Tech Star Wants To Make Diversity Plug-And-Play For Silicon Valley

Nov 11, 2014
Originally published on November 11, 2014 11:11 am

Tristan Walker is successful by anyone's standards: He went to a top-notch prep school, graduated as valedictorian at college, went on to become a trader on Wall Street, earned an MBA at Stanford, and then helped to launch the location app Foursquare.

But what makes Walker so remarkable is that he is one of the few African-Americans to rise up the ranks in Silicon Valley.

Recently, the valley's biggest names revealed appalling workplace demographics, including dismal statistics on the number of African-Americans and Hispanics working in the higher levels of the industry.

Walker, founder and CEO of Walker & Co. Brands, is actively working to diversify Silicon Valley, as chronicled in a Fast Company article by J.J. McCorvey. Walker and McCorvey discussed the causes of Silicon Valley's diversity problem, and how to fix it, with Morning Edition.

Interview Highlights

On why there is a lack of diversity in Silicon Valley

Tristan Walker: I think in Silicon Valley we like to talk about two problems. There's the access problem, where they're not enough folks well networked into the Valley to get jobs in some of these larger companies. But I like to think a little bit more broadly about the awareness problem. I didn't have any idea about Silicon Valley until I moved out here six years ago to go to business school, and that's a problem. I think once that's fixed, I think a lot of Silicon Valley's problems will be fixed.

On whether there is explicit discrimination in Silicon Valley

Walker: I don't think that there is too much explicit bias in Silicon Valley, but there's quite a bit of implicit bias. When I think about our company and the type of diversity we want to bring about, we ask our investors things like, "Do you know any folks of color or a woman who might excel in this role?" before you think of other candidates. And that's led us to having a majority-minority team, a majority-woman team, and I think the more companies embrace fixing implicit bias over explicit, a lot will change.

J.J. McCorvey: There's just a lot of exclusionary practices that people are just not aware that they are in existence at their companies. For example, if you're looking to fill a position for a new engineer, you're relying on employee referrals as your sole means of recruiting. Well, if your company is already majority white, you're not going to get diverse candidates to fill that job.

On how recruiting methods can change

McCorvey: The fact that there are more diverse graduates in STEM who are not getting these jobs, I think, that points to the unconscious bias that is happening. When we talk about who you're going to when you're recruiting, the schools that you're going to, a lot of top tech companies go to specific schools when looking to fill positions. And what you see now happening is that Google, for example, is saying that they're broadening their search when recruiting graduates. They're starting to go to HBCUs — historically black colleges and universities — to fill positions. That should've been done.

On the problem with whiteboard interviews

Walker: So one of the things that was interesting for Code2040 (the nonprofit Walker founded) was our first summer, we had five fellows ... and at the end of their summer internships, they went to interview at a lot of large technology companies, and we noticed that there were a few companies that they weren't getting full-time offers from. For a lot of these interviews, these students had to do whiteboard interviews where you're asked an engineering question and you have to go to a whiteboard and solve it. One of the things that we found is that none of these fellows ever had experience doing that before. So it begs the question: Is there something wrong with the fellows? Probably not. Or is there something wrong with your interview process? Maybe.

On the importance of diversifying the tech industry

Walker: Here's why I think it's so incredibly important: the demographic shift happening in this country is the greatest economic opportunity in my lifetime. Increasingly, folks of color not only lead culture, but are some of the most important consumer demographic groups in the country, let alone the world. So, if you're a technology company at the bleeding edge of innovation, you really want to understand this consumer group better than anyone else. And if you look out 20, 30 years from now and folks of color are kind of the majority of the country, let's assume Facebook were built then, would it be Spanish language first or English first? Would it be Android first or iPhone first? You really have to start asking these questions, and the best way to really get at the core of these questions that need to be asked is to have these types of folks within your organization. So it's incredibly important, not just from the social perspective but also the bottom line.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Silicon Valley tech companies admit they have a problem. They've done a remarkably poor job employing a diverse workforce. Google's workforce is just 3 percent Latino and 2 percent black, far below the percentages in the population of course. Yahoo and Facebook are not so different. We'll hear next from one African-American who did succeed in Silicon Valley. Tristan Walker played a role at the company Foursquare - a major role. Later, he started his own firm based in Silicon Valley and started a nonprofit to encourage diverse hiring in the Valley. We caught up with Walker and J.J. McCorvey, who wrote about him in Fast Company. And here's how Walker diagnoses the problem.

TRISTAN WALKER: There's the access problem where there are not enough folks well-networked into the Valley to get jobs at some of these larger companies. But I like to think a little bit more broadly about the awareness problem, right. I didn't have any idea about Silicon Valley until I moved out here six years ago to go to business school, right. And that's a problem.

INSKEEP: Now, you just said awareness. Are you talking about people of color not being aware of the opportunities or companies not being aware of how badly they were doing until very recently.

WALKER: Both, particularly in my situation. I was born and raised in Queens, New York, you know, in humble beginnings. And, you know, I had one goal in life when I was young and that was to get as wealthy as possible as quickly as possible. You know, I realized that there were a couple of ways to do it. The first was to be an actor or an athlete, second was to work on Wall Street because I saw that there were archetypes to aspire to. But in Silicon Valley, there were none - no folks who look like me to show that I could do it.

INSKEEP: It is a little surprising, though, if you think about it for a moment, that tech companies would be doing so poorly because it's not like there is some traditional industry with a legacy workforce that has to be dealt with. And you're dealing with tech executives who have tentacles all around the world, who are thinking about different kinds of customers all around the world. You would've thought that this would've been on their radar screen a long time ago.

WALKER: One would think, but I don't think that there is too much explicit bias in Silicon Valley, but there's quite a bit of implicit bias. When I think about our company and the type of diversity we want to bring about, we ask our investors things like do you know any folks of color or women who might excel in this role before you think of other candidates? And I think the more and more companies embrace fixing implicit bias over explicit, a lot will change.

INSKEEP: J.J. McCorvey, you've spent a while covering this industry. What do executives tell you about what's going wrong here?

J.J. MCCORVEY: What I've been told is there are just a lot of exclusionary practices that people are just not aware that are in existence at their companies.

INSKEEP: We are seeing studies showing that there are increasing numbers of diverse graduates in tech-related fields, which suggests that people are out there. Are they not pointing themselves towards Silicon Valley at all?

MCCORVEY: What you see now happening is Google, for example, is now saying that they're broadening their search when recruiting graduates. You know, they're starting to go to HBCUs - historically black colleges and universities - to fill positions. You know, that should've been done.

WALKER: And this is a really important point, Steve, because I understand that there are some companies that just might not have the resources to go and recruit at the schools that aren't Stanford and aren't MIT and aren't Carnegie Melons. I have a not-for-profit organization that I'm a chairman of called CODE2040, and our goal is to help those organizations find some of the really great minority engineering talent out there. We find kids at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, right. We go all over the place to really help find these kids were they are and introduce them to Silicon Valley.

INSKEEP: Well, that's interesting, would you even say that no matter how fair-minded an executive is that he or she will have to work harder to get a diverse workforce than otherwise? That this is a special effort that needs to be made?

WALKER: I think so. I don't think this is a question of being well-intentioned or not, right. This is a question about making the extra effort. Increasingly, kind of folks of color not only lead culture, but are some of the most important consumer demographic groups in the country, let alone the world. So if you're a technology company at the bleeding edge of innovation, you really want to understand this consumer group better than anyone else. And if you kind of look out 20, 30 years from now, when folks of color are the majority of the country, let's assume Facebook were kind of built then. Would it be Spanish-language first or English first? You really have to start asking these questions. And the best way to really kind of get at the core of what these questions that need to be asked are is to have these types of folks within your organization. So it's incredibly important not only from a social perspective, but also the bottom line.

INSKEEP: Tristan Walker and J.J. McCorvey, thanks to both of you.

WALKER: Thank you, Steve.

MCCORVEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.