05 May Van Jones on How Big Tech’s Diversity Problem Hurts Big Tech
A few years ago, the internet took note of an automatic soap dispenser that refused to provide soap to black people. The sensors just didn’t seem to recognize dark skin, thus rendering the dispensers unusable by a good portion of the general population.
This shortcoming was, of course, frustrating for people of color in need of soap, but it doesn’t help the manufacturer, either. If you were a business in need of new soap dispensers for your public restrooms, would you choose the ones that wouldn’t work for all of your clientele?
I’m sure the manufacturer didn’t set out to create a racist soap dispenser. However, this flaw perfectly exemplifies how a homogenous workforce hurts product quality (and therefore, the employer’s economic well-being). The problem most likely stemmed from the fact that engineers developing these sensors shared similar backgrounds (and complexions) and didn’t realize the sensors wouldn’t work for everyone. It’s not that these engineers were bad at their job, but their lack of diversity inevitably lead to a bad product.
“You don’t know what you don’t know. The reason you want diversity is not just because you want to make Dr. King proud or you don’t want to get sued, it’s because often demographic diversity is a stand-in for cognitive diversity, viewpoint diversity, lifestyle diversity,” explains CNN pundit and The Dream Corps founder, Van Jones.
The Corps’ #YesWeCode initiative is working to create new pipelines of tech workers from low-income communities directly into Silicon Valley. While many similarly minded initiatives focus on the good that diversity can provide to underrepresented populations (and they will; coding is a dependable and often lucrative skill to have), it will also benefit the companies that recruit them.
“Some problems out there would make someone billions of dollars if they could solve it, but the person with the problem doesn’t have the tools, the training, and technology to fix the problem; and the person with the tools, training, and technology doesn’t have the problem,” he explains. “We aren’t just wasting genius, we are leaving billions of dollars on the table.”