By Freada Kapor Klein, Founding Partner of Kapor Capital and Allison Scott, CEO of Kapor Foundation
The Supreme Court’s decision banning affirmative action in higher education on June 29, 2023, is part of a larger series of organized attacks on momentum and progress towards racial equity, particularly in the tech industry–including the lawsuit and recent injunction against Fearless Fund, for alleging racial discrimination and temporarily halting the VC firm from awarding its grants exclusively to Black female entrepreneurs; lawsuits against Perkins Coie and Morrison Foerster for their diversity law fellowship programs; the overturning of the Small Business Association’s focus on minority businesses; 13 State Attorneys General threatening Fortune 100 companies regarding their DEI programs and initiatives; legislation in Texas and Florida banning DEI offices in higher education and restricting related courses; backlash against organizational diversity statements; and tech diversity programs being disproportionately impacted by layoffs. Despite the commitments to racial equity espoused in 2020, the response from tech CEOs, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists has been a resounding silence.
We must not forget the very necessary historical context that gave birth to affirmative action – to redress overt racial discrimination in access to education and the workforce. An aspirational “colorblind” goal of treating everyone the same–as the SCOTUS decision encourages and the subsequent lawsuits claim–ignores historical context, lived experience, and data on access, opportunities and outcomes. Therefore treating everyone the same is not treating people fairly nor will it achieve equitable outcomes for groups who have been historically marginalized. Our goal must be fairness and inclusion, taking into account current disparities and ensuring that all necessary steps are taken via law, policy, corporate initiatives and educational outreach to close the gaps and eliminate the disparities.
As advocates for strengthening diversity in tech, we are keenly aware that we are nowhere near achieving racial equity in tech, and in society more broadly. Black, Latinx, and Native students are much less likely to have access to the K-12 computer science courses that lead to tech careers. Black talent represents 13% of the labor force, but just 4% of tech company board members, 4% of executive leadership, and 3.7% of technical roles across the largest US-based tech companies. Of the over $215B in venture capital deployed in 2022 to tech startups, Black founders received less than 2%, and Black and Latina women combined just 0.85%. And across American society, racial equity gaps remain stark–from educational and occupational outcomes, to health, wealth, and life expectancy.
Despite the SCOTUS ruling, we must not back down from commitments to addressing racial equity. Instead, we have a tremendous opportunity for corporate leaders, policymakers, and education advocates to uphold their commitments to racial equity by creating a multi-pronged strategy to continue the fight for racial equity. This strategy must encompass business strategies, defining and developing tech talent, refinement of investment theses and strategy, corporate governance, policy change, and litigation.
(1) Reimagine K-16 computer science education pathways. Far too few Black, Latinx, and Native students have the opportunity to take foundational CS courses, enter four-year CS degree programs, or graduate with the degrees coveted by tech companies. To address racial gaps in tech and society, it’s critical to address access gaps in computer science education across race, gender, socioeconomic status, and geography. This requires more than just providing CS courses; the curriculum and pedagogy within computing courses, programs, classrooms, and pathways must be culturally responsive and sustaining, explore the ethical implications of technology, and allow students to explore the impacts of CS on communities of color. After settling a recent lawsuit brought by Students for Fair Admissions – the same group behind the Harvard and University of North Carolina suit in the Supreme Court – Yale announced a new summer prep program for underrepresented students as part of its commitment to “expand outreach.” Our SMASH STEM program for underrepresented students of color, provides culturally responsive STEM/CS courses and internships, producing STEM and CS graduates at over twice the national average and demonstrating that college access programs play a critical role in ensuring students have a path to college and careers. We must also develop alternative routes to CS skill development that include dual-enrollment courses, community college, bootcamp and apprenticeship programs and invest in the university programs with proven track records of success in producing talent from underrepresented groups, including HBCUs, HSIs, and Tribal Colleges.
(2) How we define and assess tech talent must be reimagined. As opposed to relying on biased assessments of pedigree – degree requirements in job postings, preferences for specific universities, employee referrals of candidates– companies need to employ a “distance traveled” metric and skills-based hiring practices and apprenticeship programs to expand access. “Distance-traveled” means assessing talent by understanding the circumstances, obstacles, and challenges encountered within one’s life and the traits they developed to overcome them. It tells us a lot more than where they got their degree from, and further, this lived experience can be highly valuable in both identifying what were previously seen as intractable problems and in designing effective solutions. The Kapor Foundation and Opportunity@Work’s recent Equitable Tech Apprenticeship Toolkit details common barriers to building truly accessible programs and the importance of moving beyond simple solutions. Programs, like Twilio’s Hatch Apprenticeship, that train and recruit individuals from underrepresented groups for senior developer roles show the promise of this approach. We must also invest in talent development from HBCUs, HSIs, Tribal Colleges, and recruit from universities, programs, and regions that ensure racial, socioeconomic, gender, geographic diversity
(3) Expand the ranks of entrepreneurs, VCs and investors committing to closing gaps of access, opportunity, and outcome for communities of color. We advocate for employing a gap-closing lens in venture investing, focused on technologies that address disparities across education, health, and wealth where capital deployment can be both impactful and profitable. Kapor Capital’s investment criteria require the core business of tech startups to close gaps of access, opportunity or outcome for communities of color and/or low income communities; The result is a portfolio filled with founders with myriad life experiences, who now use technology to solve challenges they have faced. Our impact reports demonstrate that purpose and profit are not at odds and produce top-quartile returns. We also believe, consistent with evidence, that expanding diversity in the investors deploying capital will increase investment in entrepreneurs from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds and spur a wider range of solutions. To expand career pathways, our Kapor fellows program has provided VC internships to over 100 future investors over the past decade and our firm has employed distance-traveled metrics for recruiting and hiring talent.
(4) Implement a strategy for accountability, through policy and regulation, to identify and address practices producing disparate outcomes. Regulatory bodies, advocacy groups, and organizational leaders should develop and employ strategies to ensure that tech companies hire a workforce that reflects their customer base and the communities in which they operate. Boards, investors, and shareholders can implement accountability mechanisms to examine disparate impact in tech hiring and investment and hold companies accountable for their DEIB outcomes. Hiring processes and investment criteria that produce homogeneous workforces or investment portfolios may not appear overtly discriminatory, however, seemingly neutral criteria consistently lead to biased outcomes. And here are several examples of public policy which can further support racial equity, and we can all continue to advocate for them:
-In California, Assembly Bill (AB) 1078, will now fine any school district that bans a book, especially in an attempt to discriminate against students of color or LGBTQ+ students. SB-54, which was recently signed by the Governor, now mandates that California venture funds report diversity statistics among the founders in their portfolio.
-The proposed Silenced No More Act, would protect workers speaking out against workplace discrimination, regardless of if they’ve signed an NDA.
-The SEC recently approved Nasdaq’s requirement that companies listed on its exchange must have a board that meets certain gender and racial diversity requirements. By making equity a prerequisite for business opportunity, companies are incentivized to improve their own diversity.
-The Computer Science for All Act of 2023 aims to increase access to computer science education for all K-12 students, especially students of color and low-income students, addressing the root of the educational disparities that contribute to the lack of diversity in the tech industry.
-The proposed National AI Commission Act would provide federal oversight into potential misuse of AI – especially as it relates to reinforcing or worsening racial disparities.
Ultimately, even as the vast majority of Americans across racial and ideological spectrums favor corporate DEI initiatives, efforts to support equity will continue to be challenged; planning needs to be supported by data and a rationale that withstands legal scrutiny. We commend those who are undeterred – from the NAACP’s “Diversity No Matter What” pledge to calls for Attorney General Merrick Garland to leverage disparate impact arguments against school policies that racially discriminate against underrepresented students, and the National Venture Capital Association’s amici curiae brief in support of diversity in investing. And we challenge all who support efforts to continue to strive for a more just and inclusive society to vote–at the ballot box in upcoming elections, but also with their wallets as consumers, and with their feet as employees. Now is not the time to back down, water down our tactics and programs, or to change course–it is time to double down on the fight.
Editorial Note: Opinions and thoughts are the writers’ own and not those of AFROTECH. Allison Scott is the CEO of the Kapor Center. Freada Kapor Klein is a national board member of NAACP and the founder of SMASH.
Kapor Capital is an investor in Blavity and Twilio.