Pushing for diversity in Silicon Valley

Technology companies in Silicon Valley are notorious for lacking diversity. So Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Push organization held a summit Wednesday to promote diversity in technology companies.

Eric Risberg/AP (FILE)
Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, visits Kacie Gonzalez, left, vice president of business development and Nick Norena, both with the company Shoto, at the Workshop Cafe in San Francisco on Dec. 8. Now that Jackson and his group, Rainbow Push, have gotten the technology industry’s biggest companies to confront an embarrassing shortage of women, African-Americans and Hispanics on their payrolls, he is stepping up the pressure to come up with solutions in Silicon Valley.

Despite all their wealth and brainpower, technology companies realize they need help identifying and recruiting more women, blacks and Latinos who can write computer code, design websites and build mobile applications.

Some of the entrepreneurs and activists eager to assist them showed up Wednesday at a diversity summit organized by longtime civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Push organization. They want to build on the momentum Jackson created this year when he got Silicon Valley leaders such as Google, Facebook and Apple to acknowledge that they haven't been doing enough to make their workforces look more like the overall population.

Here's a look at a few catalysts for change:

TECHNOLOGY DRILL SERGEANTS

When Gregorio Rojas was interviewing people for engineering jobs at TMZ.com in Los Angeles, he was shocked and disappointed that there weren't more applications from women, Latinos and blacks. It didn't make sense to him or his wife, Liliana Monge, given that the jobs were located in a diverse city. They decided to do something about it 14 months ago by starting Sabio.la, a "boot camp" for computer coding. It was a cause easy for the couple to embrace because both of them immigrated to the U.S. when they were children. Rojas, now 39, came from Colombia and Monge, now 37, from Mexico.

Sabio.la holds intensive training sessions over 20 weekends to make it easier for mothers raising children and other people with jobs during the week to attend. As of Dec. 19, 22 students will have made it through a grueling curriculum that requires about 700 hours of computer code. Half of Sabio's graduates so far have been minorities, according to Monge. At $9,450, Sabio's tuition isn't cheap, but the money has generated solid returns so far. All of Sabio's graduates have gotten full-time jobs or internships attechnology companies.

"In a city like Los Angeles, it's not hard to find people who realize the opportunities that technology can afford them," Monge said. "Now, it's incumbent on all of us to keep the pressure on technology companies and make sure improvement happens."

TAPPING THE COLLEGE PIPELINE

After graduating from Harvard University, Laura Weidman Powers decided to get her graduate degree at Stanford University. There she realized that Silicon Valley had a diversity problem. As an African-American, she was struck by how few blacks and Latinos attended technology industry networking events. That's the main reason she is co-founder and now CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit that lines up summer internships at technology companies for black and Latino college students from across the country.

In the past three summers, Code2040 has placed 50 students in internships at companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn and SurveyMonkey. Each internship must pay a minimum of $1,000 per week. Virtually all of Code2040's internships have led to full-time jobs so far, Powers said.

Code2040's name refers to the year that most of the U.S. population is projected to be comprised of minorities. Powers is trying to ensure it's not 2040 by the time major technology companies are employing workforces that better reflect the general population.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

After selling a location-sharing application that he created for mobile devices, Wayne Sutton decided he wanted to help other African-American entrepreneurs succeed in technology. He moved from his native North Carolina to San Francisco two years ago and is now raising money for a $5 million fund at Buildup.vc. He is earmarking the money to invest in early-stage startups run by minorities beginning next year. Besides bankrolling good ideas, Sutton also intends to provide advice and connect the entrepreneurs with other key players in Silicon Valley.

"To succeed in tech, you need three things: access, education and wealth," Sutton said.

A RAY OF HOPE

It's tough growing up in East Palo Alto, California, a city with much higher crime rates and much lower household incomes than neighboring communities such as Mountain View, the home of Internet search leader Google and Menlo Park, where social networking leader Facebook is headquartered. With StreetCode Academy, Olatunde Sobomehin is trying to build a road to a better life for teenagers and young adults living in East Palo Alto.

Since the summer, the program has been teaching computer coding and other technology training to East Palo residents between the ages 14 and 24. About 150 people, mostly black, Latino and Polynesian, have enrolled so far.

"No matter where these kids look — whether it's to the east, west, north or south, they are seeing people all around who have it better than they do," Sobomehin said. "We want to change that."

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