As a hiring manager at digital advertising platform Centro, Jeffery Smith says he struggles in the search for minority talent.
“As a Black man myself, I feel confident that I don’t have biases that we might attribute to other hiring managers,” Smith says. “But I have trouble finding minority talent. How do we increase that pool?”
Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the heightened awareness of racial inequality, companies have been scrambling to expand their recruiting pipelines and hire more minority employees. Nowhere is the imbalance more evident than in the lucrative and dynamic technology sector, especially Big Tech, where the number of Black and Latino workers in technical roles and in leadership is in the low single digits.
“If we want to create economic mobility and opportunities for Chicagoans and those who have been left out of Chicago’s growth, we need to be focused on those skill sets and access to those spaces,” says Matt Muench, senior vice president of talent solutions at nonprofit P33, who is working with area companies to help source and develop tech talent from diverse backgrounds.
The tech giants in recent years were pressured by socially conscious investors to publish the data they report to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission on workforce representation of minorities and women. It isn’t pretty. At Google, which employs about 1,200 in Chicago (out of parent Alphabet’s workforce of more than 130,000), Blacks are represented in 2.2 percent of technical roles and Latinos in 4.8 percent of these jobs nationwide.
Fortunately, opportunities in tech go well beyond Silicon Valley. Tech roles are in demand in financial services, health care, retail and transportation—and many firms have vowed to rectify historic imbalances. Some tech executives and recruiters say there are plenty of qualified technical Black and Latino workers and that blaming the pipeline is just an excuse to keep the status quo.
Citing data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Muench points out that 19 percent of bachelor’s degree awards in computing and information sciences go to Black and Latino students. That should supply a robust pool of tech workers, but it also lags their 37 percent representation of the young adult population. Only 8 percent of graduates from the most prestigious programs (such as Stanford and MIT) are Black and Latino, he says.
Moreover, Black and Brown people disproportionately work in the routine IT operations and help desk jobs, which pay well. However, they aren’t the hotshot software engineering positions that can start at $180,000 out of college and build substantial wealth.
Given the disparity, local tech companies and companies that employ tech workers, are seeking new resources, or pipelines, for tech talent, reforming the interview process to mitigate bias and introducing initiatives to support minority workers once they arrive.
Legal software firm Relativity launched a fellowship that provides training and a full-time job for candidates from underserved communities. Groupon is recruiting more developers from coding boot camps. Motorola Solutions looks to historically Black colleges and universities. A range of companies have programs with high schools to introduce students to the possibility of STEM careers, as well as in middle schools, a time when confidence in math gets baked in.
Consulting behemoth McKinsey has made the case that diversity isn’t just socially beneficial, it’s good business. Its most recent analysis found that companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity on executive teams were 36 percent more likely to have profitability above their national industry medians than companies in the fourth quartile. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.
Chicago tech executives say diverse teams deliver rigorous debate and opinions. Diversity also can also help avoid embarrassing missteps, such as when a 2019 government study found that facial recognition algorithms falsely identified African American and Asian American faces. Of course, people in a minority are highly conscious of their difference and are reticent to express a different opinion, says Mike Gamson, CEO of Relativity. “Creating a culture so that you can extract that difference of opinion is beneficial,” he says.
But it can be hard to convince colleagues to go the extra mile to hire a minority candidate who has less experience or doesn’t score as well on a technical exam as a white candidate, says Smith, who is director of production operations at Centro. “Why is this person’s ethnicity or race valuable to the team?” he says. “That can be a hard sell to a team of engineers who are focused on ones and zeros.”
The Silicon Valley giants and the spinoff startups that make founders millionaires are notorious for a lack of diversity. This pool of tech geeks is disproportionately white and Asian American and, as in other fields, they’ve historically hired people like them: people in their social networks, from the top programs at Stanford and MIT.
“The word on the street is that you have to know someone to get those positions,” says Larry Bailey, an IT analyst at Potbelly Chicago who is African American. “You have to know someone who will vouch for you from inside.”
The tech field has been talking about diversity for 20 years, and not a single thing has changed, says Carlton Gates, a Chicago-based recruiter for Yum Brands who has worked at Oracle and Google and is African American. Engineering teams, he says, are tribal. Indian engineering teams don’t hire Chinese engineers, and Chinese engineers don’t hire Indians, and neither group hires Blacks or Latinos, he says.
“When I was at Google, I wanted to identify bias in hiring women. Every time a competent woman was in the interview phase, an engineer that didn’t want women on the team would say, ‘She codes too slow,’ ” Gates recalls. “That’s code for, ‘We’re going to pass on her.’ These kinds of things are used against people of color as well. It eliminates them in the interview process.” A Google spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Gates points out that there are plenty of Black and Brown people in IT operations as desktop technicians, but they hit a roadblock landing the higher-paying jobs in application technology, such as front-end developer and software engineer.
If minority tech workers are stymied in Silicon Valley, they enjoy brighter prospects at public companies as well as the area’s small and midsize technology firms. “Companies like AT&T and Comcast take this more seriously than Big Tech,” Gates says. “They end up hiring more of a diverse workforce.”
United Airlines employs about 1,500 in tech jobs out of its workforce of 95,000—including developers who design and update the websites and mobile apps used by consumers as well as by pilots, flight attendants and gate agents. The carrier is one of 36 area companies working with P33 to find ways of diversifying its tech talent.
Linda Jojo, executive vice president of technology and chief digital officer, says the carrier’s tech minority representation is slightly better than the finding of a 2018 National Science Foundation study that pegged the national science and engineering workforce at 30 percent women, 21 percent Asian American, 6 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Black. Even though we’re slightly higher, Jojo says, “we’re not there yet.”
United and other area tech employers are broadening their traditional recruiting practices, starting or expanding relationships with four- and two-year colleges, including historically Black colleges. Recruiters schmooze attendees at gatherings such as the Grace Hopper conferences for women in tech. And they tap professional organizations such as National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.
“After COVID, things are opening up like gangbusters,” says Tauhidah Shakir, chief diversity officer at Paylocity, a provider of payroll and HR software. She says there’s a scarcity of tech talent in general, so companies must be more resourceful. “You can’t go to the same wells because they are dry.”
When Michelle Bess joined online lender OppFi last year as vice president of talent and DEI, she set a goal of boosting the percentage of women in technical roles from 19 percent to 25 percent in two years. The company exceeded its goal in less than a year by seeking out candidates through organizations such as the Mom Project, Women in Technology and Lesbians Who Tech.
“Our recruitment team spent time going into the community and building relationships,” Bess says. “We want to make sure the process is equitable, that we’re not screening people out too soon.”
Relativity last year started a fellowship program, hiring mostly Black and Latino candidates for a five-month paid training program that leads to a full-time job at the company, a partner or customer. “This is for folks who would not have ended up in an industry like ours,” says CEO Gamson. Relativity also offers paid internships, which Gamson says helps provide the experience that well-off students obtain by unpaid internships or other volunteer work.
Gamson points out that although Relativity is a tech company, it has many roles that are not technical. “If you define a tech job as responsible for writing a discreet line of code, that’s 15 percent of our jobs,” he says. The vast majority of roles in a tech company are nontechnical, such as sales, finance and marketing, he adds.
E-commerce marketplace Groupon reformed its internal recruiting and interviewing process to mitigate unintentional bias, says Chief Technology Officer John Higginson. The company uses a third-party tool to review job postings for language that could be exclusionary. “You might use a catchy phrase that turns out to appeal only to one segment of the population,” he says.
In the interview process, Groupon strives to ensure that there’s diversity in the candidate lineups as well as among the managers doing the interviewing. The candidate’s journey doesn’t have to be the same as that of the hiring manager, Higginson says.
Companies also are going to new lengths to support minority hires so that they don’t flounder for a lack of mentoring and coaching. Groupon is hiring more candidates from boot camps, and because they have less experience than college graduates, they’re assigned a mentor who helps them bridge the gap. “If you take one employee from a university and one from a boot camp, in a couple of years, you can’t tell them apart,” Higginson says.
At Motorola Solutions, business councils for multicultural employees, women, LGBTQ workers and other groups provide opportunities for their members to take on leadership roles, says Chief Diversity Officer Tinisha Agramonte. Motorola recently launched a speaker series featuring leaders from diverse backgrounds, modeled after a women’s series that included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Ariel Investments co-CEO Mellody Hobson.
There’s no doubt that interest in technology starts early. Some companies team with nonprofits or engage directly with middle and high school students with an eye toward broadening the pipeline. Many minority students don’t have role models in tech and or a family connection to even know of the career possibilities.
While there are dozens of nonprofit programs that try to engage students in STEM fields, they tend to be fragmented and not well funded. “They’re not well connected enough so that an individual student is supported along the pathway to get to the ultimate goal,” says Muench at P33. “A student has a great summer experience at a robotics camp, but when he gets back to school in the fall, does the teacher know about it so that the interest is nurtured?”
Some companies are trying to reach students as early as middle school. Groupon invites groups of middle school Girl Scouts to spend a day at the company “to learn about science and technology and see that this is a career (they) could pursue,” Higginson says. He also speaks to students at Chicago Tech Academy in Pilsen about how to break into the field.
Relativity last year provided $50,000 grants to two CPS high schools that serve low income students to purchase laptops, graphing calculators and flash drives.
More than two-thirds of students from diverse backgrounds who enter college saying they plan a STEM major aren’t in those fields by the time they get to junior year, according to an analysis of academic research and administrative data by P33. “That’s a far steeper decline in STEM enrollment than the overall student body,” Muench says. “We’re losing them for a variety of reasons—maybe a student is banging his head against the wall trying to study algorithms.”
Company initiatives underway are a good start, he says, but earlier and more consistent intervention is needed. Even a casual conversation could provide an inspirational spark. A struggling student, Muench says, might be encouraged by a recent grad who counsels, “I know your situation sucks now, but I have a cool job at a fintech startup, so maybe stick with this a bit longer.”