Silicon Valley has a race problem.
You don’t need a Twitter fight to tell you that. And, while it’s great that CNN has made waves with previews of its upcoming show on the subject, you don’t need cable TV to tell you that, either. (For two smart views on the controversy, read Hank Williams and Angela on BlackWeb.)
Just look around. Anyone who works in the Valley for any length of time will have noticed the alarmingly large number of white guys occupying positions of power. There are a few women, and there are sizable contingents of Asian entrepreneurs among the entrepreneurial and venture capital classes. But there are not many women and there are almost no black or Hispanic entrepreneurs.
The White House photo of Barack Obama having dinner with a table full of Silicon Valley titans in February is the perfect illustration of this. Look at the table: It’s almost all white guys. There are two women, one of whom (I think) is the wife of the host, and the other of whom is Carol Bartz, then the CEO of Yahoo, who is known — and criticized — for being loudmouthed and aggressive. And there’s just one black guy: the President of the United States.
This picture is probably 100% representative of dinners among Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs and investors, except that the black guy isn’t usually there.
If you’re black, Hispanic or female, I can’t tell you anything about racism that you don’t already know. You’re going to need an extra dose of moxie, persistence and determination to make it here. You may want to consider, as Vivek Wadhwa did, hiring a white man to be the public face of your company. (Wadhwa also points up the importance of building your own networks.) These decisions will have to be up to you and whatever friends and allies you can recruit to your side.
But I can tell you what I’m doing about Silicon Valley’s race problem. And if you’re one of the white guys who run things around here, you should consider that you have a responsibility to do the same things.
I’ve hesitated about writing this post. But I decided I couldn’t keep silent about this, because one of my career goals, for the past 10 years, has been to make Silicon Valley more accessible to people like my daughter, who is both black and female. I hope this post helps advance that agenda.
So, here are my tips for white guys on how to fight racism and sexism.
First, educate yourself. You don’t know squat about racism or sexism. Period. End of sentence. So read. Watch movies. But most of all, talk to people. Find people who are trained in anti-racist education and invite them to educate you.
In my case, I have spent many, many hours in anti-racism seminars, educational programs about race and culture, and dinner table discussions with my family, extended family and friends. It’s a topic that is never far from my mind.
Second, make an effort to connect with people who are different from you. Make friends with people. Extend your social circle.
And really make friends. A friend once told me, early in my education, that the diversity of your circle of friends is best measured by who comes to dinner at your house. You may work with people who aren’t like you, but if you’re not having them over to dinner, you’re not really getting to know them.
In my case, work is now the least diverse part of my life. My family is multiracial, my kids go to a school where there are people from diverse racial and economic backgrounds, my neighborhood is all over the map, and I live in one of the most diverse areas in the country. It’s only when I start talking to PR people and Silicon Valley executives that the diversity level drops. But it’s taken me a decade of conscious decisions to get to this point.
Third, when you’re recruiting, widen the circle of candidates. Make decisions about who to hire (or invest in) based on merit. But make sure the pool is diverse, so you can at least make fair choices.
I try to follow this principle whenever I hire people. I’ve reach out to professional associations like the National Association of Black Journalists. I ask people I know to recommend talented women they know. I ask for help from my existing networks wherever I can get it.
Once I get that pool of candidates, I evaluate everyone on their merits. I’ve never given a job to anyone because I wanted to increase the diversity of my team. But I have gone to lengths to make sure that the pool of candidates is diverse.
This is, I think, the most important thing that white people in positions of power can do.
There’s a real benefit to this diversity, too, beyond some abstract notion of fairness. A diverse workforce is going to better at producing products that appeal to a broad range of customers.
And diversity breeds creativity. People who come from different backgrounds are more likely to have different approaches to problems, or different ideas. Bring them together and yes, there can be conflict and misunderstandings. But out of that conflict can often come much better ideas than you’d get from a roomful of people who have the same backgrounds.
Finally, be willing to talk about race. Realize that you are going to sound like a clueless idiot much of the time. But also know that for people of color, race and racism are constant topics of discussion. Race is an incredible taboo only for white, middle-class people. We are embarrassed to talk about it, or even to acknowledge it. But until we do, we can’t really learn.And yes, I am sure it sucks when someone holds you up as an example of white-guy cluelessness.
But when you refuse to talk about racism and race, whether from fear of embarrassment or out of ignorance, you can’t learn. If you pretend that it’s just a meritocracy, or that the problem is too mysterious to be addressed, or that you yourself are not racist, you can’t learn.
More importantly, you can’t do anything good about it.
I don’t expect that most white guys in power will follow these steps. It’s too uncomfortable and too difficult to do, unless you’re motivated by someone you love. But I can say that it’s something very much worth doing.