Should Blacks Work At Companies Like Twitter and Google

November 7, 2015 Opinion

In case you missed it: this week, a former Twitter Engineering Manager, Leslie Miley, wrote a detailed post announcing his departure from Twitter citing diversity related reasons. His departure leaves the company without any remaining blacks in engineering leadership positions. This is the latest in a set of experiences told by blacks about their challenges while working at companies such as Twitter, Dropbox, or Google. These experiences are recent and relevant, and are occurring at the same time as companies are creating initiatives to recruit and retain diverse (gender and race) talent.

Corporate Social Responsibility, the Business Case, and Economic Justice as Driving Forces behind Diversity in Tech

The “Diversity in Tech” movement is not new. My older peers tell me of similar conversations that occurred in the ’70s and ’80s. Same conversations, different companies. Then it was the IBMs and GEs attempting to figure it out. In a déjà vu manner, modern-day companies are iterating through the same steps as these older companies once did, such as creating “Head of Diversity” roles, (but implementation still not aligned with core business goals). Back then, diversity in tech efforts were mainly thought to be corporate social responsibility initiatives. “We do this because it is the morally and ethnically right thing to do”  or aka “Charity feels good.”

Today, the company narrative behind diversity initiatives have been changed to “The Business Case for Diversity.” “We believe in diverse teams as as a way to drive innovation at our company.” Most of us, (blacks in tech), are in agreement with the new narrative, however, we are not convinced that our colleagues or company leadership are; evidenced by conversations and debates about “meritocracy” and “lowering the bar.”

But, we remain and do the dance (in hopes of change). Mainly due to the economic opportunities that tech presents. We enjoy the work, but it is an omission to leave out the allure of the economic benefits that tech presents. This is especially true for us who identify with being both racially underrepresented in tech and growing up in or having some association with lower social economic communities. This becomes our driving force in the diversity in tech movement. It is not charity work for us, it is economic justice.

Our Options

Its too early to tell if work culture at companies like Twitter, Dropbox, and Google will change to become more inclusive. Many of these companies are still young and there has not been enough time to see the long term impacts of current diversity initiatives. As more blacks are seeking tech opportunities, the choice remains of where do we invest our talent. The Twitters, Googles, and Facebooks remain options as long as these companies do their part in outreach and implementation of fair hiring processes to lessen biases. Once in, these companies do offer great compensation and serve as a nice resume stamp for future opportunities.

However, some will argue that if greater economic advantages are what we seek as underrepresented folks, then the heyday of these companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter) is over. Instead, opportunities at earlier stage startups may be more appealing due to larger equity packages, (of course, dependent on the future value of the startup). In addition, early startup employees have the opportunity to shape the culture of the startup. In contrast, these early stage startups do not have formal HR policies and often are ill-prepared to handle the complexities of diversity conflicts that may arise.

Then there’s the easier-said-than-done advice of ‘Starting Our Own.’ Strictly, from a statistical perspective, this is the least economically advantageous option. Startup failures are enormously high. Success of startups can be dependent on the companies ability to scale which may require raising capital. (Raising capital while black is another post in itself) However, statistics has never deterred the black community from pursuing opportunities. Think of all the basketball courts filled with hopes of becoming the next LeBron, and the real statistics behind these hoop dreams.

What’s Your Desired Outcome

This post is not intended to offer solutions to mainstream tech leadership on their perceived challenge of diversity in tech. Instead, the post is intentionally written for the underrepresented racial minority from a view of empowerment. It is written to inform of both the advantages and challenges of being black and working in tech. However, finding your motivation and defining your desired outcome is important as you pursue and work in various opportunities. These are the tenets that you must hold onto as you weigh each opportunity or when facing diversity conflicts in the workplace.

Feedback from Mariah Lichtenstern:

I appreciate bringing the subject of “starting out own” into the equation. Rather than spend disproportionate effort demanding crumbs (employment), we need to spend at least as much time building the bakeries. In terms of impact, we know that when women and underrepresented minorities are founders, they are going to bring more diverse insights and networks into building companies.

Chamath Palihapitiya recently published statistics on VC diversity in “Bros Funding Bros” and we need to spend more time and effort acting on how the network and referral aspect of accessing capital is disenfranchising underrepresented founders. How are exclusionary practices disenfranchising underrepresented VCs? The EEOC is investigating exclusionary practices impacting women in Hollywood. We should be flooding Janet Yang’s inbox about hiring into Venture Capital firms and demanding investigation into funding practices.

For founders, having to spend 1-2 additional years specifically to develop a network to access capital while others are born into it, grow up into it, or are received more freely into it should be called into question – particularly when the vast majority of VC funding comes from Public Pension funds and university foundations. I remember vividly sitting in a cubicle of a the UC Berkeley Annual Fund dialing for dollars, promising alumni their names on plaques for the highest contributions. The vast majority of funds go to the UC Berkeley Foundation – essentially a perpetual endowment managed by 3rd parties. Up to 35% goes to Venture Capital. While there is always construction on campus to justify the fund, proportionally, very little actually goes to operations or the benefit of the student body and alumni. Essentially, they are using the affinity group to crowdfund from the public, then turn around and invest that money. It’s not much different with pensions and other institutional LPs.

So, if the public is essentially paying for these investments, there should be some oversight as to the composition of VC funds (ideally specific allocation to new seed funds and emerging managers) and how the funds are allocated to founders. VC are always talking about tracking data and metrics. Fred Wilson’s recent post was all about “Track and Measure.” It’s high time we demand that not only VC firms, but also LPs, “track and measure” how they are allocating funds – particularly in terms of inclusion. Rather than half-hearted efforts to analyze their own portfolios, which have already been impacted by bias, we should demand a public cohort analysis of who’s getting in the door and who is getting funded – both from institutional investors (LPs) and from VC firms.

The desired outcome? More inclusive bakeries! More underrepresented founders to whom we don’t have to belabor the merits of inclusive hiring (not that anyone should be given a pass). While implicit bias impacts us all, we know that we can do a better job of leading in this area and demonstrating the results due to greater diversity of insights that will undoubtedly be recognized as a competitive advantage in an increasingly multi-cultural ecosystem.