TO GET A sense of diversity in tech, take a stroll on University Avenue in Palo Alto, a city at the heart of Silicon Valley. Before the pandemic, if you encountered a black person, the chances were they worked in a local shop. African-Americans account for 3% of workers at America’s five biggest technology firms (see chart) and probably less at smaller ones. About one in 50 partners at venture-capital (VC) firms is black. The figure among VC-financed entrepreneurs is one in 100. Such dismal numbers, and Silicon Valley’s meritocratic pretensions, help explain why tech’s response to the killing of George Floyd has been louder even than other industries’. Will outrage lead to lasting change?
Pushed by a left-leaning workforce, big tech now regularly takes an activist stance on important issues, from immigration to the pandemic. Yet even by these standards, the reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests has been remarkable. Firms offered donations to race-related charities, set up funds to finance startups by non-white founders, stopped selling controversial technologies such as facial recognition and vowed to purge their software of racist language. Apple and YouTube (part of Google) each pledged $100m to combat racism with educational schemes and support for black artists. On June 17th Google said it would raise the share of “under-represented groups” in leadership by 30% by 2025.
Yet corporate activism will amount to little if tech firms and their financiers do not change how they operate, says Sydney Sykes, co-founder of BLCK VC, a group on a mission to swell the ranks of black venture capitalists in America. Companies must make more of an effort to promote and retain minority employees. VC firms have to examine why they often reject pitches by minority entrepreneurs; a simple “just can’t get excited about this” is no longer enough. They should also broaden their professional networks beyond the usual lily-white crowd, argues Elliott Robinson of Bessemer Venture Partners, a big VC firm.
Since diversity, particularly on gender, became a hot topic in the tech industry a few years ago, progress has been slow. But Ms Sykes believes things will speed up now. Customers and employees want it. And the firms have started to twig that lofty statements and charity do not suffice. Facebook’s chief diversity officer, Maxine Williams, now reports directly to Sheryl Sandberg, the firm’s number two (though not to its boss, as some would like). At Reddit, a popular discussion website, a white co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, stepped down from the board to make way for a black replacement, Michael Seibel, boss of Y Combinator, a startup school. On June 17th Apple said it would replace its diversity chief.
Mr Robinson has long lamented the tech industry’s “diversity theatre”: grand statements followed by little action. But even he is somewhat hopeful. Thanks to smartphones, he says, whites can see for themselves how black people are treated—and want it to stop. He knows all too well: he has been forcibly restrained by police three times in his life, for no reason other than the colour of his skin. The last time was not far from University Avenue.■
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Beyond the pale”