This week, Twitter became the latest tech company to release numbers on the diversity of its workforce. And like Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook which have all released similar reports in recent months, Twitter’s technology employees skew heavily male and white.
Only ten percent of Twitter’s technology workforce are women, compared to seventeen percent at both Google and LinkedIn, and fifteen percent at Facebook. Meanwhile, 58 percent of its tech workers are white and 34 percent are Asian, while Latinos and African-Americans only make up 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively.
It’s easy to shake our heads in admonishment at Twitter, which certainly did itself no favors by publishing the dismal numbers just one minute before Facebook’s earnings release, as if nobody would notice. But not everybody’s content to stand on the sidelines of this fight.
Meet Kathryn Finney, the founder of digitalundivided which bills itself as “a social enterprise that develops programs that increase the active participation of urban communities, especially women, in the digital space.” This October, the organization will hold its third annual FOCUS tech conference in New York City where over 80 percent of the speakers, which this year will include FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and Facebook’s Global Diversity head Maxine Williams, are women and/or people of color.
And it’s more than just a collection of diverse voices — by facilitating connections and highlighting smart entrepreneurs, Finney says 30 percent of the 48 black female startup founders who participate in the annual FOCUS Fellows program have raised at least $50,000 in venture or angel funding. Ten percent have raised more than half a million. Meanwhile, only one percent of venture-backed startups are founded by African Americans, according to a widely-cited 2010 report.
We’ve written about digitalundivided before, but I wanted to catch up with Finney in the wake of Silicon Valley’s flurry of diversity disclosures, none of which inspire much confidence. Why are the numbers so bad?And what can companies like Twitter do to change these ratios?
“One of the questions is, ‘How many of us are applying?'” Finney says. “I would suspect that the pipeline in tech (for women and minorities) is moving toward Microsoft or more traditional tech companies. I don’t even know if we know we can apply to Twitter.”
Finney says one big reason for this is that the newer crop of Silicon Valley companies have a specific image associated with their marketing and corporate culture, and that it is very white and very male.
“Tech has a marketing problem,” Finney says. “One of the issues Twitter and these companies can [address] is they can look at their marketing campaign, reframing who’s tech and pushing and promoting those who are diverse.”
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she adds.
For Twitter’s part, it has participated in a number of initiatives to make tech culture more inviting to women, offering support to programs like Girls Who Code and Black Girls CODE. But the problem for women, particularly black women who Finney describes as “double-unicorns,” runs deeper than corporate culture.
“Many people that I’ve interacted within the tech space, particularly white men, never really talked to a black woman before,” Finney says. “Never held a conversation. It’s shocking.” She recounts a story of how a male colleague asked her if she had trouble related to other black women because she had an accountant.
“It was the first time in my life where the expectations were low of me. It’s very difficult once you’ve been an overachiever all your life.”
At our Southland conference, Tristan Walker of Walker and Company shared similar experiences. He spoke about the time a mortgage broker, whom Walker had only spoken to over the phone, assumed he was white because of his financial status. Walker also spoke about the challenges of convincing venture capitalists, most of whom are older white guys, of the opportunity for a product targeted at people of color.
Walker is optimistic that these “implicit biases” can be overcome, but Finney says she doesn’t have time to waste on people like that.
“Focus on the people who love you,” Finney says. “Focus on the twenty to thirty VCs who have actually written to check to an entrepreneur who is black,” citing firms like Andreessen Horowitz.* “You don’t have time for people who, for whatever reason, have their own personal hangups. Don’t focus on it. That’s not your goal to give them an education on race relations.”
Her final piece of advice for black women who are entrepreneurs, unsurprisingly, is to attend the FOCUS conference. But she also calls on men and non-minorities to come out.
“We have a wide diversity of people, and what we mean by diversity is not just, you know, ‘Oh wow, there’s lots of black people and lots of women.’ What we mean is a lot of white guys.” Indeed, some of the “white guys” speaking at FOCUS include Brian Cohen, the Chairman of New York Angels, and Charlie O’Donnell, founder of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures.
Issues surrounding diversity in tech won’t be solved overnight, Finney admits. But the ecosystem has come a long way since the days when she would literally be the only black person at a tech conference. And while the diversity numbers coming out of Silicon Valley’s most high-profile firms are disheartening, the existence of conferences like FOCUS, that have helped facilitate connections and funding for a diverse group of entrepreneurs, means there’s plenty of inertia behind changing these ratios.
*Disclosure: Andreessen Horowitz partners Marc Andreessen, Jeff Jordan, and Chris Dixon are personal investors in Pando