It would have been easy to walk into last Sunday’s Silicon Valley Diversity Brunch in Palo Alto feeling cynical. As noted by one of the introductory speakers, tech companies are not models of diversity.
Finding itself at 3.5 percent black, Intel pledged $300 million to up its own numbers. Jesse Jackson showed up at the most recent Apple shareholders meeting to encourage Tim Cook to do better, faster, more after that company’s internal estimate put its black employee population at 7 percent. At our own Code/Media conference, Tyler the Creator found three black people in the audience — no, wait, “you’re mixed, it’s two and a half.” At the moment, black workers do not have a good seat at the tech table.
But you wouldn’t have known it from the packed room, where each and every table seemed to represent several organizations currently creating change in Silicon Valley. Yes, things are bad, but according to the success stories among the 250 attendants, bad “never looked so good,” as Andrea Hoffman, founder and CEO of Culture Shift Labs, the organization that has been hosting events like these on the East coast for the past five years, quipped from the podium.
Emceed by former NAACP head Ben Jealous, who had a warm (and usually hilarious) personal story involving everyone he introduced, the event honored four black tech execs who have gone beyond role-modeling to raise up others. Their solutions involve the same pay-it-forward approach they themselves took: Mentor others. Fund existing organizations, of which there are many. Encourage. Connect.
Ken Coleman, chairman of Saama Technologies and a special adviser to Andreessen Horowitz, embodied this approach, as nearly every other attendee seemed to name him as a mentor. “I never bought into that idea that white people’s ice water was colder than black people’s,” he said. “I never was intimidated. I guess that’s how I was raised.”
Van Jones, former White House green jobs adviser and co-founder of #YesWeCode, roused the crowd, though. He didn’t have to drop the mic. He literally broke it off the stand when it was handed to him. “People call me an agitator,” he told the crowd, “but I see myself as a problem solver. Nothing good happens to black people on accident.”
“There won’t be a million rappers signed,” he continued. “There won’t be a million basketball players signed. But there will be a million jobs created in tech, and we need to get our share. … If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, a tech mind is an even worse thing to waste.”
If that were the end of the story, it would have just been a pleasant, endlessly quotable brunch. But this was no empty morning of glad-handing and self-congratulation. Every single table was packed with participants who were each passionately involved with boots-on-the-ground action on behalf of black jobs in tech.
To this reporter’s left was Karla Monterroso, VP of programs for Code2040, a nonprofit organization that works with companies to change their perception of a good hire — breaking requirements into components rather than relying on schools and pedigrees — in addition to running fellowships and internships.
To the right was Andrew Lindsay, head of corporate development at Jawbone, who donates his time to the San Francisco Office of Workforce Development to close the skill gap between San Francisco natives and the tech companies with jobs to fill. Just a few days ago, that program was promised $100 million from the Obama administration to provide training and even stipends to 18- to 24-year-olds being trained for tech jobs through the Tech SF Initiative.
Across the table was Cheryl Contee, co-founder of #YesWeCode in addition to being CEO of Fission Strategy and co-founder of Attentive.ly, all organizations that work to leverage social media on behalf of social issues.
And we were in the back of the room. This place was packed with power in motion, and it was easy to see that the low tech-diversity numbers would be changing soon — and a lot.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.