As our world grows more diverse, local tech companies are still mostly white and male.
THE FIRST THING that tends to happen when someone new attends an event hosted by HERE Seattle, a networking group for tech workers and creatives who are interested in diversity, is they just stand there and take in the room full of black and brown faces and women.
Many of the group’s founding members are African-American transplants from the South, and they brought their Southern hospitality with them.
You’re greeted family-style; that is to say, eye-to-eye, with a smile and a look so knowing, you might think you’re at a backyard reunion.
HERE Seattle events are so special because gatherings like these in Seattle are so rare, particularly in a local tech industry that’s infamously lacking in diversity.
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Redmond-based Microsoft, one of the world’s largest software companies, with 114,000 employees, is representative of the general state of affairs.
Black, Latino, Pacific Islander, Native American and multiracial employees combined made up just 8 percent of the company’s U.S.-based tech work force in 2015, according to its annual diversity report. Those groups represent only 7 percent of the company’s leadership.
In King County, however, those groups account for about 20 percent of the population.
The figure for Microsoft tech workers of Asian descent is much higher, 35.2 percent, but that number is greatly influenced by the common tech-industry practice of hiring from countries like India and China through the H1-B Visa program for highly skilled workers.
Female techies don’t fare well, either.
That same Microsoft report says women make up just 17.1 percent of its workers in tech-related jobs and 17.3 percent of employees in leadership positions.
In 2015, Dadaviz.com published a ranking chart that perfectly illustrates how bad things are here. Among the top 20 “startup ecosystems” around the world, Seattle ranked dead last for the percentage of female tech-company founders (8 percent) and employees working for local tech firms (26 percent).
HERE Seattle is one of many grass-roots efforts to cultivate untapped tech talent and better connect with underrepresented communities, as this new graphic and resource list from the Washington Technology Industry Association shows.
Seth Stell, a transplant from Dallas, is the president and co-founder of HERE Seattle. Stell, an account executive at Kirkland-based UIEvolution, says he doesn’t attribute the lack of diversity to craven racism and sexism.
“Especially here in Seattle, there’s an overwhelming desire to speak to the geek community,” which is mainly white and male, Stell explains.
But “that’s just one subset” of tech workers, he says. People who have other backgrounds and qualities to contribute also should feel welcome and supported in the industry.
“With HERE Seattle, we wanted to create events that were not geek-forward,” Stell says. “We wanted to create a community that people cannot ignore.”
HERE Seattle is more than a social outlet. The group offers different ways to get involved, including regular “co-working Fridays” at communal work spaces around town, and tutoring and mentoring events for young people, putting faces and names to an industry that kids in some communities rarely get exposed to.
Stell, 31, grew up in an upper-middle-class, black household. He attended a predominantly white, private high school and was into skateboarding and punk rock.
He’s a music-playing, fashion-conscious, motorcycle-riding country boy, a prime example of the multilayered nature of “diversity.”
Stell likens HERE Seattle to the misfit table at the high-school cafeteria.
“To some degree, we’ve all experienced some level of disregard, insensitivity or exclusion,” he says.
As she pans the room at the HERE Seattle meetup, Jessica Burns’ face lights up over the concentration of African Americans like herself.
After working 10 years in finance, Burns recently decided to enroll in a coding academy for women in the Bay Area, with hopes of becoming a software engineer.
Now she works for Boeing as a liaison between the company’s IT team and business units.
“It’s a wonderful homecoming,” says Burns, who grew up in the Seattle area and once attended a high school in which she was one of only three black students. “I never thought that meeting other technologically inclined black women was possible.”
A single mother of three, Burns wants to pass to them her love for technology, something she learned from her father.
But she also wants to inspire other mothers who dream of going into tech but fear the industry might not be accommodating to women with families.
“I’M USED TO being one of the only black workers, or black-woman workers,” says Tina-Marie Gulley, a marketing specialist for tech firms, who attended the same event.
Gulley helps manage the local branch of the national organization ChickTech, which offers programs aimed at inspiring girls, especially those from poor and marginalized communities, to consider careers as software engineers, IT professionals and web developers.
The organization also sponsors workshops and programs for adult women looking to enter and advance in the industry.
“We understand that women are not getting a seat at the table and, even more, that minority women aren’t getting a seat at the table,” Gulley says. “We help women with tangible skills; we don’t just talk about diversity.”
Gulley’s a regular at events focusing on the subject.
On a recent Saturday morning, she is among the tech workers, students, recruiters, managers and entrepreneurs gathered at General Assembly, a co-working space and coding program in downtown Seattle, to discuss concrete ways to make diversity and inclusion more meaningful.
The event is part of a summerlong series of workshops focused on diversity and inclusion in the industry. The final one in August focused on issues and struggles particular to LGBTQ employees in tech.
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Also at the workshop is Steven Matly, founder and CEO of SM Diversity, a minority-owned recruiting, staffing and consultant-referral firm that helps companies diversify staff and address inclusion issues.
He says his job is sometimes like that of a confessor: He hears from employers who are struggling with how to identify and cultivate talent and meet diversity goals as well as from job-seekers struggling to advance in an industry that’s still learning cultural competence and outreach.
Matly says tech companies need to audit themselves to make sure they’re doing all they can in terms of reaching out to different communities, networking with organizations, creating a hospitable and constructive environment for all employees, and checking for unspoken biases in hiring choices.
Black Dot, a co-working space in Seattle’s Central District geared toward entrepreneurs of color, gives people with great tech ideas a place to network, learn and put their own business dreams into motion.
This spring, Black Dot, founded by K. Wyking Garrett, Aramis Hamer, Monica Washington and Mujale Chisebuka, won the regional “Geek of the Year” award from GeekWire.
The founders started the organization after attending last year’s Hack the Central District Cultural Innovation Conference.
In collaboration with the Africatown economic and cultural development organization, which Garrett co-founded, Black Dot offers a three-month accelerator program, a startup boot camp to help launch new businesses.
The organization’s Facebook page lists tech-job openings and other employment resources.
Co-founder Hamer says part of the problem with getting more young people of color into the industry is the lack of resources based where people live and spend their time. Black Dot’s location at 23rd and Union, the historic heart of Seattle’s fast-dwindling black community, is intentional.
“It’s a community space where there are people who look like you, who have the same struggles as you and who are on the same path,” she says. “To be around people who are motivated and inspired by a goal inspires you, too.”
TECH FIRMS LIKE to market themselves as innovators and disrupters.
But there’s nothing innovative or disruptive about offices that remain 60, 70 or even 80 percent male and white, while the world (and our own Puget Sound region) grows more diverse and accepting, and while more women aspire to be tech moguls.
The technology revolution should be a boon to all, but the reality is some minority groups have been virtually shut out.
“From a civil rights standpoint, this is one of the most significant issues of our lifetime — access to employment opportunities,” says Darren Varnado, a consultant at SM Diversity.
He says many tech firms rely on their employees’ personal social networks and connections to help fill prime job openings.
Here’s the problem: Most of us live in a racially exclusive world, either by choice or circumstance.
When the research firm PRRI conducted its 2013 American Values Survey to better understand how people form their social circles, it found that among white Americans, 91 percent of the people in their networks also were white, the highest percentage of the racial groups studied.
The reality is tech firms can’t count on diversity and inclusion happening organically.
What’s more, failing to take the initiative on employment disparities is bad business.
A 2009 report published by the American Sociological Association says that companies with the highest levels of racial or gender diversity earned roughly 15 times more sales revenue than those with the lowest levels.
“It will take people who have different world views to find solutions and identify new market opportunities,” Varnado says, noting his firm has built a large base of highly qualified tech job-seekers with varied backgrounds. “Beyond the right thing to do, it’s a competitive advantage.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s message was clear when he spoke at Amazon’s annual shareholders meeting in 2015, as the Seattle-based online retailer came under pressure to address its own stark racial and gender disparities among tech employees: “Inclusion leads to growth.”
Diversity and inclusion efforts by companies themselves are on the rise, with a lot of firms offering affinity groups for workers of color, LGBTQ employees, foreign nationals and others. Some have brought in high-powered executives to push for change from the inside. The results so far have been mixed.
Last year, Microsoft reported that the number of blacks and Latinos increased slightly but that the number of female employees actually went down, despite its recruiting attempts. The company declined to be a part of this story.
Facebook’s points-based reward system to encourage its recruiters to hire more minorities and women has failed to significantly boost numbers. Facebook has blamed a lack of qualified candidates, but experts dispute this reasoning.
“The companies certainly talk a lot about diversity and are making an effort, but are they actually going into these communities?” wonders Dan Bernard, a workforce and economic development expert with King County.
He says socially conscious coding academies might offer an alternative path of entry for people of color, women and other marginalized groups to enter the tech industry, and that more of these schools are coming online, along with a number of grant-funded training programs aimed at diversifying the industry.
New York Code + Design Academy’s new Seattle outlet recently opened an industrial-chic branch in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, only blocks from offices housing Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and, soon, Google.
During a recent conversation, the academy’s Seattle community manager, Jessica Eggert, is brimming with ideas about how to do meaningful diversity.
For instance, it costs about $15,000 to transfer a worker to the Seattle area, she says. Why not dedicate more money to training underrepresented locals from neighborhoods where good-job opportunities are scarce, spurring economic development in our own backyard?
Code schools aren’t cheap, either. The New York Code + Design Academy’s 12- to 14-week, full-time main program costs $10,000, and it is a daytime class, meaning it’s not a real option for someone who is financially strapped or has a day job.
The academy was set to offer a lower-cost, nighttime program this fall.
Eggert adds that companies also need to do a better job monitoring who’s being promoted, who’s rubbing shoulders with supervisors and executives in corner offices, who’s being tapped for important teams and divisions and who’s being taken out to lunch.
Inclusion and fairness matter after someone gets hired, too.
“I HAVE A theory,” Luna Alvarez says over lunch in downtown Seattle, near where she works as the only woman on the engineering team of a tech startup.
The 22-year-old transplant from California is trying to figure out why women are so underrepresented in tech.
“It starts from the moment a little girl picks up a math or science hobby, and their parents give them a doll,” she says.
Alvarez didn’t really envision working in tech herself until a software-engineer boyfriend nudged her to pursue it, and taught her the basics of writing code for email.
After lots of trial and error and self-doubt, she finally got the hang of coding.
She wound up getting a $10,000 opportunity grant to attend classes at General Assembly and graduated recently from the national organization’s first web-development immersive program in Seattle.
Alvarez says her mother is white and her father has Mexican and Native American heritage. But because of her fair skin, she walks between those cultural worlds, in life and at work.
But as Alvarez grows more confident — as a woman, as someone who’s part Latino who grew up in a racially mixed environment, as the scrappy product of a poor family now living in a thoroughly upper-middle-class city — she has started to appreciate who she is and what she brings to the table as a professional.
“I’m done being repressed and feeling bad about myself because I’m Mexican,” Alvarez says.
Now she wants to bring other young women from economically struggling communities into the industry by teaching girls to code, and mentoring them.
Like Tina-Marie Gulley, Alvarez is involved with ChickTech.
“I want to go to Everett; I want to go to Rainier Beach; I want to go to White Center,” she says. “I want the industry to be better.”