If Silicon Valley embraces diversity, the geeks shall inherit the Earth

8 May 2017

Hearts in San Francisco, the annual public art installation project started in 2004 by the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation. Image: Alfred Sonsalla/Shutterstock

Only by truly embracing diversity in every form will Silicon Valley and the global tech industry make its smartest decisions ever, writes John Kennedy.

The headline for this week’s column was going to read: ‘Has the revenge of the nerds gone too far?’. It was meant to be a rant sparked by my outrage upon reading a story recently about how a Twitter employee, a man in his 40s, was finding it hard to make ends meet on his plum $160,000 a year salary. There is a word we reserve in Ireland for such people that I won’t print here. It starts with a ‘g’.

I was going to tear into the entitled nature of the tech industry; how the nerds, in many cases, became the jocks they despised, separated by velvet ropes in quarantined VIP sections, far removed from the realities of life, bolstered by free food, gym memberships, complimentary dry cleaning, stock options and, to their shame, an unresolved gender bias.

‘By limiting women in technology, we are limiting ourselves to only half of the world’s solutions’

I was going to point out the tech industry’s self-absorption and its many blind sides.

I was going to point out that if you feel poor on a six-figure salary, imagine how truly poor you are if you fail to embrace diversity in all of its forms.

I was going to point out that the tech industry that was devastated by the 2000 dot-com bust had rose again like a phoenix from the ashes but lost some of its humanity because, on the streets of San Francisco (the epicentre of tech), mentally ill and homeless people still roam uncared for, while oblivious and preoccupied engineers cradling coffee cups and laptops step onto air-conditioned buses with free Wi-Fi.

I was going to point out how after the crash, I knew the industry would return to growth because innovation has its own velocity and always will.

I was going to point out the seemingly unstoppable velocity of the tech industry right now; how the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google/Alphabet) are together worth $250bn more than they were just four months ago, which, as The Guardian pointed out recently, is about the same as the annual GDP of countries such as Venezuela, Pakistan and Ireland. Apple alone has a war chest worth more than $200bn and could buy Twitter or Netflix on a whim. Combined, the FANG four are now valued on Wall Street at $1.5trn, roughly the same size as the economy of Russia.

I was going to point out how ‘culture’ is a word that is bandied about by senior executives who have little understanding of its true meaning, and how the tech industry is losing valuable employees because of a kind of Lord of the Flies environment that has arisen. This is manifesting itself in work environments where unfair people management practices, stereotyping, bullying, ageism and sexual harassment are taking their toll. According to the Kapor Center for Social Impact’s Tech Leavers Study, this is a $16bn-a-year problem for the industry.

I was going to point out the sexist nature of venture capital (VC), where less than 6pc of partners in Silicon Valley VC firms are women, resulting in a corresponding dearth of investment in women-led tech companies because white male VC executives will only invest money in people who look and sound like themselves. The statistic is also true for racial minorities.

I was going to point out that maybe the tech industry drank too much of its own Kool-Aid and is blind to the realities around it, contributing to gentrification and the loss of some cities’ souls, consumed by its own lust for more human capital and trinkets in the shape of hipster office spaces, wood-fire pizza ovens and loads of dosh only to feed more meat into the grinder.

I was going to ask why the biggest CEOs of the biggest tech companies on the planet allowed themselves to sit around the table with US president Donald Trump and his children on equal terms just before he took office. That picture will forever be burned into my mind. Why, why, why?

And all of that because of some guy on a six-figure salary who couldn’t make ends meet because he was living in tragically gentrified San Francisco, a city that has lost its sweet soul and that has pushed out its once vibrant, artistic community to make room for the techies.

I was livid about a lot of stuff, fuelled by my suspicions of what the tech industry is in danger of becoming if it doesn’t catch hold of itself, wake up and smell the coffee.

Diversity is the heart of the problem and the solution that I see. There isn’t just a blind side – there are lots of blind sides.

Be the change you want to see in the world

Just before I was about to embark on my blistering rant, I learned about the Kang sisters in Silicon Valley, and I remembered something else that that deputy city manager of the city of San Jose, Kim Walesh, told me six years ago about the multicultural diversity of Silicon Valley making the industry there what it is.

And that multicultural diversity – the unique key to creating global products – is now being threatened by President Trump and his advisers.

‘When you don’t have the ability as a company to put yourself in their shoes, you’re not going to be able to produce a great product’

Rather than direct my rage at the tech industry and its crass contradictions, I carefully put my toys back in the pram.

I realised that the tech industry and the innovative spirit of Silicon Valley is stuck in a bitter fight for survival. The industry is so blind, it doesn’t see that embracing diversity in all its forms is the silver bullet to win in this battle.

In a Quartz video, Dawoon Kang, an immigrant from Korea, said she makes a point of hiring other immigrants such as herself for her Silicon Valley company and that her workforce is 50pc male and 50pc female.

Kang was responding to remarks made by President Trump’s adviser, Steve Bannon, who said that three-quarters of executives in Silicon Valley were Asian and that having too many Asian CEOs undermines civic society.

Let’s not forget that the CEOs of Google (Sundar Pichai) and Microsoft (Satya Nadella) are from India.

Bannon is incorrect and he exaggerates. We’ll call his version of events ‘alternative facts’.

According to the Quartz report, Asian executives actually make up 14pc of executives at Silicon Valley’s major companies, while 5.9pc are black or Hispanic. 80pc of senior executives are white. Across the Silicon Valley workforce, Asian people make up 27.2pc of Silicon Valley’s workforce, while 10.7pc are black or Hispanic. 62.2pc are white.

Kang pointed out that Bannon’s idea of a ‘civic society’ is bad for business.

“As founder of a dating app that serves all kinds of people, it is very important that our employees kind of mirror that diversity of the people we serve.”

Kang started her company, Coffee Meets Bagel, with her two sisters, Soo and Arum, and it is one of the most popular dating apps in the US, up there with Tinder and OkCupid. Businessman Mark Cuban offered to buy their company for $30m.

According to Kang, you are never going to be exposed to diversity unless there is diversity all around you and there’s somebody there to remind you, ‘Hey, this is my perspective, this is your perspective’.

She explained that she doesn’t see how any tech company could ever succeed with Bannon’s mindset.

And she pointed out something else for tech companies themselves to understand: in the future, your products will only be successful if they are a reflection of the diversity of your workforce.

“It’s so important for Silicon Valley to have this diverse representation because we actually service people in a global manner. But when you don’t understand what your customers want and what their lifestyle is like, what their preference is like; when you don’t have the ability as a company to put yourself in their shoes, you’re not going to be able to produce a great product.

“And that is the easiest [thing] when you have those people represented in your company. I think it’s a no-brainer, it’s very much a business decision that I think is smart.”

In 2011, Walesh was in Dublin to attend an ITLG (Irish Technology Leadership Group) Summit and, in an interview with myself, she made it clear that cultural variety is a key ingredient behind Silicon Valley’s success.

“It’s about globally connected talent. It is clear that Silicon Valley has benefited from entrepreneurial people from around the US and the world, and by being open and welcoming of people from other places.

“San Jose is the most international city in the US and the world. Some 40pc of people in San Jose were born in another country. One-third of the population is Asian, one-third Latino and one-third Anglo. Over 50pc of the engineers and technologists and founders were born in another country.”

On his last visit to Dublin, Apple CEO Tim Cook made it very clear that he believes diversity leads to better products. He pointed out that Apple’s Cork plant – which is growing to 6,000 people – is one of the most culturally diverse offices on the planet, with people from 80 countries working there.

If Silicon Valley really wants to defend itself against the repercussions of the bad advice President Trump is getting, then first it needs to solve its own problems: eradicate ‘bro culture’, defeat sexism and unfair work environments and, ultimately, embrace the unique magic it still has as a global magnet for talent.

Silicon Valley’s blind side

Silicon Valley needs to listen to people such as Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls Code, who told the first Inspirefest in Dublin two years ago: “By limiting women in technology, we are limiting ourselves to only half of the world’s solutions.”

What always impressed me about Silicon Valley was its multicultural diversity and relentless optimism. What disappointed me was its blind side, especially in relation to women’s rights, and the chaos and poverty on the streets surrounding it.

It is not so much about what Silicon Valley has become, or the danger of what it could become, but the opportunity that it and the rest of the tech world can attain by embracing diversity.

And now Donald Trump has that diversity in his sights, with plans to roll out strict and near-impossible criteria for overseas workers to get work visas.

For countries and digital hubs in cities to succeed and create global products, we need more and more diversity of people, sex, age and culture.

Nail diversity, you nail the bullies.

Hearts in San Francisco. Image: Alfred Sonsalla/Shutterstock

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years