03 May Slack shows up & shows out!
Slack shows even start-ups that focus on diversity early are not diverse
SAN FRANCISCO — In 2014 Slack Technologies launched its workplace collaboration tool and began to grow quickly to meet demand just as the technology industry was taking a very public and hard look at its lack of diversity.
The 30-person company jumpstarted a conversation that chief executive Stewart Butterfield sums up as: “Let’s talk about what kind of company we want to be down the road.” What Slack hoped to avoid: Growing the way technology companies typically do by hiring a lot of white and Asian men. One of the executives penned a manifesto that pledged Slack would hire as many people from diverse experiences and backgrounds as it could.
For all its good intentions, three years later this privately held company used by five million people and valued by investors at nearly $4 billion is not much more diverse than many of its peers. Of its hundreds of employees, relatively few are people of color and, while it has a very strong showing for women in technical and management roles, few women hold leadership roles, according to the company’s latest diversity report card that it released Wednesday. Nearly 60% of Slack workers in the U.S. are white and 25.2% are Asian. More than seven out of 10 company leaders are men.
Progress has been particularly slow in bringing more African Americans and Hispanics into the fold. Last year, for example, 4.3% of technical roles in the U.S. were held by African Americans. This year Slack says that number has increased ever so slightly to 4.8%, showing how challenging it is even for smaller companies to disrupt the industry’s insular growth patterns.
“I tend to be a glass is half full kind of person so I tend to think that it is getting better,” Butterfield told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview. “I don’t think it is going to happen super quickly.”
Butterfield has publicly championed the importance of reversing decades of exclusion in the tech industry — not, he says, for the business benefits alone, but because he believes the industry has a moral obligation to crack open opportunities for everyone. And Slack has been held out as an example of a tech company that seeks out people from underrepresented backgrounds and strives to create a more inclusive work culture. When Slack won a Crunchies award for fastest rising startup, the company sent four female engineers of color to the awards show to accept the industry accolade.
The slow pace of change in the racial make-up of Slack throws some cold water on hopes by diversity activists like Ellen Pao, who say they see a new attitude from younger tech companies that are instituting more inclusive hiring policies from the start.
With tech companies appealing to an increasingly diverse and global marketplace, historically underrepresented groups are becoming key to future growth in the sector. The industry is looking for ways to include more women and minorities who have been largely left out of of some of the nation’s highest-paying careers and out of one of the world’s greatest wealth creation machines.
“There are tech companies that talk about wanting an inclusive culture and hiring diverse candidates and then there are tech companies that just do it. Slack is the latter,” says diversity advocate Wayne Sutton, co-founder of Change Catalyst and the Tech Inclusion Conference.
Slack, which changed its methodology for measuring the racial diversity of its workforce this year, declined to provide comparable statistics for last year.
Percentage wise, Slack is better than the norm for tech companies, with 4.4% of U.S. workers African American and 6.3% Hispanic. At Facebook and Google, 2% of employees are African American and at Google, 3% are Hispanic and at Facebook, 4% are Hispanic. Still, because Slack is a relatively small tech company, that means it employs approximately 24 African Americans and 34 Hispanics out of a U.S. workforce of 540 people.
In technical roles, 4.8% of Slack employees in the U.S. are African American and 6.7% are Hispanic and in management roles 5.3% are African American and 5.3% are Hispanic.