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Debugging Diversity in Silicon Valley

by Shawn
Silicon Valley

Chloé Alpert believes that Silicon Valley’s diversity problem is not an easy one to explain.

“How do you describe the ocean to someone who’s never seen it before?”, she says.

Alpert is one of three panelists at Berkeley’s Engineering Week’s Fireside Chat who gathered to address tough questions about the undercurrent of racial and gender inequality in the tech industry. Good thing too — as a white male, when it comes to understanding employment inequality, I am lost at sea.

In an attempt to emphasize just how diverse manifestations of the problem of under-representation in tech were themselves, the Fireside Chat held on campus during Berkeley’s Engineering Week brought in panelists from a variety of backgrounds including Wayne Sutton, an African-American serial entrepreneur, and investor; Chloé Alpert, founder and Chief Compliance Officer of Bay Area startup Teaman & Company and Karla Monterroso, an outspoken Latina and Vice President of Programs at the non-profit group CODE2040. The panel was moderated by Kat Manalac, a partner at startup accelerator Y Combinator. All have swum upstream against gender and ethnic biases themselves, accomplishing impressive feats in the process.

It is no secret that the scales of gender and ethnic inclusion are off-balance for tech firms in the Bay Area. Reports highlighting the lack of diversity in tech continue to roll in, wave after wave. Google, for one, recently admitted they need to do better. At the Internet giant, the number of women in technology-related roles hovers around 17%. And with African-Americans and Hispanics making up just 2 and 3 percent of the workforce, the facts speak for themselves. Such statistics are consistent across the industry with companies like Facebook, Yahoo, and LinkedIn showing strikingly similar breakdowns.

But numbers alone fall short, for they leave out the emotion needed to tackle the toughest problems. Although hard-hitting, statistics are simply not enough when it comes to effecting change. How do those not belonging to a minority group honestly sympathize?

That is where Fireside Chats come in. The purpose of the Fireside Chat is to educate by storytelling, for it is through stories that we really learn about one another. Stories allow us to step outside of ourselves and try on a different pair of shoes. They make it possible to celebrate triumphs or feel for the struggles of complete strangers. So, in the absence of first-hand experience with racial or gender exclusion, stories act as a lighthouse, guiding one’s thinking through the rough and occasionally controversial terrain of employment equality.

The start-up world is sink or swim, and it is difficult to remain afloat as an entrepreneur. Now add on top of that an anchor of loneliness and another of insecurity, both driven by racial discrimination. It is no wonder, then, that only 1% of venture-backed start-ups have an African-American founder.

The experiences of Wayne Sutton bring us a little closer to understanding the difficulty for an African-American to network in the Bay Area. Sutton tells stories about being at networking events and mixers where he is the only black man. He walks around and introduces himself but nobody will engage him in a conversation. His experiences are the epitome of feeling alone in a crowded room, and would undoubtedly accelerate feelings of imposter syndrome and founder depression.

The narrative of sexual harassment is all too common in Silicon Valley as well: women arrange meetings with venture capitalists only to find out when they show up that some VCs perceive such meetings to date, women are courted in an exceedingly aggressive manner within the office and are subject to sexual harassment on far too regular a basis. Nevertheless, as Chloe Alpert revealed during the Chat, these ills present but one facet of the issue of gender inequality in tech.

Alpert’s story paints a worrisome picture about the access to capital for start-up companies with female leaders. Teaman & Company, the start-up she founded, is a jewelry merchant whose sales are currently taking off. Not too long ago, the next step for the young company was to land a Series A round of funding and expand its operations. However, Alpert knew that with women receiving only 4% of the venture capital in Silicon Valley, the odds were against her– companies are much more likely to receive venture funding if led by a male. Consequentially, she stepped down as CEO, appointed a male interim-CEO and locked down the financing round. She should not have had to do that.

Such stories give us a glimpse into the everyday life of those in Silicon Valley whose world map is drawn by racial and gender lines and constitute a critical first step in understanding the issue of inequality in tech from a variety of perspectives. They allow us to see beyond cold and unemotional statistics, however hard-hitting and empathize. Moreover, they challenge us to see the world a little differently and — as panel moderator Kat Manalac implored — “rethink our filter.”

The bits and bytes that drive innovation are color-blind and gender-neutral. And once we truly get that, we begin to understand how the ocean looks — regardless of our proximity to the coast.

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