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Full transcript: Code2040 CEO Laura Weidman Powers on Recode Decode

“We’re saying, you need to change the way you hire in order to be more inclusive.”


On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Code2040 CEO Laura Weidman Powers talks about not only the need for diversity in tech but concrete ways it can be achieved. Her organization provides training for businesses as well as internships for black and Latino students in tech — the so-called pipeline. Half the population of the United States is projected to be people of color by the decade 2040.

You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, TuneIn or Stitcher.

Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is Laura Weidman Powers, the CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit organization that helps underrepresented minorities become technologists, inventors and entrepreneurs. She is the co-founder of Code2040 in 2012 along with Tristan Walker, who we’ve had on the show. She previously served as an adviser to the White House on matters of science and tech policy. We’re gonna talk about that, Laura. Welcome to Recode Decode.

Laura Powers: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

No problem. So, let’s talk a little bit about your background. I like to get people ... I like to know where they come from and where they formulated what they’re doing. Give a little bit of your quick bio.

Yeah. So, I grew up in New York City, which is relevant in part because I grew up in an extremely diverse neighborhood. Went to a really diverse ...

What neighborhood was that?

Morningside Heights in Manhattan.


Yes, right by Columbia. I went to a public magnet school, to Hunter, growing up, so again a lot of diversity in my day in, day out. And I was on the East Coast after that. So, I went to Harvard for undergrad, I worked in New York City, and then I made the jump out to the West Coast for graduate school. So, I decided to go out to Stanford for JD/MBA and unwittingly found myself in the middle of Silicon Valley, which I’d sort of heard before, but not ...

Not diverse.

Yeah, turns out. That was one of my observations, actually.

So what had you done before? What was your job before you did the MBA at Stanford?

So, I mostly worked in education, youth development, nonprofit management. I’d started a couple different organizations. There was a community service organization I ran as an undergrad that had been in Harvard for 20 years and I raised the funds and brought it to West Philadelphia public schools, with undergrads at the University of Pennsylvania. And I’d started a tutoring company with some friends, I ran operations for a big public art project in New York City. So, bounced around a bunch but was always really interested in ...

Why did you want to go to business school, then?

So, good question, my parents asked me the same thing. I wanted to go to business school because I knew that I wanted to end up in nonprofit management, in the public sector, but I was really disillusioned with the way that money and impact were so divorced in the nonprofit.

They are, they don’t know. Yeah, they are.

Yeah. So, on the for-profit side, you report on revenue and that’s a measure of success. In the nonprofit side, it’s impact — as it should be — but often the team that’s dealing with revenue is totally separate from the team that’s dealing impact.

Yeah. And not a lot of business background among nonprofit people.

Exactly. And I really felt like so many nonprofits are creating so many types of value, and the job of a nonprofit organization is to choose which value to give away, and which value to charge for. So, I felt like if I wanted to better understand the business side of things, the quickest way to do that would be to go to business school.

You should know about accounting.

Yeah. It turns out you do have to learn about accounting.

I love accounting. I’m not gonna go into it with you in detail, but I love accounting.

Cost accounting I like, but financial accounting I do not like.

All the secrets are hidden there.

That is true.

I learned it because early internet people were like a Ponzi scheme, so I had to understand where they were lying to me financially.

Yeah, financial accounting will help you with that. That makes a lot of sense.

Yeah, and it’s great. I found out everything, and then they were shocked that I understood their metrics. I went to Wharton, actually for ... I took one of those executive courses. So, I used to come up to Philadelphia all the time.

Yeah, Philly is awesome.

So, you go to Stanford, you get here, and?

And I basically realized that sort of this big term that I’d heard, Silicon Valley was this total immersive, living, breathing, culturally different phenomenon. And I was in the middle of it.

Describe that for me, your impressions.

So, the thing that struck me the most was this focus on entrepreneurship and the future, and possibility and the way that people said “yes.” People would walk around saying, “I have an idea for X,” and the response was always, “Great, go do it,” and, “How can I help?” And that was just a really different mindset than what I was used to.

That’s the best part of Silicon Valley.

It is the best part of Silicon Valley, it opens up the possibilities. And I think it makes you feel empowered in a lot of ways to shape the future. And I was both thrilled by that and confounded by the lack of diversity that I saw. I actually ended up working at a tech company. A friend of a friend offered me a role building a marketing rollout plan, which I was like, “I do not know what a marketing rollout plan is, but I’ll figure it out.”

Yes, and?

Yeah, absolutely, I’m in.

What was the company?

It was a small consumer web startup, it was based in LA doing a handful of different products that were all focused on communication, sort of in the consumer web. And I started out doing marketing and moved on to strategy and monetization. And ended up, through a series of events, running products at the company. So I was working really closely with the engineering team, and sort of helped pivot the company from consumer phasing to a developer phasing product, actually, which then obviated the need for me as a non-developer leading product.

But, the interesting thing was that while I was sort of digging in working with the CTO and with the engineers and understanding the power and potential of that skill set, I was also still representing the company on panels and in meetups, and finding myself on all these where there just were not that many people who looked like me.

There were no other Lauras. No, not at all.

Yeah. And the narrative at the time — this was 2011 — was, “Well, techs have meritocracy. And if you’re here, you deserved to be here, and if you’re not, you don’t. And the reason that there aren’t more people that look like you is because there aren’t more qualified people that look like you out there.”

Do you believe that? You know my line.

What is your line?

It’s a mirrortocracy.

Yeah, exactly.

And the only time they use the word “standards” is when it comes to women and people of color.


And then never, there was never a bad white guy before.

Yeah. No, I wrote a blog post, actually, about what you’re really saying when you talk about lowering the bar and hiring, which is basically that it’s coded language that’s racist and sexist. Because I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, if there were qualified white people out there, we’d hire them,” or, “We’d hire more men but we don’t want to lower our standards.” No one has ever said those words.

No, they don’t, even though there are lower-standard men all over the place, which is interesting. When you bring that up they’re like, “Oh, you’re right,” which is interesting, because I think ... you know, I hate to even borrow a phrase from Sean Hannity at any time, because he’s just an awful human being, but when he calls people “snowflakes,” a lot of the white men in Silicon Valley are snowflakes, in every meaning of the term. They’re like, “Oh, I’m not that way.” I’m like, “Yeah, you are.”

So were you angry about it? Did you want to do something about it? How did you get to Code2040? And I want you to explain what you’re doing, but ... so you’re doing this, you see this, you’re "it", you’re like the ...

Yeah. So, Tristan Walker, who was a business school classmate of mine ...

And he went to Foursquare and then started Walker and Company.

Exactly. At the time, he was at Foursquare, and he and I had coffee and talked about this very issue. The combination of our experience growing up — he also grew up in New York City — surrounded by diversity, and then how strange it was to come to a place that was so steeped in possibility and yet was lacking this core component of innovation.

And, both of us felt the fury of the case at the time, that “I can’t find them therefore they must not exist” was just false. And our hypothesis was that you can’t find them, but actually that doesn’t tell you anything about whether or not they exist, and we believe that talented people from all backgrounds do exist and we’re gonna build a bridge.

So Code2040 started as this idea to build a bridge between the talent that was already out there that people were saying that they couldn’t find, and the opportunity that was all around us in the Valley.

So, explain what it does now. It’s been around since when?

2012. We just turned five. So, Code2040, broadly speaking, is creating pathways for black and Latino folks into the tech industry. We focus on two different entry points.

And 2040 is when it’s gonna happen?

2040 is our call to action. It’s the start of the decade when people of color will be the majority in the U.S. And we have a vision ...

It’s not happening before then?

No, we already are starting to see it. For example, kindergartners in California, the majority are people of color. But, that’s the decade when the census projects that the country as a whole will be majority people of color. And we want an economy that works for everyone, by then. So, I can run through the stats if that’s interesting.

Please do.

Sure, so we look at the disparity in net worth across different races. The median net worth of a white family is about $110,000. The median net worth of a black family or a Latino family is about $5,000 to $7,000. So a massive disparity, which plays out in all sorts of ways about the types of opportunities that folks have access to, and the type of networks that they’re in. So, we want to see that closed, and eliminated.

Did you see our story the other day? We’re doing a lot more infographics around the difference between a black woman and a white man. The salary disparity in tech. We just put out all the statistics almost continually.

And it’s super important because what we talked about a lot is, there is individual experience, and that it’s super important to share those stories, and there’s data, and that helps paint a picture of the real severity of the problem.

So, let’s talk about 2040, and we’ll get to where that is right now in a second in the next segment. You started this. It’s funded by whom?

A variety of different players in the tech industry foundation. The Knight Foundation is a big supporter, Intel has been a big supporter, Google for Entrepreneurs, and dozens of other tech companies. And the interesting thing, coming back to this idea of marrying impact and revenue, is the tech companies that we work with through Code2040 pay for our services. So that is a big piece of our funding as well.

Right. So, explain what you do. What are your services?

The flagship of Code2040 is the Fellows Program. Essentially what that is is we bring together a cohort of black and Latino computer science students over the summer. We place them in internships with our partner tech companies. And we do what’s basically a career accelerator on the evenings and weekends. So, they network, they get mentors, we do speaker series, dinners with people across the industry. And it equips them — the students — with the skills, the exposure, the experience and the network that they need to succeed. It’s sort of their foot in the door. For about two thirds of them, they’ve never had a job or internship before, and this is their entry into the industry.

And it also introduces the social aspect. I was just listening to “Hillbilly Elegy,” I’ve read it, but was listening to it, and I’ve just been struck recently by the part where J.D. Vance goes to a dinner, I think it was at Yale Law School. And he’s never been to these dinners, and he saw the networking entry points and he’s like, “This is the problem of poor white people. They don’t get to network.” You know, he didn’t know spoons and forks, and how important that was.

Right. And understanding all of that. I mean, as simple as, I remember the first summer with our first five students. We would get dinner and I would order Thai food, and they would be like, “What?” And I was like, “Okay, everyone out here eats Thai food. So, we’re gonna eat Thai food and I’m gonna explain what the dishes are.” And it’s things as simple as that, that seem silly perhaps on their surface but is the difference between you belong and not, and feeling included.

So, belonging, socialization, these internships, what else?

What we learned actually from running the Fellows Program over the last five years ...

How many fellows do you have now?

This past year we had 86, and we will break three figures, but we have not announced the number yet. So, we’re growing the Fellows Program.

And where are they from?

All over the country. So, we had about 1,300 applicants this year for the 2017 class, from 300 different colleges and universities, and the final class will be from a few dozen different colleges and universities.

In the U.S.?

In the U.S., yeah. All students in the U.S. All black and Latino, and all studying computer science, so they’re all doing technical internships. And the fascinating thing is, this is our fifth turn of the crank, we’ve placed hundreds of students at dozens of tech companies. And it’s actually given us this insight into what’s broken, both in terms of how students are getting their foot in the door, but also how companies are getting in their own way, when they want to become more diverse and inclusive.

So, we’ve taken that insight and we’ve developed additional student programming. For example, now we run a Tech Spring Break, where we bring students out to do more of the exposure, networking, kind of hacking that social isolation. We also do company coaching and company training, so we have a number of different trainings and up-scaling that we do with the companies that we work with, so that when they say that they’re actually committed to diversity inclusion, they have the tools to follow through on that.

Yeah, there’s a lot of talk. And there’s a lot of money spent, it’s not like there wasn’t ... it’s sort of like homeless money in San Francisco, there’s plenty of it, it’s just not somehow working.

Yeah. Although, I think we’ve seen a real evolution over the last five years in terms of companies willing to spend money on this. At the beginning, it really felt like they didn’t understand why they would pay Code2040 for something like this, and now we have companies knocking on our door asking to partner up.

So, you do students themselves, giving companies skills, what else?

Yeah. And then, we also work with entrepreneurs. So, the partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs is ... we actually have eight entrepreneurs in residence in eight cities around the country. And those are black and Latino tech entrepreneurs that we support, and they also have a home base at sort of the local TechHub that’s the epicenter of the ecosystem. And they’re helping to bridge between the local diverse community and the local tech community as well.

It’s really these four elements. There’s the quote-unquote supply side of the students’ entry-level talent, the demand side of the companies, the building a bridge between those two; we act as sort of a trusted broker, and then you think about that as how do you change the system that exists; and then the entrepreneurship pieces, how do you build anew? So, as opposed to retrofitting ...

Do you do a lot of work with venture capitalists, then?

A little bit. We do, you know, I have.

I feel they’re the problem completely. No, I’m kidding ... on so many levels.

I think that we’re starting to figure out ways that they actually want to engage. Some of it is, I have a couple of venture capitalists who said to me, “You know, the reason that I’m spending time with you is ’cause I’m gonna be investing in your students.” And it’s true, 80 percent of our fellows want to start companies. So, that is a piece that sort of lends itself to collaboration in the future.

We just met with a venture capitalist who was interested in the idea of purchasing the trainings that we offer and then gifting them to his portfolio, so that those founders could actually start to build inclusively.

What does that cost? What do you charge companies?

The Fellows Program is a real range. If you partner with us in the Fellows Program, you get access to our pool of talent, you get the ability to host a certain number of interns and you get access to the trainings. And that’s anything from $15,000 to over $100,000, depending on the depth of the partnership. The company training we are just now teasing out from the rest; it used to be if you wanted our trainings and support, you had to be a part of the Fellows Program. Starting this fall, that’ll change. So, we’re pricing all of that right now.

So you’re trying to give them something worthwhile, that they’re getting value out of this, rather than just feel good.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we’re not actually that interested ... I mean, is it, would we like people to feel good? Of course, that’s wonderful. But that’s not the goal. The goal is they actually build skills and change systems to move forward.

I think that’s one of the problems, is that you can make the business case for it, you always are like, “Well, you do better as a business if you’re more diverse,” and you have to keep pushing that. And on some level, it’s also the right thing. What’s wrong with it being the right thing? But, of course that doesn’t motivate people, because then if you don’t keep up, your failure is not tolerated.

Yeah. What we’ve found — and there’s certainly different kind of tranches of CEOs and their level of belief on this — but I would say there’s a group of CEOs who understand the business case, understand it’s the right thing and still do not know what to do about it. And there’s actually a skills gap when we think about what CEOs, heads of HR, frontline managers, hiring managers, university recruiting; there are new skills required to actually build and retain a diverse workforce and they haven’t been prioritizing the task. There’s actual up-scaling that needs to happen on the companies.

So, talk about the idea of how they don’t know what to do. A lot of people don’t know what to do. Throwing up their hands irritates me, because they seem to know what to do on everything else and will tell you about it. They’re not the most, you know, retiring of non-arrogant people assembled, but when it comes to this, they’re like, “I don’t know.” Anything that’s even slightly controversial or around fake news: “I don’t know,” when they can lecture on everything else constantly. Why is that and what do you need to do? Because the idea of handholding them, I want to just ... you know? They’re indulged enough, they just have to do it and stop whining about it.

Well, we don’t think of it as handholding, we think of it as real partnering and walking alongside and the idea that this is truly a journey. You know, you think about the context that we’re in. It’s not like we used to have a perfectly equal utopian society and we’ve somehow slipped out of that; this isn’t necessarily any one person’s fault. There’s a lot of societal structures that’s baked into this, but it doesn’t mean it’s not our job to fix it.

Right. When you say it’s not one person’s, I think you have to say it’s your fault, because I think we then can’t say, “Oh, I didn’t do anything to the Indians, so therefore I shouldn’t be concerned about it.” You know what I mean? I think saying it’s your fault is actually effective, and you need to fix it.

Yeah. I think that you need to fix it, like it is our job to fix this, even if we weren’t alive at the points when the atrocity happens. And using the excuse that “it’s not me, it’s my ancestors,” we’re never gonna get anywhere. But we see it as this isn’t something that is taught traditionally, and it’s not something you would necessarily ...

Or valued.

Yeah, often not. One of the things that we realize when we’re working with companies is, for the most part when folks go through some of the trainings that are popular now, take an unconscious bias training. They go, they sit in a conference room or a classroom, they listen to the training, they learn about how they’re biased, they go back to their desks and nothing has changed in their work environment. So, there’s nothing to practice or put into play necessarily. There’s sort of no rubber-hits-the-road there.

One of the things that works really well about the Fellows Program and this combination of the training that we do and the direct service that we do is, folks go to our trainings, they go back to their desks and there’s half a dozen black and Latino interns who are working there. So they actually get a chance to see: How inclusive is my culture? What is the experience of these individuals coming through? And that makes a big difference in terms of putting a face to the work and actually having a chance to build those skills. The same way that if you learn to be a manager and then you don’t manage someone, it’s all theoretical and abstract, you don’t get to put it into practice. This works that way, too.

So, we talked about unconscious bias, because you know I have a thing about that, I think it’s totally conscious. I know everybody does that, say, “I didn’t realize I’m doing it,” and I think you fully realize you’re doing it, or you’re just not paying attention. So, I call it laziness. It’s like you’re just not ...

I think both can be true.

All right, explain that to me, because I’d like to be ... I know there’s all these experts, and these consultants people hire and there’s a whole bunch of money being spent and made on it, but ultimately I think if you tell them they’re doing well, they don’t do as well. If you say, “You are biased,” something does ... you know what I mean? By saying “unconscious,” it’s like, “Oh, you didn’t mean it,” and I’m like, “You meant it.”

I think what you’re pointing out is this idea that talking about unconscious or implicit bias can seem to let people off the hook, and actually it’s been shown that if you just do an unconscious bias training and it’s sort of “Hey, everybody’s got bias,” then the take-away is like, “Uff, phew, it’s not me.” It’s just like humans, because we need to learn how to be scared of snakes. So, we make assumptions. You actually can get farther away from makes progress.

I was a Psychology major undergrad. I learned about most of what’s covers in unconscious bias training in my Intro to Psych as a freshman. This stuff is real, but that’s not the answer to how we get to where we need to be as an industry. The way we think about it is actually blind spots, and helping to understand what are the things that you are doing that you are not realizing.

Give me an example.

One of the things that we talked about — and we did this internally at Code2040, we do all of our own trainings — was, we went through, there’s a list blind spots, and you go through them and it’s a bunch of yes-or-no questions. One of the questions was, “Do you feel safe walking home in your neighborhood at night?” I answered “Yes,” and then I was paired with someone else on my team who had answered, coincidentally of all the questions, had answered “No” to that question. So, we talked about it. And what that helped me we see was that there were actually management decisions that I was making that were based on an assumption that was not even conscious to me that it’s cool to stay late at an event, or to end up in a different part of the city because I’m safe going home at night. And actually, I needed to take into consideration that not everybody on my team had that experience.

That’s one example. There’s other examples about, “Was it expected of you in your family that you would go to college when you graduate from high school?” “When you were growing up did you read children’s books that featured characters that looked like you and came from your community?” There’s all sorts of things to surface about just recognizing that someone else has perhaps had a different experience and how they move through the world because of their background and where they came from. And the point is not that that makes you racist or insensitive or what have you, but that you are making a set of decisions that influence and impact other people based on a set of assumptions that you don’t even know that you are making.

Because then you also can go on the attack and say, “Yeah, you are racist,” or, “You are sexist,” or whatever, and then everyone ... then you get Donald Trump: “No, we’re not. We’re just are sick of this.” We’ll get to Donald Trump. Because then it gives people permission to say, “No, I’m not, and screw you for saying it. Stop being politically correct.” You can’t even bring up the topic now, which is interesting. That doesn’t work either because it puts everybody into a corner.

Yeah, I think the labeling is challenging, because there certainly are people out there who are racist or say things that are racist, but often if you say that to somebody they’re immediately on the defensive. We talk about it as “fight, flight or freeze response” to a conversation about race, and most people do not have experience navigating conversations about race. So, when you get into one or that antenna goes up, you get one of those fight, flight or freeze responses.

Freeze is usually the case, you don’t want to say anything.

Yeah, exactly. And it’s really hard to move a conversation forward when you are in one of those mindsets.

So, what do these companies do wrong?

One of the things that we realized early on that would come up is that companies would use proxies to judge the things that they value. One of the things that was really common — particularly at the beginning dealing primarily with internships — was using “university attended” as a screen for whether a student would get an interview.

And when we actually digged into it with companies — I mean, it seems obvious when you say it, they don’t actually care what university you went to — they’re using that as a shortcut to understand what classes did you take and how are you socialized into working with others and all of that. And when we pushed companies to say, “Can you actually identify what are the things that contribute to performance in the job, that you are trying to get at through university as a proxy?” They could in many cases actually name things, and then we said, “Okay, screen for that.” And that actually opens up a whole new talent pool that’s just sort of blocked off prematurely.

Because it’s easy, it’s a shortcut. You are saying shortcut. Harvard shortcut, Stanford shortcut.

Exactly. So, there are a lot of things like that, actually, where it’s about taking a step back and understanding the shortcuts that you are taking that are in many cases unintentionally exclusive, but in practice are exclusive.

Familiarity, essentially, they’re looking for familiarity.

Yeah, familiarity is huge. Another big one that we see is companies will have a whole interview process and there’ll be a bucket for “culture fit.” And often, that’s not defined. So, what happens is the person is like, “Would I like to have a beer with you? Or be stuck in an airplane with you?”

That’s how we pick presidents now.

Yeah, exactly.

Or all these questions that are, sure, interesting but totally irrelevant to someone’s ability to perform. So, what we do is actually say, “Okay, you should be ensuring that a person is a ...” We usually talk about a culture add or a values add, they’re moving your cultural values forward. And you need to be explicit about that. You can’t leave that up to individuals, because individuals will just choose someone they want to be friends with.

So, should you get rid of the culture fit thing? I think it’s crazy.

You should define what it is that will cause someone to be successful in your environment.

I don’t think you can. To me, I think it’s bullshit.

I think there are ways to get closer. We went through and we defined at Code2040, what are our values and what are some questions that we can use to understand whether the person we’re talking to values these values. And, if they do then, whether or not I want to have a beer with them, whether they drink beer, is totally irrelevant, it doesn’t matter because I know they’re gonna move the organization forward.

Yeah, I was just talking to Ellen Pao, she’s working on a book, talking about when we moved to Vox, we moved some women over to The Verge, and stuff like that. So, our numbers are so small, it went out of ... it’s usually 50/50, for example. And I was concerned with it and pushed people, but I already had people here who also concerned. The white men were just as concerned as I was, as everybody was. So, we had hired for people who that was a concern. And so is the management at Vox. So it wasn’t ... everybody was already on the same page, which was helpful, and I’m not sure why that was, because we hired for that.

Yeah, that’s a big difference.

So, what else do they do? Because again, you see these numbers come out. Uber, they’re the same. And especially around people of color, whoa.

Yeah. It’s not good. And the interesting thing, too, going back to this initial idea of the narrative that “they’re not out there, it’s a pipeline problem”: 18 percent of Computer Science bachelor’s degrees go to black and Latino students every year. And then you look at the numbers and it’s 3 percent, 5 percent. Right. Exactly. We know that there’s a disconnect between folks who are making it through the entirety of the education pipeline.

Where do they go?

That is the question. A lot of them ...


Yeah. Government, consulting, kind of local ... we had one student, a black student from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who came out to participate in the Fellows Program and he interned at Jawbone, and when he got here he said “You know, before coming out here and doing Code2040, I thought that with my computer science degree I was gonna build websites for local companies.” Not that that’s a bad path, but that is what he thought the world of possibilities was. So, some of it is ...

Giving him a bigger perspective.

Exactly. And companies ... I’ve talked to so many CEOs of companies with big name brands who don’t actually realize that that doesn’t necessarily translate to the communities that they want to target.

So people self-select out.

Yeah, they don’t even know about the opportunities. Or they see the numbers and say, “Why would I want to be there?”

“Why should I be the only in the room?”

“Why would I put myself in that position?” That’s something that companies have to contend with too, is actually going above and beyond to be intentional and welcoming at a point when they really have a reputation for neither of those things.

All of them do. The numbers are exactly the same in all of them, and they’re all different companies. That’s what’s fascinating to me, they’re all trying different things. Google, I would say, tries very hard and seems to be genuine about their efforts, as opposed to an Uber, for example. So it’s a really interesting thing that you get the exact same outcome no matter what you do.

Yeah. Well, I think ... and I don’t have the data to back this up, but certainly if you listen to the narrative around hiring out here, there’s a lot of poaching from company to company. And there’s this sense that the pool is small and the pool is out here, and if that is ...

They’re not here.

Right, if they’re not here, there’s a heavy emphasis on referrals, which again encourages that poaching and jumping from company to company. And of course, if you have this closed pool, it’s not surprising that the numbers would look the same.

That you get what you get. You always get what you get. If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got, as my grandmother used to say.


Let’s talk a little bit more about the problems, then we’ll talk about what works. Let’s finish up on what works, let’s try to have some positivity here. I’m not a positive person about this, I really am not. It’s because I’m old.

Okay. I’ll try to be positive.

Try to be positive, because that’s your job.

That is my job.

My job is just to complain incessantly about these people.

So, look at the situation at Uber right now, for example. They’ve got a woman problem, they’ve got a people of color problem, it seems like they’re the boiled-down essence of the problem. When you read that story by Susan Fowler, for example, because you deal with gender issues too, what did you think?

You know, there’s so few full accounts like that, that are out there.

There’s pieces of them.

There are pieces of them, and when you are in this work you hear stories like that often.

Right. Every woman has one. What was interesting on Twitter is, every man — well, not every man, but a lot of men were like, “Oh, I had no idea.” And every woman was like, “Oh, I got a story.” And I was like, “Ask a woman.” Just lean over and ask, and they all have at least three stories.

Yeah, and I think we’re really in that phase where we’re surfacing the data, we’re surfacing the stories and kind of creating a much more out in the open conversation about this. Again, when we started five years ago, this just was not a topic of conversation. Google then released their diversity data in 2014, that started the data conversation. And now, I think we’re seeing more of these anecdotes that really round out ...

The data.

Yeah, the data.

It’s sort of like the videos of police brutality. You knew the numbers, but then you see the videos. But, people still don’t believe it, which is fascinating.

Yeah. Well, I think the question then has to be: Is the point to get everybody to believe it or is the point to it to change? I don’t actually think you need everybody to believe it or be on board to actually create change, you just need the influencers, or the decision makers to create change.

What’s critically important in that? Is it the CEOs? I know Marc Benioff now is on a [crusade]. And he said, “I didn’t focus on it, so now I am.” And I think it does makes a difference when the CEO or the leader ... and if there’s discernible both sticks and carrots for it. There’s gotta be both, but it seems sticks work quite well or that you will pay for this, if it isn’t part of your thing.

Does it have to be from the top, or can it come from employees? Because a lot say the immigration stuff has come from the bottom up, versus the CEOs who naturally are in a crouch position.

Well, I think ideally you want pressure on all sides. The CEO is incredibly important, because that is the person that everyone is gonna ultimately look to, to say, “Is this really important?” But the CEO speaking on this alone doesn’t actually move the needle by itself, because it’s not a PR issue or an internal communications issue. It’s actually a tactics and policies issue, so you need folks who are in charge of those sorts of things to actually make the change.

I think where we’ve seen it start to be successful is where it’s the combination. Often it’s like, there are young folks who really care about this who start to be vocal at a company, that causes leadership to pay attention, leadership gets on board, and then the critical third piece is, “Okay, well now management is gonna have to execute.” So how do we give management the tools and support needed to actually drive this change?

So let’s talk about what works. What really does work? So CEO leadership, bottom’s up interest by people ... because often they’re like, “I’m so busy, I don’t have time.” That’s often an excuse, as if you’ve got other things to do. “We’re making a photo app that’s critically important.”

I think what is often positioned as an add-on ... actually what really needs to be the case is to change the core of what you’re doing. We’re actually not saying keep hiring the way you’re hiring and also do this diversity on the side; we’re saying, you need to change the way that you hire in order to be more inclusive.

Actual practices, if you were a startup. What are critical things? One?

Some of it is how you source, and actually going back to expanding the network, not taking those shortcuts. Some of it is how you vet, so eliminating those proxies from your vetting. Code2040 pulled together a group of nine tech companies who were all really committed to that idea. How do we reimagine our vetting and interview process? Not for diversity candidates, but for all candidates. And they met at Code2040’s offices over the course of a few months, and in some cases actually completely tore apart and rebuilt their entire entry-level vetting process. Medium is an example of that, they publish all of it, and that totally changed the way that folks were equipped to interview in a way that was inclusive. So, there’s things like that that work.

There’s also manager training. One of the things that we do with folks who are participating in the Fellows Program is, we actually train all of the managers on how to manage. We call it Managing Across Lines of Difference. There are things that particularly affect candidates who are underrepresented that managers need to know how to deal with.

Like what?

So, one of them is impostor syndrome; the feeling that somebody made mistake, I do not belong here. And that’s triggered by all sorts of signals that are sent about, “Well, there’s nobody else that looks like me here. There’s nobody else from this background.” And actually managing someone who is suffering from impostor syndrome, you need certain tools around that. How do you get constructive feedback to someone who’s convinced that they are not good enough? There’s actually specific ways that you can approach that conversation to create a more effective management relationship.

We know that one of the thing that happens is that people from underrepresented backgrounds, particularly when they’re being managed by someone from the majority background — so a white male managing a black female, for example — that black woman will not get the same amount or type of feedback as if she were a white man, and that inhibits her progress. But, at the same time, giving feedback to someone suffering from impostor syndrome is challenging, so we have tactics and techniques for how you do that.

And not feeling nervous about doing that.

Yeah, exactly. So there’s things like that, sort of all up and down that can be adopted and adapted by different companies. And I think ultimately that’s the point, is that there are things out there, there are tools, there are tactics that do make a difference and do work. But you have to actually invest in up-scaling around them.

And also HR is not invested in it. It’s usually an afterthought. HR in general is an afterthought.

Yeah, and historically, diversity has been a compliance issue for HR. “How do we avoid lawsuits,” as opposed to ...

Recruiting or avoiding lawsuits.

Right, and if you actually think about ... Code2040, again, gets its name from this demographic shift and where the country is going; the workforce is gonna change dramatically in the next 25 years. So, this isn’t gonna be a compliance issue, this is gonna be a can we actually staff for growth. This is your hiring pool. This is it.

When you talk about that, I think Ellen Pao brought this up onstage at Code, blind interviewing. What do you think of that?

Well, look, it’s been shown to work in some cases, for sure.

Nobody seems to like it, because you gotta see the person.

Well, I think it’s challenging to actually create an interview process that’s blind that functions in the way that we expect interview processes to work.

Right, because you want a little getting-to-know-you kind of thing.

You know, the quintessential example is like the symphony auditions: You’re listening, in that case, and that mirrors the way that audiences experience a symphony, in a way that is not mirrored if you’re thinking about blind interviews. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea, it just means that there’s things to work out about how that would be put into practice. I think we’re so far from a silver-bullet solution at this point, there’s so many things that we can do between here and there while working that out.

So, can we finish talking about what’s happening around immigration and the idea of not just a diverse culture here in the United States, but bringing in everyone, there’s a lot of people thinking of not coming here. Many people of color from all these countries — mostly, actually, it’s not like it’s the Canadians that are ... it’s from these seven Muslim countries ... bringing in talent, obviously many, many companies in Silicon Valley were started by people of color from other countries, from these countries that are under siege right now by our government.

How does this impact it? When you look at the immigration ban and stuff that. It shouldn’t only be because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s because it helps ... That’s how it’s being sold to the tech industry — we’re doing it because it’s for our business — but it’s also the point of our country kind of thing. How does this impact this? Because then there’s sort of a backlash.

Yeah. The whole thing is interesting. Fundamentally, we believe that there’s room for everyone here. And when we think about how the ... both what it looks like to focus on including the people that are here currently in this country and to ensure that we’re including folks who want to come here, this is the fundamental economic question of the 21st century: How do we actually make the economy work for everyone? It’s being framed in a number of different ways. It’s an immigration issue, it’s a rural versus urban issue, it’s a class issue. But, ultimately what we’re looking at, and I think why we do this work in the tech sector, is that same sense of possibility and yes-ands that I felt when I first got out here, is fundamental to the ability for us to problem-solve.

Right, and thrive.

Exactly. So, really, I’m supposed to be positive here, but what’s at stake is actually the future of our economy. Are we going to figure out how to be inclusive so that we can harness the talents and innovations and ideas of people from all backgrounds? Or are we going to stay kind of “it’s us versus them,” and ingroup-outgroup, and this club. We’re actually going to really hamper our growth and our ability to thrive over the next 20 years.

Do you think Code2040 should go to Kentucky and help the coal miners? You know, the poor white people are sort of in a similar situation, there’s that “us versus them” there. Do you think about that?

Yeah, all the time. The way we think about it is, Code2040 is centering two groups that have been historically excluded: Blacks and Latinos. And we feel like this focus on race is actually a way to solve for a lot of other challenges that face folks from all different backgrounds while holding us accountable, and also honoring the fact that there’s a high degree of cultural competency, and cultural understanding, that’s needed to do this work. And you can’t just create equivalencies between the poor white male Kentucky coal miner and the black woman who ...

Well, they try to put them against each other, that’s the whole goal, it’s to have them fight or hate.

Right. And that’s sort of the classic tools of the oppressor ...

Yeah, they got theirs.

Right, and we’re gonna use those to turn against one another, which is just going to further divide the country and allow for better prosperity and success for those who are already thriving. So we have to find ways to share best practices, to be allies to one another. This is something we talk about a lot, and work on a lot, is how can we as Code2040 be the best allies that we could be for all efforts?

The very last thing I want to talk about is, you served at the White House. What did you there? You were an adviser ...

Senior policy adviser to Megan Smith.

Yeah, I know Megan.

Yes. I hear you know each other:

But, then you left. How do you assess this administration? Are they committed to this? Because Barack Obama certainly was.

Barack Obama certainly was. When I was there, we did a number of things around how we collect ... we called it “Raising the Floor.” Again, there’s no silver bullet or guide to getting an A+, but there are a lot of things that companies can do, that if you’re not doing them you’re doing it wrong. And the goal of something like that was, “Let’s got this platform to create it, and then let’s get it out of the building. Let’s get it into ...

Yeah, Megan talked about iterating.

Right, exactly. Let’s get into the hands of the people who are going to implement it.

Right, and what works in one place, could it work somewhere else.

Right. So we developed things like that where the requirement was not that the next administration, whoever it was, sort of pick up the baton, but that we were actually handing the baton out to the private sector. That was always the strategy; we didn’t need to rely on the next person to continue it.

How do you assess this administration’s interest in the area?

I have not heard them talk about this issue.

We wrote a story about this recently. There’s like two people out of a hundred. But, they’re cutting jobs and saving us all money, meanwhile. Do you have worries about it? Do we need the government? There’s so many of these new jobs, robotics, AI, all this stuff needs government help.

Yeah, oh my gosh ...

The next economy is all about government-company cooperation, it seems like. Steve Case talks about it in “The Third Wave.”

Absolutely. I think one of the things that was most fascinating about having the opportunity to be in the administration was to be surrounded by people who are thinking about all those things day in and day out, which really helped me see the critical role that government is going to have to play in figuring out how all of this stuff interacts. So, yeah, I’m a big believer that there is a role for the government in innovation.

There’s a real estate guy, and a Treasury guy who doesn’t believe in robotics, and automation, or something like that.

Yeah. Well, I said government, not this government.

All right. A very last question, what is your metric of success for yourself?

For Code2040?

Yeah, like half/half, or what?

So, we use, again, the year 2040 as our call to action, we want to see economic equity, we want to see an economy that works for all. What we actually want to measure as to how are we getting there is proportional representation in the innovation economy. So blacks and Latinos will be 42 percent of the population in 2040, and we want to see 42 percent across the innovation economy including entrepreneurs, investors, founders, CEOs, technologists across the board.

That is a big job, Laura.

I know, and I only have 23 years.

23 years to do it. Well, I hope you do it well before that. Anyway, it was great talking to you, thanks for coming by.

Thanks for having me.

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