Diversity tops agenda in high-tech

Diversity tops agenda in high-tech

SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft on Wednesday held its annual meeting for shareholders, the first for Satya Nadella as CEO.

But he and company leaders only fleetingly addressed the technology giant’s business strategy.

Topping the agenda instead: diversity.

Seated in the second row next to Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s former CEO and the company’s largest individual shareholder, was civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.

Jackson met privately with Nadella this week. And during the question-and-answer session before 400 shareholders, Jackson urged Microsoft to hire and promote more women and minorities.

“The tech industry is data driven,” Jackson said. “And the diversity and inclusion data are indisputable and undeniable: The leadership and workforce of the technology industry does not look like America or reflect the population and consumers that it relies upon for success.”

Nadella assured Jackson that closing the racial and gender gap is important to Microsoft and pledged to release more detailed information on the diversity of Microsoft’s work force by the end of the month.

After years of downplaying the issue, momentum is gathering in the tech industry to address the paucity of women and people of color, Jackson said.

Microsoft’s willingness to work toward more inclusion “signals to the rest of the industry that there is no reason to be afraid of our challenge to them to grow,” Jackson said in an interview.

Recent data from top technology companies show most of their employees are white and Asian men.

Silicon Valley has pledged to make diversity a priority as companies attempt to serve an increasingly diverse and global consumer base.

Microsoft’s chairman John Thompson is African American, its CEO Nadella is Indian-born and the company’s chief financial officer, Amy Hood, is a woman.

But the company, like others in the tech industry, is 61% white and 71% male.

Nadella launched a diversity effort in October after making controversial remarks at a technology conference for women that set off an international firestorm.

During an onstage interview at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, Nadella said women should not ask for a pay raise but trust that “karma” will reward them. He later apologized for the remarks.

The topic of diversity will be front and center again in Silicon Valley next week when Jackson and Rainbow PUSH Coalition hold a diversity forum at Intel’s headquarters.

And Y Combinator stepped up its efforts to recruit more blacks and Hispanics on Wednesday, telling USA TODAY it had named its first black partner: Silicon Valley entrepreneur Michael Seibel.

Y Combinator is high-tech’s most famous — and most influential — incubator, graduating companies such as Airbnb and Dropbox that have grown into household names.

Sam Altman, who took over as president of Y Combinator in February, has been pushing to recruit entrepreneurs from more diverse backgrounds.

Of the entrepreneurs in Y Combinator’s winter class, 7% are either black or Hispanic, the most of any previous Y Combinator class. Altman says he wants to see those numbers go up.

Y Combinator is addressing a major barrier to entry for underrepresented minorities in Silicon Valley: Gaining access to venture capital and the experience and connections of high-profile investors.

A report in 2010 by CB Insights found that fewer than 1% of venture capital-backed Internet companies were founded by African Americans.

“I wish that all other venture funders thought about this the way we do,” Altman said. “In the meantime, we have this incredible competitive advantage because no one else is doing this.”


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