It was my first year at Accenture and I was in one of our typical all-day, all-night war room design sessions. One of the senior managers in the room looked my way and asked, “Why do you wear a purple shirt like that? You know we’re not in Mexico right? Is it because you are going clubbing tonight?”
I heard comments like this throughout my six years there. As a Latino, the blue button-down, khaki pants, penny loafers look wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong; I really wished it were! I bought the corporate uniform and tried it for a while. I wanted to fit in. As the only Latino in the room 99% of the time, I wanted to blend in with the people I was working with. But I just wasn’t very comfortable in my own skin when I dressed like they did, so I decided I would just do me and hope for the best. This led to many comments about how I dressed or what I looked like. I had nicknames like “Jose” and “Pedro.” Almost every request from a manager ended with, “Mucha gracias,” when clearly this was their entire Spanish vocabulary.
It’s been like this for 20 years. Just a couple of months ago, I was at an event in Chicago answering a question about the future of schools. When I was done, the panelist next to me said, “Wow, you are so articulate and well-spoken.” I know he meant it as a compliment, but what was he expecting? I am the Global Education Evangelist for Google. I am the face and voice for Google education. What could have been the level of expectation he had for me?
The Perfect Storm
Although I don’t code, I've been involved in the tech space since 1995. At Accenture I was part of the organizational development team in the electronics and high tech industry group. I worked for organizations like American Express, Motorola, Seagate and Sun Microsystems. Almost everyone in my professional network is in the tech space. I’m used to always being the only Latino in the room. I've spent the last nine years at Google, so it didn’t surprise me when I saw our diversity numbers—3% Latino, 2% Black. I was proud of the team for releasing the information.
Google of course is not alone. Only one in 14 technology folks in Silicon Valley is Black or Latino. In all, less than 5% of the teams at Google, Facebook, and Yahoo are Black or Latino. This extends into the management as well. I read an article highlighting that 11 of the 20 companies examined, including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and eBay, had no people of color on their Board of Directors. Of the 189 board members across those 20 companies, only three were Black and one was Latino. This isn’t just an issue with “old” tech companies; less than 2% of startup founders are Black or Latino.
These figures are a reflection of a larger issue: Only 13% of STEM degrees are held by Black or Latino workers. This is a somber statistic that impacts us today and in the future. By 2020, the United States will have 1.4 million computer science jobs, according to estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with only 400,000 computer scientists to fill them. By the year 2043, the United States will be a majority-minority country. My six-month-old daughter is in that generation. In 2013, there was a higher percentage of Latino high school graduates enrolled in college than non-Latino whites.
We have a perfect storm of concerns heading our way. The need for diversity in technology is not an altruistic matter. We are talking real commerce here. The companies that will endure are the ones that understand how diversity helps them stay relevant, more creative and profitable. The key element is how multiple perspectives help these organizations design products and services that appeal to a culturally diverse audience.
This is especially true in the edtech space. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up the majority of students in K-12. The need for intellectual and social diversity is critical. We need to increase the opportunities for those people of color near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, as their voice is critical when it comes to building solutions for their community.
A Leaky Pipeline
Diversity is not a tech industry issue alone. The problem starts long before the tech job posting goes live; it spans the entire pipeline.
As reported in many publications last year, there were three states where not a single female student took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science. In eight states, no Latino students took it. And in 11 states, no Black students took the test. In 2013, 30,000 students took the AP exam for computer science and less than 20% of those students were female, about 8% were Latino, and 3% were Black.
The problem starts before high school. We know there is an 18-month academic gap between rich kids and poor kids by the time they get to kindergarten. Most of the poor kids happen to be minorities. These students, who make up 40% of the K-12 population, are not only less likely to be prepared for kindergarten, they are less likely to graduate from high school or attend a great college. They are less likely to graduate from college and when they are in college, they are less likely to study computer science or any STEM field for that matter.
The statistic, which I wake up with every morning, is this: If you are a high potential low-income minority in the US, you have a 9% chance of graduating from college. Forty-five years ago it was 6%. At this rate we will be at 15% by the year 2105.
With these baffling facts, how would we ever manage to get high potential minorities into Google, Twitter, Yahoo, or any of the hundreds of tech startups?
We need to think differently about the whole pipeline, from what we do to make sure students of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds start their education on the right foot, to recruiting strategies at tech companies, to ensuring we create bias-free cultures in all our organizations. Just increasing the number of Black and Latinos who get interviews at tech companies and startups isn’t enough.
From the edtech industry side, startups can prioritize recruiting culturally and socioeconomically diverse folks to join the team. At the same time, these teams must be engaged with teachers and students, especially low-income minority students, to get their perspectives on the problem they are trying to solve with their products or services.
At the education level, much needs to be done. First, we need to teach our students real tech skills and build digital and technology leaders, not just consumers of technology. I’m not even talking about coding classes. I’m talking about teaching students to search, to vet, to make sense of information. (You can start here with some great material from us!)
Second, we need to build programming concepts (i.e., design thinking, conceptual modeling) into our curriculum and after-school activities. There are a growing group of organizations that are trying to address these issues through community-based, technology enabled education programs:
- CS First provides free, easy-to-use computer science enrichment materials that target and engage a diverse student population.
- Black Girls Code teaches young girls and pre-teens of color in-demand skills in technology and computer programming.
- Science Genius leverages hip hop pedagogy to engage urban youth and educators in STEM exploration.
- Hack the Hood connects youth to real-world consulting projects building websites for local businesses and nonprofits.
- Qeyno Labs harnesses the interests of high potential youth from low-opportunity settings through radically inclusive hackathons.
- Made with Code is an initiative designed to inspire millions of girls to experience the power of code.
Third, we need to provide as many opportunities as possible to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to engage with computer science and other STEM fields.
Finally, we cannot forget the most important stakeholder group: parents. They play a critical role in creating the demands and expectations for our students. The knowledge, skills, and abilities required for our modern-day economy require a lifelong learning mentality. Parents need to understand this and demand that their children are learning what they need to thrive in their future (and in my case, make sure my kids have a house I can move into when I am older.) Parents must drive the demand for building computer science and STEM skills and capabilities for their children. This is especially true in our poor communities.
I think my mother still believes the only way I will ever be successful when I grow up is to be a lawyer. I want to see parents in these communities talk about how their kid is going to grow up and be a biomedical engineer, an architectural engineering manager, an information research scientist, or an information security analyst.
When someone asks me if I want my kids to speak a second language (because you know, I speak Spanish) I respond with, “yes, Python.” Now, I just need to figure out how to get every Latino parent in the country to answer the same way!
If you want to learn more about this topic there are some great resources out there, including these well thought out posts:
- Equity, Diversity & Edtech, by Cameron White
- Tech's Gender and Race Gap Starts in High School, by Eleanor Barkhorn
- Hacking Tech's Diversity Problem, by Joan Williams
- The Diversity Issue in Tech Firms Starts Before the Recruiting Process, by Catherine Rampell
- How Cultural Differences Drive Diversity in Education Innovation, by Harman Singh