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Howard University West: Can Google-Howard partnership increase diversity in tech?

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The Google-Howard collaboration, announced Thursday, is intended to help Google access tech talent and give top computer science students at Howard a taste of life in Silicon Valley.

Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in 2013. On Thursday, Google announced that it will partner with Howard University in Washington, D.C., to give African-American students the opportunity to spend the summer at Google's headquarters.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
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Though black students account for nine percent of graduates at the top 25 computer science programs, many of them never make it to Silicon Valley, the home of tech giants from Facebook to Apple. Can Google’s new pipeline program help change that?

On Thursday, the internet search giant announced that it had partnered with Howard University, a historically black university (HBCU) based in Washington, D.C., to bring computer science students from Howard to Google’s Mountain View, Calif., campus. The program, dubbed “Howard University West,” will offer 25-30 juniors and seniors a 12-week summer immersion into Silicon Valley culture, with for-credit classes provided by Howard faculty and Google engineers. If all goes well, Google hopes to offer the program to students at other HBCUs across the country.

Coming on the heels of successful programs like Google in Residence, which sends Google engineers to teach on college campuses for a semester, Howard University West is Google’s latest effort to expose students from different cultures and backgrounds to the possibilities of a career in tech. The ultimate goal: tap into the tech talent cultivated by HBCUs in order to enhance diversity at Google and across Silicon Valley.

“Research indicates that diversity leads teams to be more creative, more innovative, and better at complex problem solving – some of the very things a company like Google cares about most,” Joelle Emerson, founder and chief executive officer of Paradigm, a strategy firm that helps companies become more diverse and inclusive, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. 

Diversity is increasingly being recognized as key to a company’s business success, so tapping into diverse talent bases may be a strategic move on the part of companies like Google. Studies suggest that teams of very different individuals think more creatively, not only because they bring unique life experiences to bear on problems, but also because they are primed to anticipate alternative viewpoints and put in effort to reach consensus. Andrea Hoffman, founder and CEO of Culture Shift Labs, which offers strategic growth advice to a range of firms, says diversity also “helps win the war for talent.”

“With over 2 million technology and manufacturing jobs going unfilled today, it’s crucial that we get a diverse cross-section of people into the pipeline,” she tells the Monitor in an email.

Nevertheless, Silicon Valley diversity remains limited, with African-Americans representing just 2.2 percent of the tech workforce, according to data from the 2015 American Community Survey.

Many big tech firms are failing to recognize the talent that already exists, says Julian Turley, who works in recruitment and programs at CODE2040, an organization that helps top black and Latino/a tech talent access opportunities.

“It’s not a pipeline problem,” he explains in a phone interview with the Monitor. “The talent is there.”

That’s borne out by tech statistics from other metropolitan areas, which show African-Americans making up 17.1 percent of the tech workforce in Washington, D.C., 20.6 percent in Atlanta, and 7.3 percent in New York.

Anecdotally, Mr. Turley finds that some firms expect students to approach coding problems in a specific way, and therefore may not even recruit from schools outside the top 25. That can leave computer science graduates from underrepresented groups looking for work or concentrated in smaller tech companies. 

Even his friends from top 25 schools have struggled to break into Silicon Valley, he says: Many work at financial institutions or consulting companies instead.

Forging links with Howard University, and expanding to other HBCUs – which collectively account for one-third of computer science graduates – may help Google recognize talent and access a more diverse pool of students.

“I think this is a great opportunity for Google and other companies to develop partnerships,” Turley says.

But recruitment is only half of the equation. Retention has traditionally been a problem with regard to underrepresented groups in Silicon Valley, explains Maya Beasley, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of “Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite.”

“I think there is a push out of Silicon Valley in the sense that the small number and proportion of African Americans and people of color more broadly signal a lack of interest in having these groups in the workforce there,” she writes in an email to the Monitor.

What prospective employees want to see, Professor Beasley adds, is that companies are actively fixing the problem. Howard University West may be one sign of Google’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Being involved in the program may also help students picture what it would be like to work in Silicon Valley, according to Ms. Emerson.

“Tech is a fairly homogeneous industry along racial and ethnic lines, and as a result, students from underrepresented groups may have a harder time envisioning themselves belonging in this industry,” she explains. “By creating an HBCU on the Google campus, Google and Howard can change that. Students will now be able to see themselves working in tech and being a part of this community.”

In designing the program, Google may be able to emulate “highly effective” internship programs elsewhere in Silicon Valley that “provide students with additional skills … and provide real networking opportunities with companies,” suggests Beasley.

Done right, the collaboration could benefit students and corporations, Ms. Hoffman indicates.

“Strategic partnerships like this create value for everyone, on both sides of the equation,” she writes, adding that the program’s success will “require time, money, and resources, as well as a focus on measurable results.”

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