The Loud Fight Against Silicon Valley's Quiet Racism
Press Corps members jump in front of Platform balloons at Morehouse. Photo: Shannon Duncan


This story is over 5 years old.

The Loud Fight Against Silicon Valley's Quiet Racism

How tech became a civil rights battleground.

For Hank Williams, an entrepreneur based in New York, building a more diverse Silicon Valley isn't just an economic or moral issue. There are more pressing reasons, ones that no one in the industry or anywhere else likes to talk about.

"The problem is, the innovation economy is the economy," he told me recently. "If all the significant growth that we expect going forward is coming from fields in which vast blocks of people have no participation or engagement, then we are heading for trouble."


"If you think Occupy Wall Street is a troubling sign of dissatisfaction around wealth distribution," he added, "you ain't seen nothing yet."

Williams, a startup veteran who lived through the dotcom boom, who is most recently founder and CEO of a cloud services company called Kloudco, had for years become accustomed to being the only black man in the room. In 2012, he decided he would try to fix that. With backing from a prominent group of supporters, including Google, Microsoft, and philanthropist Shahara Ahmad-Llewellyn, Williams started Platform, a non-profit and annual summit dedicated to diversifying the "innovation economy."

The latest diversity numbers from that economy—and repetitive comments by executives at top tech companies—demonstrate sluggish progress. Last year at Facebook the percentage of Hispanic employees in the US remained flat, at 4 percent, as well as for blacks, at 2 percent. (White employees account for 55 percent of Facebook's employees in the US, while Asians represent 36 percent.) At Google, where 60 percent of employees are white and 31 percent Asian, blacks make up 2 percent and Hispanics 3 percent of the workforce—numbers unchanged since last year.

Minorities aren't just vastly underrepresented in technical positions in the country's fastest growing sectors, they're also often paid less than their white counterparts. According to a recent study of computer programmers and software developers by the independent think tank the American Institute for Economic Research, Hispanics earn $16,353 a year less on average than their colleagues who are not Hispanic; Asians make $8,146 less than whites, and blacks $3,656 less than whites. Meanwhile, a USA Today study recently showed that black and Hispanic students are graduating with computer science degrees from top universities at twice the rate that big tech companies hire them.


This isn't for a lack of jobs. While good-paying blue-collar jobs continue to disappear in the US, computer science is a rare bright spot of opportunity for people without a college education. In spite of the recent recession, there are more tech jobs than ever before, and their numbers are growing. According to estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020, the US alone will have 1.4 million computer science jobs, with only 400,000 computer scientists to fill them.

Whole industries have been created and hundreds of millions of dollars promised by the biggest tech companies to find solutions to the myriad problems that both cause and result from the white maleness of the tech industry. "The problem does go that deep, into our subconscious and our collective history," J.J. McCorvey wrote last year in a Fast Company profile of Tristan Walker, the former Twitter and Foursquare employee who has become one of the country's most prominent young African-American entrepreneurs. Interviewing Walker during his 30th birthday party, at the house of Faith and Tyler Scriven, chief of staff at Palantir Technologies, McCorvey was struck by the fact that, despite being "one of the most popular figures in mainstream tech, not a single white person came [to celebrate] his birthday…" When McCorvey asked the gathered group why this was the case, he was met with "raised eyebrows and silence."

Against the backdrop of the "pipeline problem," the much-contested notion that there aren't enough people from under-represented groups involved in or interested in engineering jobs, McCorvey unpacked the structural effects of a country mired in racism that is historic, systemic, hidden and subconscious.


"It is racist, for example, to approach a recruiting firm with the mandate to fill an engineering position only with someone from one particular Ivy League school, where blacks comprise a single-digit percentage of the student population," he writes. "It is racist to rely on employee referrals for hires, when the typical social network of a white American is 1% black."

"And it is racist," he continues, "to impose standards of 'culture fit'—the absurd notion that employees must behave (and sometimes appear) in a way that makes others feel comfortable—on job candidates. These are typical, and convenient, hiring practices of startup founders. Under enormous pressure to grow their companies fast, they feel entitled to dismiss niceties such as an HR department that might seek out minority candidates. But their very inaction is a manifestation of extreme bias, even if it's subconscious."

People might believe themselves not to be racist, sociologist Karen E. Fields pointed out in a recent Jacobin interview, but that doesn't undo the problems of racism and the concept of race. "In the minds of some people, once you've gotten rid of the intention you've gotten rid of the thing. But they will continue to do the opposite spontaneously and without taking moral account or accepting moral accountability for what that means."

"Among Valley denizens, age is something that's discussed openly, sex is beginning to be discussed. But race—not at all."


The problem begets itself. The absence of minorities at tech companies often keeps the topic buried under the rug, and gives fewer incentives or models to others who might be interested to join the workforce. "The tech industry is pretty clubby," says Williams. "Among Valley denizens, age is something that's discussed openly, sex is beginning to be discussed. But race—not at all."

Platform, which launched in 2013 as an annual summit and community of technologists, civil rights leaders, and students, was inspired by a trip Williams took through Silicon Valley for a CNN documentary in 2011. Having spent much of his career on the East Coast, he was familiar with the industry's dearth of minorities. But in the Valley, he found himself completely taken aback at their near-total absence, and how hard it was for those who were sitting across from him to talk about race.

While filming the documentary "Black in America: The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley," Williams spent months walking through the streets of Mountain View and hardly saw any other people of color. Their absence confirmed some startling statistics. A 2010 survey by CB Insights, for instance, showed that only 1 percent of startups that received funding in the early part of that year had a single black person on the team.

"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," Williams told The Root last year.


During his tour of the Valley, Williams saw glimmers of promise. He met Angela Benton, another black entrepreneur, and would help her launch the NewMe Accelerator program, a nine-week "residential incubator" for startups that are led by under-represented minorities. NewME puts selected entrepreneurs into one group house in the Valley and brings in a roster of speakers to advise and guide them as they get their businesses off the ground. The program, which started as a one-day summit, has helped companies raise over $16 million to date.

These experiences led Williams to a conversation with his friend, the Philadelphia-born philanthropist and entrepreneur Shahara Ahmad-Llewellyn, about the importance of building a coalition of technologists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and students. In 2013, they raised money for an inaugural event at MIT, the Platform Summit, and invited a diverse group of speakers to deliver TED-like talks about their own experiences, including Quincy Jones, astronaut Mae Jamison, Deval Patrick, Lady Jane Forrester de Rothschild, and Nicholas Negroponte.

Besides Platform, many other organizations, companies and initiatives—corporate, civic and non-profit—have sprung up to help decrease this ever-widening digital divide. #YesWeCode, Code 2040, Girls Who Code, All Star Code, Digital Undivided, BUILDUP, Black Girls Code, Silicon Harlem's Apps Youth Leadership Academy, Latino Startup Alliance, Black Founders, Culture Shift Labs, and many others are endeavoring to solve these issues head- and hands-on, in a variety of ways.


The idea behind Platform, said Ahmad-Llewellyn, was to showcase strong role models and to offer practical STEM tools—"an anchor and jumping-off point to actively tackle some of the bigger challenges in developing diverse economies." For this year's summit, the third installment and the second at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Williams and his team plans to expand the event's footprint, with more big names (Twitter interim CEO Jack Dorsey and Google senior vice president David Drummond are scheduled to speak) and, possibly, a nationally-televised broadcast. "We're changing the national consciousness," Ahmad-Llewellyn said.

Photo: Liz Linder

For all of the rhetoric of inclusiveness and progressiveness and Americanness of Silicon Valley, there is a stark gap between the consumers and users of the country's leading tech platforms and the employees, management and investors behind these platforms. Blacks and Latinos represent at least 30 percent of the US population, and, as of the last census, 49.5 percent of the nation's children under the age of 5 are of two or more races. But employment data that was first released last year by top Silicon Valley companies and echoed again this month paint a more homogenous portrait.

For instance, according to statistics Twitter shared last August, the company's workforce is 2 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, and 30 percent female—numbers that are generally the same at other leading tech firms. The nation's diversity is better reflected in Twitter's userbase: its users tend to skew ethnic, with 27 percent of black internet users on Twitter, compared with 21 percent of whites. The platform has also become an epicenter for awareness-raising around diversity and justice.


"Black Twitter is the new civil rights movement," said Keith Clinkscales, the CEO of Revolt TV, a media venture founded by Diddy, and a participant at last year's Platform Summit. "It brings unreported civil rights stories to the forefront, from Trayvon Martin to Ferguson and everything in between. It forces the mainstream media—and the public at large—to pay attention."

Social media is helping to turn the tide around diversity in tech too. For years, technology companies sought to keep their diversity numbers hidden. Last year, pressure from many, including civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson— bolstered by a giant campaign on Twitter—changed all that. Last May, the numbers finally came out from the "Big Four"—first from Google, followed by Yahoo, then Facebook and Apple.

Other big tech companies capitulated one by one, as activist organizations relentlessly pushed for the firms to release their workforce diversity reports through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the US Department of Labor. (Among those who haven't yet released diversity statistics, according to, are IBM, Hulu, Netflix, and Cloudera.) The numbers aren't pretty, with the percentage of blacks and Hispanics in the workforces of the four big internet companies hovering between 2 and 4 percent. (Apple reported slightly higher percentages, but it also boasts the largest retail workforce of the companies.)


In his keynote speech at Platform 2014, Rev. Jackson called the numbers "horrendous." "The data documents the virtual exclusion of Blacks and Latinos from the industry in both tech and non-tech jobs," he said. That lack of diversity is replicated on the corporate boards of directors, he noted. According to a survey of minority representation at the top 20 tech companies, conducted by his Rainbow PUSH Coalition, eleven of the 20 companies—including Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, eBay and Google—have zero people of color on their boards.

Just three companies—Microsoft, Oracle and—have a black or Hispanic person on their boards. In sum, out of 189 directors at the major tech companies, only 4 (1.6%) are black and 1 (.5%) is Hispanic. By way of comparison, blacks hold 7.4% and Hispanics hold 3.3% of board seats in the Fortune 500, according to the Alliance for Board Diversity's latest report. "Diversifying the innovation economy is the next step in the civil rights movement," Jackson said.

For Williams, one central argument for diversifying is the potential cost of not doing it. "You can't have significant parts of your population locked out of the most important and fastest growing parts of the economy and think that there will not, sooner than later, be angry protests in the streets, and worse," he says. "You can't scrape every morsel of economic opportunity off the table and then express shock that people, at some point, rise up."


While police discrimination and violence against blacks—"and the seeming acceptance of it by much of white America"—is "the most vivid expression of the problem, the lack of access to economic opportunity, particularly in fields where there should be abundant demand, is the most pernicious manifestation of the issue."

Harvard sociologist Devah Pager has found that a white person with a criminal record has a better chance getting hired in America than a black person with no record whatsoever. These systemic cultural issues are at the root of the many reasons why black Americans are underrepresented in myriad facets of American life, tech included. "Being black in America today is just about the same as having a felony conviction in terms of one's chances of finding a job," she concludes.

"Instead of 'Leaning In,' 'Lean Back'—create and innovate, but also make sure you're making room and pulling others in"

Even the Congressional Black Caucus has taken action to address the lack of diversity in tech, launching the CBC Tech 2020 initiative to "encourage the industry to use the same entrepreneurial spirit they use when creating new technologies to become innovators in diversifying tech."

"We will not rule out a confrontation if it comes to that," CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) said. "We want to work with these companies to try to connect them with qualified African-American students and individuals."


Among the tech giants, Intel has received the most attention for its recent diversity efforts. At CES this year, Brian Krzanich, Intel's CEO, discussed the importance of diversity and inclusion in technology, and announced Intel's creation of the Technology and Diversity Initiative. If successful, Intel's initiative would increase the population of women, blacks, Hispanics and other groups at Intel by at least 14 percent during that period.

In addition, Intel said it has established a $300 million fund to be used in the next three years to improve the diversity of the company's workforce, attract more women and minorities to the technology field and make the industry more hospitable to them once they get there. The money will also be used to fund engineering scholarships and to support historically black colleges and universities. Google and Apple have since followed suit in what seems like an emerging trend in the Valley: pledging millions in cash and resources toward bankrolling scholarships and engineering programs at historically black colleges and universities.

Meanwhile, Jackson has called on technology companies to set goals and timetables to add underrepresented minorities to corporate boards and across their work forces. Lucinda Martinez, HBO's SVP of Multicultural Marketing articulated this in terms of Sheryl Sandberg's mantra. "Instead of 'Leaning In,' 'Lean Back'—create and innovate, but also make sure you're making room and pulling others in."


Hampton University's Dean of Engineering & Technology, Dr. Eric Sheppard, wishes that tech execs and corporations would make a better effort to engage with Hampton and the nation's 14 other historically black colleges with engineering and computer science programs. "Corporation executives, university professors of 'high-risk' universities (schools who aren't the Stanfords or MITs of the world), advocacy groups and those seriously interested in creating solutions have to seriously work together to create safe spaces amongst each other where we can talk candidly and have the hard conversations that can truly lead to effective practices and policies, and true change."

Platform Summit 2014 producers Brandi Harrison and Sharisse Scineaux. Image: Platform

At last year's Platform, in an effort to highlight role models and build relationships, college students were invited to cover the event and meet some of the summit's big names. (Janelle Monae; Martin creator Topper Carew, #YesWeCode's Van Jones, Revolt CEO Keith Clinkscales, and Samsung Vice President Ty Ahmad-Taylor were on the bill.) The inaugural Press Corps program (which, in full disclosure, I helped found) recruited students from the Atlanta University Center Consortium, the world's oldest and largest group of African Americans in higher education, to help manage media coverage for the Summit.

The idea was to provide hands-on journalism experience and give students full access to all of the speakers, founders, staff and attendees for the duration of the Summit. In one conversation, Rev. Jackson emphasized to the student reporters the importance of "bridging the generation gap, passing on the torch, and doing the great work of telling the stories often left out of the mainstream press and national media."

Annick Laurent, a junior at Spelman College studying biology, came away with concern and optimism. She was struck, she told me by email, at "how well we're able to become part of certain industries, particularly tech and media-related ones, [that] will hugely impact women and people of color's stability, prosperity and growth in the innovation economy."

The country, its economies and its cultures, is becoming more interconnected too, she said.

"All of us, regardless of gender or race, need each other more than ever. The world is rapidly changing in that everyone and most things (information especially) are accessible, making it possible to establish a large network with those of multiple backgrounds."

During an entrepreneurship hackathon at last year's summit at Morehouse College, Ahmad-Llewellyn, a Platform co-founder, said that the efforts of groups like hers offered "no quick fix." Diversifying tech companies from the inside, building transparency, or encouraging and educating young people are practical steps; uniting the nation in a more vigorous solution-based conversation around the problem, and affecting real, effective institutional change is a grander challenge.

Before Ahmad-Llewellyn had finished judging at the hackathon, a small controversy erupted: One team came in second place because of a rules discrepancy—it had more people than the rest of the teams. Some arguing between the judges, the organizers and some team members ensued. Llewellyn gathered the crowd, and drew parallels to the Civil Rights era that she witnessed as a girl. "Everyone didn't always agree with everyone else," she gently reminded the assembled, "but they kept their eyes on the bigger prize, the goal, and came together for the good of all."