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Here's Jesse Jackson's Plan for Diversity in Silicon Valley

Reverend Jackson on talent, tech and a failure of imagination in Silicon Valley


Jesse Jackson is the first to admit he is not technologically inclined. “I have a rotary dial phone,” he tells me. But if you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, you also don’t need an iPhone to understand the dismal state of diversity in the tech industry.

He has charts and graphs. They aren’t pretty.


“This is not reflective of our capacity,” Jackson said last week by phone ahead of a conference on diversity in tech. “That’s not a talent deficit. That’s an imagination deficit. It does not reflect the marketplace.”

He went on to praise companies like eBay and HP, which are expanding to add new board members, and Apple, which has publicly pledged to improve those figures. “Google had the courage to come forth with their numbers,” he said. “HP made public their data, and it showed deficits. That’s the exciting thing at Intel, their ‘2020 plan.’ Not only are they looking at their board situation, they want their company to look like America by the year 2020.”

That is the eponymous goal of the PushTech2020 Summit, an event that took place last week in San Francisco and featured keynote speakers from Apple, HP and Intel and presentations such as “There Is No Talent Deficit: Entrepreneur Success Stories.” There was also an entertaining and intimidating pitch contest, during which several young companies made their cases to a panel of VCs, which I’ll cover in another post. PushTech2020 is an initiative of the Rainbow Push Coalition and a reboot of that organization’s earlier tech push, the Silicon Valley Digital Connections Initiative, which dates from 2000-2005.

Not surprisingly, Jackson has a definite point-by-point plan, and describes it so efficiently, it’s like a verbal infographic.

First of all, he wants to know, why are they not recruiting at colleges beyond Stanford and USC? “At the tech levels, black colleges have been most proficient at training youth in these sciences, but [those students] are not recruited. Part of what we’ve worked out with Intel is to create a pipeline [between] Silicon Valley and black college campuses.”

Howard University, North Carolina State School of Engineering, Morgan State University’s School of Engineering, Hampton University’s School of Engineering and Technology — these mission schools have the capacities to partner with Silicon Valley to increase both technical and non-technical personnel. There’s no excuse for them not to have been building relationships already.”

“As a matter of fact,” he added, “the Chairman of the Board at Microsoft, John Thompson, went to Florida A&M.”

“They spend a lot of time recruiting H1B workers,” he said, “when they could be recruiting in Oakland and Chicago, where people are perfectly capable of doing the work if they are targeted and trained to do so.”

In addition to engineering jobs, Jackson pointed to numbers regarding support jobs at tech companies, which also lag behind national averages. “Overwhelmingly, there are non-tech jobs — secretaries, advertising and marketing, legal work, accounting work — we are fully capable of fulfilling. There’s been no plan for inclusion at non-tech levels.”

And then there are corporate campuses. Why not build them in areas like Detroit that could use the boost and have underemployed populations? “Given what’s happening in Baltimore, it’s a great opportunity not just to rebuild a CVS but to build a tech center. We represent talent, location and growth.”

The three-pronged plan is ambitious, and one can see that a high-profile and well-attended event at a tech hub like the Bay Area could spur change. And it seems like a neat puzzle piece that fits next to Barack Obama’s TechHire Initiative, a program that provides specific, specialized education to unemployed Americans to qualify them for tech jobs that are going unfilled at an alarming rate.

Obama’s program, Jackson said, is “a step in the right direction. Heather Foster from the White House is coming to the conference.” Which is great. But pointing to high school students in Baltimore and their less-than-encouraging high-school graduation rate, he said, “We are trying to change the conversation and the expectation level. We have these differences in the schools by tax base. These kids need jobs and skill training. They need to take part in the conversation.” He wants to complement the initiative by improving these students’ situations across the board, so they are not just technically prepared, but fully, wholly prepared.

Tech “companies are receiving government contracts, and they have low standards. Their best days are ahead of them if they include all of us. People are going to see talent they’ve never seen before.”

The pitch competition, he said, was fascinating to watch as it came together. “There were over 75 applicants, and 10 will pitch,” he said. The seemingly small $10,000 grand prize — small potatoes compared to the kajillions raised by Clinkle — isn’t the point. “It’s a lot of money to the startups,” he said. “And this is also a talent search. The pitch is just the beginning of opening up those opportunities.” Whether or not they win the prize, the startup founders will shake hands with VCs, and the real deals will be made in the hallways and around the tall bistro tables of this and other conference venues.

Diversity is a trendy topic and, so far, the response from the Silicon Valley luminaries who attended the conference seems genuine — the exclusion not a result of resistance, but of ignorance.

“They were like one-eyed quarterbacks that can’t see half the field,” Jackson said of tech companies. “Silicon Valley has been looking eastward, [to the Far East — Asia and India], not westward [America]. It was just a failure of imagination.”

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