Pando

How "The Most Diverse Tech Conference in the World" wants to fix technology's race and gender issues

By David Holmes , written on October 6, 2014

From The News Desk

This is the part where I talk about tech's diversity problem.

A lot of people have written about this issue, and almost every piece cites the same statistics: Less than 20 percent of the technology workforces at Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are women. At those same companies, less than 5 percent of the technology workforces are black or hispanic. Meanwhile, only thirteen percent of venture-backed startups are founded by women, and only one percent of venture-backed startups are founded by African Americans. To be honest, I'm getting a little sick of writing (and reading) this recap, but until things change I'll have to keep doing it.

But when will that day come? For all the hand-wringing about diversity in tech, and tech firms' "commitment" to inclusion (which often only manifests itself when convenient for the company), what groups and individuals are really taking this issue past the "raising awareness" stage?

Some of the smartest people on the front-lines of this fight came together on Friday and Saturday for New York's third annual FOCUS 100 Conference, which touts itself as "The Most Diverse Tech Conference in the World." Organized by Kathryn Finney and her social enterprise digitalundivided, FOCUS gathered technologists and thinkers from a wide spectrum of both backgrounds and professions. Presenters included Facebook's Head of Global Diversity Maxine Williams, FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, Internet pioneer and ThinkUp founder Anil Dash, New York's Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot, and a number of young entrepreneurs looking to help build the future of tech.

The atmosphere was neither doom-and-gloom nor kumbaya optimism. Yes, presenters showed plenty of slides with troubling statistics like the ones cited above. But there were also a plenty of solutions offered, exciting companies founded by black female founders, and an overwhelming sense that despite all the work still needed to be done, things are getting better.

“There's an increased knowledge of exactly how wealth is created (among minorities),” says Finney. "For a long time, if you were a successful, smart black person, you didn’t go start your own business. You became a lawyer or doctor.”

But the perception that starting your own business is too risky, particularly for people who may not have the same safety nets as those who come from generations of middle-to-upper class wealth, is beginning to erode. Part of that is because, with the unprecedented amount of venture capital being thrown at entrepreneurs, not to mention the opportunities for innovation posed by the rise of mobile and Internet technologies, it's a great time to start a business in America. Part of it is because entrepreneurship, and the high-profile success stories, are getting more mainstream media attention than ever.

Another, more fundamental, reason: Traditional career paths just aren't so stable anymore.

"It used to be, in every black family, you worked for the post office," Finney says. "That was like the great job. That was a consistent job. Well the post office is laying off now."

“Hacking my own isolation.”

Kalimah Priforce, who was one of the speakers at FOCUS 100, started hacking when he was only eight years old -- though his "hacks" had nothing to do with computers or code.

Living in a group home, Priforce, was upset that there were no books in the house and that he and the other children were never taken to museums or libraries. A vegetarian at the time, the youngster pitched the idea of using the money the home wasn't spending on meat for his dinners on books. The group home was not impressed.

So Priforce did what any eight-year-old would do -- oh wait, excuse me, he did what almost no eight-year-old would do: He launched a hunger strike. By the third day, the home director stopped by and asked Priforce how he was doing. "I was doing one of my chores, and that really pissed them off because I was still doing my chores.”

He told the director that he hadn't eaten in three days. “Not only did they give me books, they gave me access to the library and the museum.”

That, Priforce says, was a form of hacking.

"There are so many negative connotations around 'hack' or 'hacking.' And I explain that it’s about exploring the limits of what’s possible. I was hacking my own isolation.”

That's why Priforce, who runs the "hackathon incubator" Qeyno Labs, runs hackathons on social justice issues that pose questions like, "Could an app have saved Trayvon Martin?"

"In a couple of weeks we’ll be in Ferguson, and we’ll be having a hackathon between young black youths and police officers," Priforce says. "[People] use words like 'Silicon Valley hacking the hood.' What I believe is, it should be the hood hacking Silicon Valley."

"The search engine is very political."

As recently as 2011, the top Google search result for "black girls" was a site called HotBlackPussy.com (obviously NSFW). In fact, the first page results were full of links to porn sites. That's not exactly the most empowering message to send to young black females.

So UCLA professor Dr. Safiya Noble, another FOCUS speaker, sought to do something about it. After publishing a widely-read article documenting search engine bias, Google changed its algorithm so that pornography no longer dominated the search results for "black girls." (Though, at the moment, Complex Magazine's "Top 50 Hottest Black Porn Stars of All Time" is number one, so there's still a lot of room for improvement. At least the educational organization "Black Girls Code" is fourth).

This brings up an uncomfortable reality for tech companies. Google's search algorithm is designed to highlight what's popular. Any attempt to manually alter its functionality to serve certain interests is often met with disdain within the tech world. But when African Americans only represent 12 percent of the population, how will their interests be served by the most powerful technological tools in the world if those tools only focus on serving the majority?

Noble says it's not only socially responsible to serve minority communities -- it's good business. After moving to Los Angeles, Noble hopped on Yelp to find a stylist who specialized in African American and multiracial hair styles. "On about the 7th page of Yelp, I found Leslie Hall designs."

Hall told her that, despite Yelp's massive popularity, customers rarely found her shop on that platform. And yet there's clearly a demand for her services, one that Yelp would do well to capitalize on.

As much as some techies like to think of algorithms and code as pure and apolitical, the biases are real.

"The search engine is very political,” Noble says.

Where to start?

The panels covered a wide range of diversity-related challenges facing the tech world and urban communities. In addition to talks by Priforce and Noble, there were chats on how to raise funding as a minority, how to use social media to ignite social justice movements, and why tech companies must diversify their staffs if they hope to compete and innovate in the 21st century. There were also entrepreneurs working across a number of fields showing off their companies -- like Brit Fitzpatrick, Founder and CEO of the "OK Cupid for mentoring" site MentorMe, and Vosmap's Maureen Erokwu who helps brick-and-mortar businesses leverage Google Streetview.

So faced with this overwhelming and multifaceted problem, where does that leave somebody who wants to get, but doesn't know where to start?

At the risk of being self-serving, Finney suggests going to events like FOCUS where not only are the demographics diverse, so is the range of interests and expertise.

"You’re going to meet a lot of different people and you’ll find a way to get connected," Finney said. "If you are interested in QA and you’re a gamer, well, we have Majora Carter and James Chase and what they’re doing at StartupBox. If you’re really interested in hot startups and mobile, you have Zuhairah [Scott Washington] at Uber."

For Finney and digitalundivided, the fight to improve diversity happens on two fronts. The first is showing minorities that the worlds of technology and entrepreneurship are not closed to them, and then facilitating the kinds of connections needed to breed success. The second, is showing tech incumbents why having a diverse workforce and tailoring your product to diverse customers are about more than just image.

"My pitch to get [sponsor] Facebook involved, and this is what I say to all people in Silicon Valley, is that demographically you cannot scale your company with all white men. There are not enough white guys in the world. I couldn’t scale a company with all black women."

Most importantly, and this is a common refrain I hear when talking to Finney, the "feel-good argument" doesn't work.

“You’re talking to people who are engineers and technical, and they don’t care about that.," he says. "They care about the logic, and you need to give them a logical reason."

Whether it's a rising company like MentorMe with clients like the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, or one of the many panels on why inclusion is the only way forward for firms, those "logical reasons" were everywhere you looked at FOCUS 100.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]