Increasing African-American inclusion in tech

Increasing African-American inclusion in tech

On July 26, 1948, Missouri’s first and only president, Harry S. Truman, issued Executive Order 9981: an order that required “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”

Astonishingly, Executive Order 9981 was issued a decade-and-a-half before the momentous Civil Rights Act of 1964. Truman’s order was fiercely opposed by members of his own party, and by millions of Americans; in fact, Truman issued an executive order because he knew that a civil rights bill could not muster the hostilities of Congress. His decision was risky, and, ultimately, Truman’s pro civil-rights actions drove many Dixiecrats away from the Democratic Party. However, Truman understood that without healthy minority participation he could not guarantee the complete strength of the American armed forces.

While Truman’s actions are best described as a civil rights approach, rather than a diversity initiative, his actions exemplify an esteemed organizational model: evenhandedness for the individual and soundness of the organization. Organizations benefit from full participation and diversity; whether in ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, etc. TECH2020 is an initiative of the Congressional Black Caucus that resolves to bring together the best minds in tech, non-profit, education and public sectors to increase African-American inclusion at all levels of the technology industry by the year 2020. As a task force member of TECH2020, it is clear to me that America’s respected tech industries could improve by simply following President Truman’s leadership.
For starters, tech organizations need bodies that underrepresented populations are keen to provide. According to the Level Playing Field Institute, there will be 1.4 million new American tech jobs awaiting college graduates by the year 2020. However, at the rate that American universities are producing qualified graduates for these roles, 70 percent – or 1 million – quality tech jobs will remain unfilled. While it is evident that we need to improve science, technology, engineering, and math training for all American students, it is also evident that certain populations are painfully underutilized.

Data from Silicon Valley reveals that African-Americans represent 2 percent or less of the workforce of most of the tech companies. The disturbing lack of diversity at Twitter at all levels of the company is troubling; especially considering that 27 percent of African-Americans used Twitter in 2014. Even though African-Americans account for more than a quarter of Twitter’s user base, African-Americans represent a mere 2 percent of its US workforce. Leslie Miley, Twitter’s only African-American engineering manager, resigned before publishing a public blog post citing Twitter’s lack of substantive diversity improvements as a motivation for leaving. Although frustrating for many parties, we know that diversity numbers can be improved.

In fact, many of the least diverse companies appear to be some of the most committed to progress. Google has been working with historically black colleges and universities to elevate coursework and attendance in computer science, while Apple recently pledged $100 million to President Obama’s ConnectED initiative to bring cutting edge technologies to economically disadvantaged schools. Last August, Twitter’s Vice-President of Diversity and Inclusion announced that Twitter plans to increase underrepresented minorities company-wide by refining recruiting and hiring practices.

The commitment of a number of tech companies to advance diversity numbers is both commendable and smart. Diversity is not just a valuable means of labor supply – it is critical to innovation, creativity, and the overall health of an organization. Recent McKinsey & Company research finds that racially diverse companies outperform industry norms by 35 percent. More diverse companies are better able to “win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing return”. University of Michigan economics professor Scott E. Page compliments the findings of McKinsey & Company by noting that “diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster and better ways of solving it … breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people”; in other words, variety in staffing produces organizational strengths.

As a public servant, it is my job to aid business and our diverse communities. I proudly serve as a Congressional Black Caucus task force member for TECH2020. I believe the relationship between the tech industry and diverse populations, such as the African-American community, are symbiotic. Promoting diversity in the tech industry is both beneficial and fair to individuals, and strengthens organizations as well. In 2016, we don’t need Truman style presidential courage to promote diversity and inclusion – just common sense. #Tech2020


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