How To Drive Diversity In Tech? Insights From A Black LGBT Co-Founder
Photo Credit: AfroTech

How To Drive Diversity In Tech? Insights From A Black LGBT Co-Founder

Despite recent efforts by major tech players and startups to fill their boards with diversity officers and create specific programs in order to increase hires of individuals who are typically disparaged, the dearth of minorities in the space — both at the C-Suite and throughout different levels — is still prevalent. Nationwide, tech executives spanning the top tiers of management throughout an organization are estimated to be roughly 83 percent white and 80 percent male. Even beyond the racial and gender employment gap, recent research revealed that LGBT candidates for tech jobs earn less than their straight counterparts. In fact, an additional report from advocacy organization StartOut, found that LGBT entrepreneurs also have more difficulty raising venture capital. As a founding member of a blockchain tech company, these stats greatly disturb me. However, as a black, gay man in 2018 America, that number does not shock me.

A chat with any CEO in Silicon Valley (or a simple Google search) will reveal that the tech industry tends to blame the “pipeline” for this general lack of diversity. The proposed solutions typically include top industry players making announcements acknowledging the problem, but not the larger role they play contributing to its source. What does acknowledgement matter if the result of said acknowledgement is only marginal change? When compared to Wall Street, Silicon Valley failures are only exemplified, due to the fact Wall Street is not making sweeping claims of inclusion to begin with.

My upbringing was generally positive. My childhood wasn’t the easiest, but it definitely wasn’t as difficult as many other Americans or those abroad (and we should acknowledge that privilege where it exists). Early on, I was exposed to various cultures, perspectives and ways of life, which helped me develop the skills to better navigate being the “token black guy” while moving through various positions in the tech industry. Beyond my unmistakable blackness, I’m also a proud part of the LGBT community — which, of course, comes with a different (but still relevant) set of biases. Of course, the resilience required to power through a plethora of awkward moments, cultural ignorance, assumptions of how I should or should not act and assumed knowledge base (or assumed lack of), doesn’t make me blind to my identity being one of the key distinguishing factors in my perceived success in one of, if not the most, innovative, emerging industries.

The lack of diversity at tech companies can be broadly attributed to three recurring scenarios, in which individuals who are not straight, White males are not provided with the same opportunities or resources as their peers: the lack of STEM classes offered to different demographics during childhood, biased admission processes at top ranked universities, and the ability — or lack thereof —  to join certain social groups during and after their time there. We will only begin to see an industry that not only claims inclusion, but embraces it, when those without financial and social privileges are offered the same opportunities as those with.

The Ivy League Gap

Tech startups, consistently in fundraising mode, look to only hire “top talent” to appear as attractive as possible to venture capitalists. Who qualifies as “top talent?” Ivy league graduates and/or those with extensive resumes, oftentimes built from networking opportunities they are provided with through connections they made at school. Focusing on the former, admission to a top institution is one of the biggest hurdles for minorities for two reasons. First, grade schools with predominantly black and hispanic students are less likely to have advanced courses, experienced teachers and adequate facilities. Secondly, a myriad of obstacles (including early access and exposure) not faced by white peers contribute to a lack of representation of minority students in highly selective colleges. Last year, a study by The New York Times found that only nine percent of freshmen at Ivy League schools identified as black.

While Ivy Leagues and other top tier institutions are touted to groom the next generation of leaders, they fall short in the same way that Silicon Valley does. With boisterous claims of ensuring inclusion, Ivy League admission processes are actually riddled with settlements and allegations of racial bias. The result? A talent pipeline largely representative of trickled-down privilege, rather than purely merit.

Training Is Required, But Boot Camps Are Expensive

It is no secret that technical talent is perpetually in high-demand. A large influx of bootcamps that train people in these skills have popped up just to meet the demand. While receiving training from a tech bootcamp certainly opens a gateway to the tech world that those lacking an Ivy League degree did not previously have access to, the overwhelming majority of these bootcamps require payment in full at the start of the course — many of which cost over $10k — and are typically all-day classes. There's a very select group of individuals who can spend that money, not work and still afford to live in the Valley — and it’s unlikely that group reflects much diversity at all.  

Recycled Talent

In a town of overflowing talent, company culture is by far the most protected resource. Often times, in order to better maintain culture, employees are incentivized to refer their friends — someone is hired, they refer a friend from college or former colleague, who refers another friend, and so on. And once again, we find a referral circle revolving around individuals who (most likely) look and act the same. This creates compounding diversity issues that are nearly impossible to unwind.

Personally, I deeply believe that a company’s culture is critical to its success, and I very much appreciate the idea of a referral bonus structure. I don’t think it needs to be done away with, just reworked. Companies need to have a presence in places where diverse groups of people gather, resulting in an influx of inbound candidates representative of all demographics. Last summer, Google demonstrated this model’s potential by accepting 26 Howard students onto their campus for a 12-week coding training. I would argue this move helps to prevent not only the practice of drawing from the same talent pool, but also provides opportunities to individuals who would not normally have the means to attend a bootcamp or pursue a CS degree at an Ivy.

Research has shown that businesses become more innovative, and thus, more successful, when they are exposed to diverse environments. Diversify your talent pool, then leave the referral bonuses to ramp up —  allowing a company to scale up diverse numbers organically.

Blockchain Incentives

Blockchain, which is expected to be worth $3.1B in business value, has the potential to both unlock a diverse pipeline of qualified employees and provide opportunities to people who have continually suffered under discrimination. Crypto can be utilized by anyone regardless of race, sexuality, religion or nationality. It is the one currency that is not controlled by those who seek power, with no concern for trickle-down economics. It’s why I’m invested in the space and hope to encourage minorities and LGBTQIA to get involved now, while the industry is still young.

While blockchain itself will not solve hiring disparities, it can incentivize behavior around inclusivity. Why not explore the idea of rewarding companies with cryptocurrency for posting jobs on a variety of sites that attract diverse groups, instead of one targeted site with a uniform user base. The task isn’t to incentivize hiring managers to choose a black person over a white person, but to incentivize proper representation of a diverse talent pool.

People are continually up in arms about reverse sexism and racism (both of which are myths), but believe me when I say I can’t wait for the day we stop having the conversation about the need for diversity. Until then, I’m going to keep making noise about it. And anyone who is upset about it can stay mad.