Silicon Valley is trying to diversify, but strategies still lag

On the Washington, D.C., campus of Howard University, Silicon Valley is an ever-growing presence.

The engineering school’s new Yahoo Data Center was christened such after a donation from the Sunnyvale Internet firm. Google’s fingerprints are all over the school’s computer science curriculum, which was redesigned with help from a “Googler-in-Residence” installed on campus. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg began the college iteration of her LeanIn movement there in fall 2013, and her company held an aggressive on-campus recruitment drive last year.

There’s been so much outside interest that the school is planning its own tech-focused career fair next month, with slots for up to 75 companies.

Howard is one of many historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) at which Silicon Valley establishments have stepped up their game. Last fall, the Googler-in-Residence initiative began at Fisk, Morehouse, Spelman and Hampton. Facebook paid visits to those schools and others. Apple is in talks with several schools.

As pressure to diversify the largely white, male ranks of Silicon Valley has intensified, the nation’s most elite historically black schools have found their talent in increasing demand — 35 percent of all bachelors degrees in computer science earned by black men and women are awarded by HBCUs.

“Companies are very interested in coming to Howard when they think about diversifying,” university president Wayne Frederick said.

But those efforts still lag — lacking the robust workforce training programs crucial to the success of previous corporate diversification programs and largely failing to target Latino university populations altogether.

Silicon Valley’s recent efforts recall the early days of affirmative action, in which recruitment at black universities was a key component of the new corporate equal opportunity programs.

Major corporate diversity programs started after President John F. Kennedy issued a 1961 executive order implementing affirmative action for all companies with government contracts. In 1963, Nashville’s Fisk College had just 11 company recruiter visits. The next year, it had 58.

“By 1965, America’s historically black colleges faced an onslaught of recruiters,” Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin wrote in his book “Inventing Equal Opportunity.”

But as the tech industry grew, it was slow to diversify. In 1998, long after recruiting at black colleges had become a standard component of corporate diversity initiatives, an Intel spokesperson told The Chronicle that the company had “never sent a recruiting team to a historically black college.”

“The philosophy,” the spokesperson said, “has been we tend to recruit from the best of the best.”

Last week, Intel pledged to spend $300 million to diversify its workforce within five years. But at a conference earlier this year, the company’s diversity head Rosalind Hudnell admitted it has taken Intel a long time to make only a little progress. Its workforce today is 8 percent black and 4 percent Latino, while the total Bay Area workforce in 2013 was 11 percent black and 16 percent Latino.

“It has taken them a decade and a half to come up with anything that seems strategic,” said David Thomas, chair of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “That speaks to the timidness of the industry.”

So far, Silicon Valley’s diversity initiatives have focused on recruitment, not job training, which has historically been key in hiring and retaining more black, Latino and female employees. In the early 1960s, Pacific Telephone in California offered employees training in work-related skills, as well as things such as basic math and English, said Dobbin. Later, efforts at Bell Labs and IBM brought more minority candidates into management positions.

“Companies like IBM and Bell Labs did make a huge investment,” said Freada Kapor Klein, founder of The Level Playing Field Institute, which helps minority applicants find jobs in tech. “They found talented kids, and they made sure they were prepared to succeed. We don’t have anything like that now, and it’s a big leak in the pipeline.”

Companies also adjusted job requirements. For example, some employers forgave poor high school records or exam scores if a candidate displayed aptitude, recognizing that for economically disadvantaged candidates such measures might not accurately reflect potential. Dobbins points out that some even encouraged overlooking police records, since they could reflect police discrimination.

Today’s Silicon Valley firms have proved less inclined to hire candidates who don’t fit an exact job description. When Google realized students at historically black colleges lacked the skills it sought in engineers, the company did not offer job training to help those applicants get up to Silicon Valley speed. Instead, the company partnered with the schools to revamp their curriculum. (Google said it eventually plans to start a pilot program that gives recent grads on-the-job training in software engineering.)

Dobbins said that when studying Silicon Valley job listings he was struck by the list of specific programming languages required of software engineering candidates.

“There tends to be a barrier to entry if you don’t know these specific languages,” he said. “It would make sense to train people. But its part of the culture that you’re supposed to know the hot languages and train yourself.”

While Silicon Valley has begun to develop relationships with historically black schools, few similar efforts have been made at Hispanic Serving Institutions, a federal designation for colleges with 25 percent or more Hispanic students.

John Moder, chief operating officer of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, said his schools have had a difficult time striking up relationships with tech companies, despite the fact that many are in Silicon Valley’s home state. Nearly 22 percent of engineering students at UC Santa Cruz identify as either Hispanic or Latino, but no tech companies have ever reached out to the school’s Multicultural Engineering Program, said its director.

An average of about 2 percent of technical workers at 11 large tech companies that recently released employment data are black and 3 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino. Last year, 4.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science from prestigious universities were awarded to black students, and 6.5 percent were awarded to Hispanic students, according to data from the Computing Research Association.

While job-training programs cost time and money, targeted recruiting at specific schools is a tried-and-true corporate tradition. “These special recruitment programs aren’t really special, in a sense,” Dobbin said. “The companies that use them have recruited white men at Ivy League schools since the 1920s.”

For Silicon Valley companies, he said, the question is “whether they recruit in a way that systematically prevents the hiring of African Americans and Latinos.”


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