When the Rev. Jesse Jackson started to call attention to the lack of diversity in the tech industry back in the late 1990s, he got a mixed reception and nothing much changed.
Jackson has received a different, much more receptive response since he renewed his effort last year. Under pressure from his Rainbow PUSH organization, numerous corporations have released demographic data on their employees, showing in concrete terms how few blacks and Latinos they employed or had in positions of power. Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard and Apple have named black board members, and Intel has announced it will invest $300 million in an effort to improve the diversity not just of its workforce but of the tech sector in general.
While the longtime civil rights leader and former presidential candidate is pleased with the change so far, he’s pushing for far more. Many tech firms, including Facebook and Twitter, still lack minority representation in the upper echelons of their leadership. Others, including Uber, have declined to disclose their employment demographics.
Jackson spoke about the progress so far and the work that remains to be done. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why do you think Silicon Valley and some of these big tech companies are more receptive to the message of diversity today than they were when you first started this campaign in the late ’90s?
A: At one level, they’re embarrassed. When you have 189 board members and among them are 36 white women, three blacks and one Latino — those numbers, with Bloomberg in the back of the room and some of the others from the American news in the back of the room, and the financial news — we’re embarrassing them.
Q: If you look at this as a long-term campaign, where do you think you’re at?
A: I think it’s early in the morning. You have some more on the board that were not there. You have some more people in the C-suites who were not there. You have some more workers who were not there.
But ultimately, our goal is not just diversity, but justice. We want reciprocal trade. We want two-way trade. We want to do as much trade with you as you do with us. Diversity is a scratch at the surface.
Q: What does “two-way trade” mean? What does that look like?
A: Well, if we trade with you, you trade with us. We have lawyers, ad agencies, marketing, banking, financial services. Apple did a couple of bond offerings now with blacks in financial services, for example. Trade with us!
If we’re consuming with you at 15 percent, we want you to do that much business with us. As long as the industry grows, we want to grow with the industry. We want some relationship between our consumer investment and opportunities to participate.
Q: When asked about the lack of diversity in the tech industry, many in Silicon Valley have long blamed the “pipeline problem,” claiming that there just aren’t enough blacks and Latinos who are graduating with engineering or computer science-type degrees. What do you make of that argument?
A: If there are not enough trained youth, train them. It costs less to train them than to leave them untrained.
We did a thing last summer with Toyota, and they did a vetting process. Those who passed the process would get $25,000 a year for college for three years. Man, people lined up like they were looking for a Walmart job. There were so many kids!
And so that’s why, if you want 100,000 kids trained, train them! Go to the given school systems and say, “We want this.”
Q: When you say, “train them,” do you think that’s the job of these tech corporations to do that, or do they need to be lobbying government?
A: The government, public and private sector must all work on this. It’s all our national interest — equip our youth to have the capacity to engage in this industry. I mean, the pipeline that they built to Delhi, India, and China in the last 20 years, they can build the same pipeline to Memphis; Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Greenville, South Carolina.
What I’m finding as we travel around the country is that our youths have gotten it, and school systems are beginning to get it now. There’s a growing consciousness in the country now, now that they’re seeing the doors opening. I don’t know a place that we go where the schools are not lined up trying to get access to Silicon Valley.
Q: You mentioned the idea of foreign workers. The use of foreign labor, particularly foreign workers that are employed in the valley under the H-1B program, has long been important to tech companies. Do you see the H-1B issue being in opposition to the goal of employing more minority workers in the tech sector?
A: Yes, at some level, because the excuse was that we couldn’t be found and we’re not qualified, but there was something magical happening across the ocean. They could be found, they were qualified.
But they were developing because they were investing in their development. They were not investing in East Palo Alto, in L.A. They were not looking for American youth.