The Diversifying Tech Caucus, the bipartisan, bicameral caucus that Engine helped establish last year, held its first briefing of 2016 earlier this week. The Capitol room was packed with over 70 congressional staffers who heard from a panel of tech workers, leaders, and entrepreneurs about African American participation in the tech workforce. The numbers aren't great, with African Americans making up just 6 percent of STEM workers, a dismal 2 percent of employees at major Silicon Valley firms, and an even smaller percentage of venture-backed startups. Yet, many efforts, from private industry as well as non-profit organizations, are underway to the bolster the participation and leadership of blacks in tech.
Dean Garfield, the President and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), moderated the conversation. We heard from Joseph Nsengimana, the Director of Pipeline Development at Intel. Joseph oversees the various initiatives funded through the $300 million Diversity Fund Intel established last year. Through this fund and other efforts, Intel hopes to reach full representation of women and underrepresented minorities at the company by 2020. Joseph spoke about the importance of funding and supporting diverse entrepreneurs and leaders within tech companies. Greater representation of minorities in this community is paramount if the U.S. is going to maintain its preeminence as the world’s leading innovator, Joseph explained.
Terrance Colter, a senior account executive at Pandora, spoke about his experience within Pandora. The company, he explained, has long embraced employee diversity, a value that’s rooted in its product: music. Terrance also highlighted that Pandora was one of the first Silicon Valley companies to locate its headquarters across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland, which is rapidly becoming a destination for growing startups, including Uber. This represents an opportunity for the city with a history of social justice and a population of over half African American and Latinos. USA Today reported last month, “Entrepreneurs and community activists here are working to turn Oakland into a national model for re-engineering the tech industry to better reflect the demographics of the country.”
The conversation also included perspectives from two African American entrepreneurs who shared their experiences navigating the tech industry and ultimately, building their own companies. Sage Salvo runs Words Liive, an education company, from the Halcyon Incubator in DC. He discussed the challenge as a black entrepreneur in having to be “twice as good” as his counterparts in order to succeed. Angel Rich, the CEO and Founder of Wealth Factory, Inc. also participated, discussing the many biases she’s confronted in her career as a black female entrepreneur. But Angel was also optimistic—in just the past few years, support networks and programs for black entrepreneurs and tech employees have popped up across the country. There’s finally a real conversation about the severe lack of diversity in the industry and dedicated efforts to address the issue.
So what can Congress do to support these efforts? For one, Dean reminded the audience of Congressional staffers, consider the President’s $4 billion computer science proposal to expand CS education in public schools. But K-12 education is only one part of the solution. The government also plays a role in expanding capital access, setting industry standards, convening stakeholders, and funding the networks and programs that help both tech workers and entrepreneurs succeed. The Diversifying Tech Caucus plans to continue hosting briefings exploring these issues and will hopefully champion legislation that meaningfully addresses them.