Guest column

What they don’t want to tell you about tech diversity

Andy Dubbin/FUSION

The International Business Times published an article recently promising to explain why Silicon Valley is failing miserably at diversity.

Before we get to the answer, let’s take a look at the experience of Angelica Coleman, an employee at triple-OG Y Combinator startup Dropbox:

Frustratingly, she was frequently mistaken for the other African-American women at Dropbox by her coworkers, and she says peers did little to engage with her and learn about her interests. Around the time of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, one co-worker told her, “Black people get shot and killed every day — it’s not that big of a deal.”

Let’s pause for moment and take that in.

More about Angelica, who despite this alienation, was a real badass at work:

Coleman taught herself how to code in Python and other programming languages through practice, with help from friends and through the learn-to-code club she started at the cloud-computing company.

Huh. So Angelica taught herself to code and contributed to the org’s culture by starting a club. That sounds pretty great. That’s what leaders like to see, right? Taking the initiative, being a self-starter.

This is the story of a lot of tech’s outsiders, who must go above and beyond the call to prove themselves and move up. Luckily, startups always have more problems than people available to solve them, so anyone willing to reach and take on deeper work should find their contributions welcomed.

After receiving great reviews for her work, Coleman in late 2014 finally tried to jump into a bigger role on Dropbox’s user research and user experience design team, which is when she was told to focus on her administrative role or leave the company.

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Unusual among the stated goals of any growth-oriented organization, Dropbox was indifferent to Angelica’s ambitions and obvious drive.

Why is that?

Let’s see what Dropbox had to say:

Diversity is a critical issue for us at Dropbox … It’s sad for us to hear that a former employee feels otherwise, but we don’t feel that her personal account is an accurate reflection of Dropbox’s work environment and culture

Huh. I’m not sure I understand. Angelica worked at Dropbox and was part of the culture. Whatever happened to her there would, as a matter of fact, reflect at least some element of those things.

Are they saying Angelica is lying? I guess she could be. I don’t know her. But maybe she would risk her entire career and reputation just to say something mean about Dropbox.

But I don’t think so.

On the other hand, I do know Dropbox.

every time the company holds an all hands ‘goals’ meeting, the only people who talk are men. There are no females in leadership. The highest ranking is a team lead on the User Ops team.

I dunno. Angelica is sounding pretty credible. [Editor’s note: Dropbox’s chief financial officer, Vanessa Wittman, is a woman.]

About that diversity

What they won’t tell you about tech diversity is that the tree is rotten to its very roots. Tech diversity is a problem of who gets money to start businesses.

Sam Altman wears too many polo shirts

Sam Altman, nervous about the vaunted WWDC stage, accidentally dons two polo shirts

Venture capital is an overwhelmingly white and male culture. The stats for companies like Dropbox show how this sourcing problem manifests in workplace diversity:

  • 34 percent female
  • 4 percent Hispanic
  • 1 percent black

You can’t take companies that were founded by a mostly homogenous group and funded by a mostly homogenous group and then bolt diversity onto them late in their lifecycle. That’s not how it works. Only diverse leadership can build a culture, foundation-up, that allows a diverse workforce to feel safe, supported and included.

Venture capital is the culprit — this is a systemic issue.

Remember Y Combinator, the top Silicon Valley incubator and original funders of the epic brodown at Dropbox? They’re attempting to introduce diversity into their funding process. New chief Sam Altman, though, reports that unique among most mature businesses, YC isn’t using any sort of metrics to guide or measure their success on this front.

Why is that?

Incidentally, Altman replaced YC’s founder, Paul Graham. Graham stepped down from running the firm shortly after his tone deaf remarks on gender and diversity issues brought close and unflattering scrutiny.

So what do we do?

Diverse companies are built by diverse leadership.

Diverse leadership builds companies with the money of diverse benefactors.

But we’re in a bind here. Money is disproportionately allocated to white people. In the United States, median net worth of white households is 13x greater than black households and 10x greater than hispanic households. That means there are more white people in a position to make funding decisions and more white people able to sustain the risk of building an uncertain business.

Meanwhile, only 8.5% of the world’s billionaires are women.

What they won’t tell you about tech diversity is that it’s a perfect reflection of the economic injustices marginalized communities struggle with, and have struggled with, for a very long time.

Fixing tech diversity will take creative and perhaps even radical approaches. There aren’t enough people at the top of the pyramid who value the struggle and initiative of outsiders like Angelica Coleman.

Until that changes, all we can do is speak up in support of all the people who want to be part of building the 21st century.

Especially when they get a raw deal.

 

Danilo Campos is a self-taught designer/developer who led mobile software launches at San Francisco startups Hipmunk and Level Money. He now works as a technology consultant and educator. This post was originally published at DaniloCampos.com, and is being republished with permission.

 

Update: In response to Danilo Campos’ guest column, which drew from statements by former Dropbox employee Angelica Coleman, a Dropbox spokesperson says: “Diversity is a critical issue for us at Dropbox. We work hard to ensure that all of our employees feel supported and have opportunities to build careers they love, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or anything else that makes them who they are. It’s sad for us to hear that a former employee feels otherwise, but we don’t feel that her personal account is an accurate reflection of Dropbox’s work environment and culture.”