Silicon Valley Diversity: Why Innovating With People Is As Important As Innovating With Technology

Silicon Valley Diversity: Why Innovating With People Is As Important As Innovating With Technology

In the inaugural episode of Bay Area-based HBO comedy Silicon Valley, now in its second season, the CEO of Hooli (think: fictional Google GOOGL -0.26%) Gavin Belson stands in his sprawling, high-rise office with his spiritual advisor and peers out across the quad. “It’s weird,” he muses as he watches his staff mill about, “They always travel in groups of five, these programmers. There’s always a tall, skinny white guy; a short, skinny Asian guy; a fat guy with a ponytail; some guy with crazy facial hair; and then an East-Indian guy.” His guru replies, “You clearly have a great understanding of humanity.”

The scene elicits a wince if not a chuckle, especially in light of recent allegations of gender and racial discrimination at high-profile Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, Reddit and Tinder. Indeed, after only a cursory peek at these and other leading tech companies’ diversity numbers, Silicon Valley doesn’t seem so fictional. Twitter’s tech division is 90% male and 92% white and Asian. The company’s overall staff is 70% male and 78% white and Asian. Google’s tech division is 83% male and 94% white and Asian, with an overall staff that is 70% male and 91% white and Asian. Facebook and Apple AAPL +0.12% are not far behind, and a glance at the leadership pages of any one of these companies (here, here, here, or here) proves less than heartening. What’s with the absence of estrogen and melanin?

When Twitter TWTR +0.22% filed to go public in October of 2013, Indian-American legal wizard Vijaya Gadde had been on the company’s executive management team as general counsel for only a few weeks. She replaced Alex Macgillivray to become the only woman in leadership at Twitter, among five male executive officers and six male board members. That December, after considerable public backlash, the social networking company also appointed Pearson veteran Marjorie Scardino to its board of directors, decisively resolving the “diversity issue” for only a few. Later asked to comment on the scarcity of women in tech, Gadde told Fortune, “All tech companies need women. But I’m a big believer in only putting women in these positions only if they deserve them.”

Most people share Gadde’s sentiment, though it is disputed whether all job and promotion candidates are actually measured against so noble a standard (the infamous Merit Metric) or if male white and Asian applicants generally get more grace at the end of the day. Indeed, such suspicion seems justified given findings published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2003 and The Journal of Labor Economics in 2008 that ethnic-sounding names tend to receive 50% fewer callbacks than white-sounding names, even when resumes are identical. In a similar study by Yale in 2013, researchers discovered that reviewing scientists perceived female STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) faculty applicants as less competent, “hireable” and capable of mentorship than male applicants with identical applications, recommending $4,000 more per year, on average, for male applicants. So, is the issue really a deficit of qualified, diverse tech engineers? Or is it something else?

“The diversity deficit is not as large as some people want to make it out to be,” asserts Jonecia Keels. Keels obtained her B.S. in Computer Science from Spelman, a historically black college and university (HBCU), and currently works as an iOS software engineer at Apple. Despite graduate-level robotics experience, a dossier of multiple iOS apps and skill as a part-time iOS developer, she reports she did not get an internship offer from any major tech companies until after she completed her engineering degree at Columbia. “Some of the larger companies only recruit at certain schools like Stanford, Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, et cetera.” HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) aren’t even on their radars, says Keels.

Iheanyi Ekechukwu, a Notre Dame alumnus who works for IBM Watson as a full stack developer, agrees. “There is a lack of diverse-minded people. With societies like the Society for Women Engineers and the National Society for Black Engineers, there’s plenty of opportunity to reach into these diverse talent pools.” Ekechukwu says tech companies could also make efforts by joining partnerships like CODE2040, which helps secure internships for underrepresented minorities, with a special focus on black and Latino/a engineering talent.

But bigger than the question of diverse talent, perhaps, is the question of diversity’s inherent value. Why should diversity matter to companies in the tech industry? Keels’s former professor of humanoid robotics at Spelman, Dr. Andrew Williams, offered a compelling response during his presentation last fall at a TEDx event in Milwaukee, “Science, technology, engineering and math are defined by the nature of the relationships between their subject matter concepts and the resulting creations. But what happens in a society that limits the boundaries of these relationships by limiting who belongs?” Steve Jobs handpicked Williams in 2008 to become Apple’s first senior engineering diversity manager, working for a year, Williams says, “to innovate with people and not just with technology.” Jobs told WIRED Magazine in 1996 that, “Creativity is just connecting things,” but Williams adds, “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences, so they don’t have enough dots to connect. They come up with very linear solutions without a broader perspective on the problem.”

The guru apparently gets it wrong in that first episode of Silicon Valley. How can tech companies boast a “great understanding of humanity” when they fail to forge an environment reflective of the real world? “You know the saying, ‘two heads are better than one?’” Keels asks, “The same goes when innovating; multiple backgrounds and perspectives are better than one. How can you best serve everyone if you’re only looking through one lens?”