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How Can We Fix Silicon Valley's Diversity Problem?

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Photo Credit: Getty Creative Images

It’s hard to ignore the diversity discussion that’s sweeping through Silicon Valley.

Black ex-employees of tech giants are taking to social media to share their on-the-job stories and personal experiences within former work environments:

"In attempting to achieve the appropriate level of Blackness that makes me palatable to tech, had I unwittingly erased the importance of maintaining my Blackness in a sea of White faces?" Leslie Miley posted on medium.com. The former engineering manager at Twitter resigned in 2015.

"After spending months apologizing for being me, and after a White manager sat me down, looked me in the eye and told me, 'If you ever want to be anything other than an admin, you need to go somewhere else,' I said f--k it," Angelica Coleman, former engineer team support coordinator at Dropbox, posted on Facebook. She also resigned in 2015.

"While in my position, I was frequently the only person of color in meetings, both internal and external. On many occasions when visiting another company, a Black employee would pull me to the side. They'd say in a hushed tone, 'I didn't know any of us worked there.' I assured them, though few in number, we did exist," Mark S. Luckie, former manager of journalism and news at Twitter, posted on medium.com. He left in 2015.

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So just how bad is tech's diversity problem? According to 2015 stats made available by each company, only 2 percent of Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Twitter employees are Black; Apple clocks in with 8 percent of its workforce identifying as Black; and Pinterest and Dropbox hover at just 1 percent. At the management level, Pinterest and Twitter had no African-Americans in positions of leadership, and Yahoo, Facebook and Apple had 1, 2 and 3 percent, respectively, in 2015.

But the issue is far more complicated than the data suggests. The oft-cited pipeline problem, which claims that we need more African-American students in coding programs early to increase their competitive advantage, is becoming harder to substantiate. In fact, a 2014 survey of 133 top public and private North American universities and colleges found that 4.1 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science, information technology and computer engineering went to Black students. That's nearly twice the rate at which Blacks are hired by technology companies, calling into question the charge that qualified minority candidates aren't out there. Couple that with hiring bias and the matter of retention—creating an inclusive community where African-Americans actually want to work—and a truly nuanced portrait of tech's diversity challenges emerges.

We spoke to several current and former employees of some of the top companies to get a clearer picture of life as a person of color in tech. It goes without saying that the notion of being the "lonely only" is nothing new in corporate America. As Black men and women rise in the ranks of Fortune 500 companies, the number of people they see who look like them in similar roles dwindles, as just 1 percent of CEOs at these firms are Black. And the situation in tech—an industry that, on the face of it, is younger and more progressive—is sadly no different.

"In terms of the day-to-day, it sucked," Coleman, 26, says of her 16 months at Dropbox, where she helped build internal apps for staffers to use. "We had weekly admin team lunches where we would all hang out, eat, gossip. I couldn't contribute to about 90 percent of the conversation. When a person turns to me and says, 'Have you been to that new blowout salon on the way to work?' I'm thinking, My hair is natural, Afro-curly. Does it look like I get a blowout? Or the time someone on my team asked me if I ever tried those new tanning wipes, and it's like, Again, my skin is a beautiful brown, I don't know why you would think I would use that. And then I would get spoken to by the team leader and told I'm not being engaging or friendly enough. It was really tough."

We reached out to Dropbox for a response to Coleman's statements, and a company spokesperson e-mailed the following (truncated): "Having a diverse workforce is core to our ability to innovate and continue building a strong, global company.… We're committed to ensuring that everyone has the support and resources that they need to pursue and build the careers they love here."

Morgan DeBaun, 26, who spent roughly two and a half years at tax software developer Intuit before launching Black millennial-focused multimedia and tech start-up Blavity, says external vendors often undermined her authority. "The most interesting part was when we had vendors—our partners—come in, and I was the one leading the discussion. They had talked to me on the phone, but when they met me they were like, Oh," says DeBaun. "I hadn't mentally prepared myself for them to be condescending or dismissive when it was incredibly clear that I was the decision maker in multiple parts of the process."

As employees share their experiences beyond the confines of HR, it has become more difficult for companies to ignore just how White and homogenous their workforces are. Positions like "head of diversity and inclusion" are increasingly more commonplace—Twitter and Facebook have installed the post in the past five years. And it wasn't until 2014 that leading tech firms even began releasing data on employee diversity, with Google and Intel leading the pack.

Abby Maldonado, a diversity programs specialist at Pinterest, says the company hired an independent firm, Paradigm, to lead employees in a 90-minute course on unconscious bias in early 2015. "We wanted to provide the baseline for employees to understand what their biases might be and how they're playing out in the workplace," says Maldonado. "We did this by team so that they could begin to understand what their dynamics were and create and develop strategies within their own group."

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But Paradigm's founder, Joelle Emerson, is aware that not much can happen in a training that takes less than two hours. "We don't actually anticipate that a 90-minute training will change outcomes," says Emerson. "What we hope it will do is encourage people to change processes and behaviors—and those changes will influence outcomes." Emerson has also assisted teams in overhauling their promotion practices and revamping how they conduct interviews.

Beyond in-house training programs, some tech companies are making larger commitments to diversity—and putting up big money to show they're serious. In January 2015, Intel pledged $300 million toward workplace diversity, with some of the money going to engineering scholarships and more robust recruiting efforts. Apple followed suit, and in March 2015 announced a more than $40 million partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a nonprofit that supports students at HBCUs, to help undergraduates find opportunities in tech.

And it's not just a top-down approach to culture change. Every Black employee we interviewed mentioned getting actively involved in his or her company's diversity efforts with mixed results. During his time at Twitter in New York City, Luckie, 32, says he took the reins of @blackbirds, a resource group for Black employees there. He arranged for local public schools to tour the offices and generally tried to help the company better engage with its Black-user base (28 percent of African-Americans who use the Internet are on Twitter). "We weren't able to accomplish much without resources or buy-in from upper-level executives," says Luckie, now a full-time writer. "We wanted some power behind the company's commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement. In speaking with executives, I'd say, 'Hey, you have to allocate the resources, put some muscle behind it, and more important, it's your responsibility to educate this 3,000-member workforce on why Black Twitter is important.' There was a lot of head-nodding, but nothing would come of it." When contacted for a comment on Luckie's statements, a spokesperson for Twitter sent a written response, reproduced partially here: "We're committed to making substantive progress in making Twitter more diverse and inclusive. This commitment includes the expansion of our inclusion and diversity programs, diversity recruiting, employee development and resource group-led initiatives."

At Pinterest, Makinde Adeagbo, a 30-year-old software engineer, has found ways to increase diversity both at the company and in Silicon Valley at large. Not only has he helped overhaul Pinterest's college recruiting process, but he's also in charge of onboarding new engineers. "I created a program we call Basecamp—when engineers join, they stay in Basecamp for the first three weeks and work with a group of mentors I assembled," explains Adeagbo, who spoke about the broader struggles of Silicon Valley's homogeneity. "I haven't been forced to constantly think about the fact that I'm Black at work, and I've never felt like my race was limiting me in the workplace, but there are certainly challenges," he says. "Not only are tech companies not very diverse, but the area that you will likely live is also not very diverse. It's one thing to be the only Black person at work. It's another to be walking around your neighborhood in Menlo Park and rarely see other Black people." In 2015, Adeagbo launched /dev/color to connect local Black engineers with mentors and mentees across several top tech firms, creating an informal network outside the office. "I'm fortunate that Pinterest has really been supportive of me starting the company."

Many of the employees we talked to had as many positive things to say about their experience in tech as they had negative. DeBaun—who recently relocated from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.—put it this way: "SF is a bubble—an amazing bubble. People in San Francisco live, breathe, dream and chitchat in coffee shops about this stuff, and that's contagious. When you're around people who are pushing different industries to move quickly and digitize and do new things, that's empowering because it frees your mind of constraints that you thought you had or that you didn't even know you had. I mean, your Uber driver is talking about the app he's building. That's dope."

But what exactly will create real, meaningful change for Black employees? We still live in a society in which 80 percent of employers value "cultural fit" as a hiring priority, according to one 2013 report. While hiring employees you want to work with—or those who like and value the same things as you—may make sense on some levels, it's not hard to see how that can blur into discrimination rather quickly. And just focusing on the sheer numbers won't get us anywhere. "It's at the point where people are like, We'll just get ten more Black people and we're good," says Coleman, who briefly worked at Zendesk, which provides a customer service platform for Web-based companies, after leaving Dropbox. "You can hire as many Black people as you want, but if everyone isn't on board internally then it's never going to be an inclusive community where everyone feels as if they can be welcomed."

Maxine Williams, global director of diversity at Facebook, is candid about these less tangible battles that the industry faces: "White men get performance attribution bias—when they do something it's all of a sudden brilliant and they get extra credit, but if someone else does it who is a member of a less dominant group, it might be ignored or sidelined. We point out that kind of data to show everyone why we need the majority of people on board to stand up to injustice when they see it."

While many top firms have made a commitment to disrupting the status quo, culture shifts take a long time. But the tech industry is known for its rapid innovation. Let's see how fast change can happen.