Jesse Jackson and Anil Dash Call Out Tech to Embrace More Diversity
In a fireside chat on Wednesday, the founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the CEO of ThinkUp voiced their wishes to see the technology scene be more inclusive.
Civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson sat down with entrepreneur Anil Dash for the session at the Social Media Week conference in New York. Each has previously called attention to the topic, and they share a desire to see the demographics of professionals in technology closer reflect the population at large.
This is part of the broader discussion taking place these days about increasing gender and ethnic diversity in the technology scene. Those efforts includes startups such as PowerToFly, which helps women find tech jobs they can do remotely, and organizations such as Girls Who Code who are eager to bring about change—though it may be slow in coming and hard to make stick.
As the country revels in the strength and wealth of its tech companies, Dash said the industry’s workforce has few African-Americans—even less so in management roles. As consumers and users of technology though, minorities seem eager to purchase smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets, he said.
Calling for change, Jackson described the scarce presence of minorities in the tech industry as a systemic issue. “These are patterns of cultural and political exclusion,” he said.
Jackson asserted that a lack of access to education and capital had locked many minorities out of the infrastructure of technology production. “This limits our capacity to grow as a nation,” he said.
“So there’s some innovation that Apple, Google, and Facebook are not tapping into because they’re not letting everybody participate?” Dash asked.
Establishing more schools dedicated to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), Jackson said, could increase access to tech-focused education across the country.
Furthermore, he said the Rainbow PUSH Coalition wants to see houses of worship get involved in teaching their congregations about computer science. “We’re trying to get 1,000 churches to use some of that Sunday school space that’s not used except for once a week,” Jackson said. Other organizations are taking similar action, including a church in Detroit that offers computer training within its walls.
Wanting to put employment demographics in the spotlight, Jackson said his organization requested EEO-1 reports from tech companies. Many employers must file the reports with the Department of Labor, giving headcounts on their employees by job role, gender, and ethnicity. Jackson said he got pushback from some Silicon Valley companies when he wanted a look at that data.
“These are federally required reports for publicly traded companies, about the makeup of their employees, and the companies were not providing them?” Dash asked.
The companies said they did not want to share that information, Jackson explained, to protect their competitive edge. That led to a legal fight to keep such documents private. “They won the right not to share the data,” he said. Rainbow PUSH responded by raising questions about diversity during shareholder meetings for companies such as Microsoft.
There are efforts by some tech companies to bring about change, Jackson said, citing Intel’s pledge to commit some $300 million to make its workforce more representative of the population by 2020. That plan includes hiring more women and minorities for jobs as computer scientists and engineers at the company.
However, Jackson said there is more work ahead, and he believes innovators in Silicon Valley can make greater inroads on hiring diversity. “Let’s dispel the myth that something that is so different doesn’t fit,” he said. “It’s not a talent deficit; it’s an opportunity deficit.”
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