SAN FRANCISCO — Members of the Congressional Black Caucus flew to Silicon Valley this week to turn up the heat on the nation’s largest tech companies to hire more African Americans.
Caucus members met with Apple’s Tim Cook and Intel’s Brian Krzanich as well as executives from Google, Pandora and SAP to discuss how technology companies plan to fix their troubling hiring record.
Leading the tour was Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who called the dearth of African Americans in Silicon Valley just miles from her home district a “shameful lack of diversity.” She said improving the diversity of the tech industry is a moral as well as a business and economic imperative.
“Issues around inclusion and diversity are not only important for communities of color and for the African American community, but they are important for the country,” Lee said in an interview. “African Americans are a huge untapped resource. They want to work in the tech industry and contribute to the future of our nation and the planet.”
Joining Lee was the caucus’ chairman G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.
Said Butterfield of the tech companies with whom they met: “All of them are deficient” on diversity.
The three members of the black caucus said they received different commitments from each of the companies but that all pledged to improve diversity in coming years.
In May the caucus launched the Tech 2020 initiative, a campaign to boost recruitment of African Americans in the tech industry over the next five years.
“The Congressional Black Caucus has come to Silicon Valley to work with the tech companies not against them,” Jeffries said. “Innovation is a tremendous engine of growth and opportunity that will continue to be a very important part of our 21st century economy. That is why it’s important that these opportunities be available to all Americans regardless of race or color. But the numbers speak for themselves, and we understand that these opportunities have largely been unavailable to members of the African-American community. That must change.”
Major technology companies are predominantly staffed and run by white and Asian men. African Americans represent 2% or less of the work force at most of these companies.
Top universities turn out black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate that leading technology companies hire them, a USA TODAY analysis showed.
And it’s not just computer science: Minorities are also sharply underrepresented in non-technical jobs such as sales and administration, with African Americans faring noticeably worse than Hispanics, according to USA TODAY research.
“There are many, many positions that don’t require a technical background,” Lee said. “Part of what we suggested to some of these companies is that they look at hiring African-Amerians for these positions. That’s basic.”
Noting the lopsided demographics of tech companies, Lee challenged them to root out unconscious bias.
“We have to make sure that those biases don’t become institutionalized in these businesses and these industries,” she said.
Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson has been pressing tech companies to make their hiring goals — and their timetables to reach those goals — public. Last week, Pinterest became the first major tech company to do it.
“What’s good for tech companies in terms of inclusion is what’s good for the country,” Lee said. “We want to work with these companies not against them. We are going to stay on top of this.”
Diversity in tech was the talk of Washington, D.C., too. The White House held its first Demo Day on Tuesday to showcase the nation’s diverse entrepreneurs.
In June, Megan Smith, the nation’s chief technology officer and a former Google executive, traveled to Silicon Valley to take part in a workshop to recruit more talent from underrepresented communities. Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama, accompanied Smith.
“As a nation, we are leaving top talent on the sidelines, and that is a mistake for American businesses in a globally competitive economy,” Jarrett and Smith wrote in a blog post on the White House website.
Tech companies, many of which have contracts with the federal government, are responding to Capitol Hill.
Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg met with caucus members during a trip to Washington. She posted on her Facebook page that she was grateful for the meeting and that Facebook “will build better products if we leverage the talents of the full population.”