create meritocracies, we are more likely to see talent in those who look like us. Companies need to develop ways to ensure that they are looking for real talent and not just choosing people who are familiar.
As Maya Angelou said, “The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.” Google’s decision to not only reveal its lackluster diversity data but also to seek help in improving is a bold embrace of the need for change.
Tech is the engine of the American economy. We’re working with Google to make these needed changes because it’s the right thing to do, but equally important, because our standard of living hangs on whether Google gets this right.