Silicon Valley has a diversity problem, and it’s time to do something about it.
Silicon Valley is the birthplace of a startup culture that is sweeping the nation and the world. It is the hub of the United States’ technology industry and home to countless innovative technology startups, with more launching every day.
But for all its achievements in innovation, Silicon Valley hasn’t made much progress on inclusion. Only 6.8 percent of technical employees in Silicon Valley are from underrepresented minority groups in a county that is almost 30 percent black or Latino.
This county’s racial makeup is far from unusual these days. We’re a diverse nation and only growing more so. Indeed, in the United States minority births outpaced white births for the first time in 2012. And by about the year 2040, the U.S. as a whole will be majority-minority.
Given these trends, it’s time to move the discussion of the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley from Twitter debates to the C-suite with founders, funders and executives taking ownership over the issue. That’s because not only is diversity good for Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley needs diversity to survive. This is true from both a product perspective and a talent perspective.
Flickr founder Caterina Fake and I were recently interviewed on Bloomberg West, where Caterina took the opportunity to explain how important diversity on her team is for the success of her newest tech startup, Findery.
Having a team that is reflective of her user base is critical in the product development process, she said, and important not just for company culture but also for the success of the product, and thus the survival of the company.
Forbes recently released a report showing that having racial and other types of diversity on a team is key to spurring innovation and critical to being successful at scale. A diverse group of employees is a boon for the bottom line.
This is a critical insight, but it shouldn’t be too surprising. In addition to the creative boost that comes from working on a diverse team, the population shift the United States is undergoing means a new consumer base that companies need to be able to build for and market to. Bringing those diverse perspectives into the creation and selling process helps reach this fast-growing set of consumers.
Of course, the corollary to an increasingly diverse consumer base is an increasingly diverse workforce. Companies today are looking at hiring from a talent pool that looks different from the one they’re used to targeting.
Each quarter, startups in Silicon Valley collectively raise around $1 billion. Much of this money goes to hiring technical talent. Silicon Valley is No. 2 in the nation in tech jobs per capita, yet it’s a complaint you’ll hear often if you talk to founders or CEOs or recruiters in the Valley that there isn’t enough engineering talent out there. Many of their open tech jobs are going unfilled.
This is despite the fact that those 6.8 percent of tech employees from underrepresented groups are drawn from a pool of computer science grads that is 18 percent black and Latino/a. Given the shifting nature of the demographics of the United States, if Silicon Valley doesn’t figure out how to engage underrepresented minorities in the innovation economy at scale, that talent shortage isn’t going anywhere. The hyper-underrepresentation of minorities is threatening Silicon Valley’s future viability as the hub of the innovation economy.
In the coming years, companies’ ability to thrive and grow will depend on their success in attracting, hiring and retaining diverse talent. Diversity won’t be a nice to have but a need to have; inclusion won’t be an abstract issue but an economic imperative.
Silicon Valley is the optimal place to experiment with how to bring more talented individuals from diverse backgrounds into the fold of the tech industry. Silicon Valley prides itself on solving problems– often intractable problems that have never been solved before.
In fact, that’s why my co-founder, Tristan Walker MBA ’10, and I decided on the Bay Area as the place to launch CODE2040, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating access, awareness and opportunities for top minority engineering talent to ensure their leadership in the innovation economy.
CODE2040’s flagship program is our summer Fellows Program. Through the Fellows Program, we bring top-performing black and Latino/a computer science students together here in the Bay Area for 10 weeks to intern at top tech companies and to take part in a comprehensive leadership development curriculum.
Students get mentors, participate in skill-building workshops and develop their professional networks, meeting engineers, entrepreneurs and executives from around the industry. We place a heavy emphasis on exposure to and exploration of tech entrepreneurship as a career path.
Students get a lot out of the summer, and, perhaps most importantly, they develop a strong desire to join the innovation economy and bring others in their communities along with them.
We’ve gotten a great reception for CODE2040 here in Silicon Valley and in the neighboring tech hub of San Francisco. Many of the region’s top tech companies are excited to work with us to host our students or support our programming.
But we get requests from other cities and regions to bring CODE2040’s programming to their startups and tech companies all the time. There are plenty of places that want to include top talent being overlooked by their competitors.
What Silicon Valley needs to realize is that, as the U.S. population shifts in the coming decades, diversity is going to be critical to its growth and success. And if another geography gets better at attracting and supporting diverse talent and building for a diverse consumer base in the coming years, Silicon Valley may lose its luster.
After all, if Silicon Valley’s tech companies don’t figure how to innovate around inclusion, somewhere else’s will.
Laura Weidman Powers MBA ’10 J.D. ’10 is co-founder and executive director of CODE2040