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‘Nothing actually changes’: Boston tech workers of color blast the sector’s attempts to be antiracist

Pariss Chandler is the founder of Black Tech Pipeline, a group aimed at diversifying the tech industry.
Pariss Chandler is the founder of Black Tech Pipeline, a group aimed at diversifying the tech industry.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

After the police killing of George Floyd, Boston’s technology companies were quick to pledge their support for racial equality.

HubSpot, the marketing technology firm, said it stood with the Black community “now more than ever.” Drizly, the alcohol delivery company, told the Black community that “your lives matter.” Wayfair, the online furniture giant, posted a black box on Instagram, and its chief executive officer, Niraj Shah, told employees in a note that “racism in any form (explicit or implicit) is unacceptable.”

More than a year later, there are signs of progress: Some companies have hired more workers of color, others have issued hiring goals that they can be measured by in the near future; while some have brought on new executives to lay the groundwork for systemic changes in recruitment and hiring.

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But overall, the needle has yet to move much on the industry’s woeful record on diversity. The tech industry remains largely white and has not shed its reputation for elitism. The talent pipeline routes through a select number of exclusive and expensive universities, and the hiring process skews in favor of candidates with educations from traditional degree programs.

Entrepreneurs of color who aren’t members of this club still struggle to get backing from venture capitalists, and some Black and brown employees say their work environments remain indifferent or ineffective at addressing racial issues.

“Nothing actually changes,” said Pariss Chandler, a Boston-area coder and founder of the Black Tech Pipeline, a group that helps technology companies hire and retain Black workers. “This has been happening forever. Everything feels really temporary and performative.”

This report is based on interviews with nearly 20 Boston-area tech employees, startup founders, and advocates of color, who said the fight to diversify Boston’s tech industry will take years. It also comes amid research that shows nationwide, technology companies that made statements of solidarity with the Black community after the murder of George Floyd employed 20 percent fewer Black employees on average than those that didn’t, according to an analysis by Blendoor, an analytics company that specializes in diversity issues.

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Since last year HubSpot’s workforce has become more diverse; of its 4,200-plus employees globally, roughly 73 percent are white, compared to 78.1 percent a year ago. Katie Burke, the chief people officer of HubSpot, wrote in a June blog post that “real progress” on the company’s diversity goals will be better measured over “five years.”

To that end, Wayfair, a behemoth in Boston’s technology scene, launched its first diversity report this year. Spokeswoman Susan Frechette said Wayfair is “committed to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace,” and remains “focused on making meaningful progress” on its diversity goals. Meanwhile, Berkshire Bank, which is based in Boston, has created co-working space and micro loans for underrepresented entrepreneurs.

Local tech executives have rallied around an initiative called HackDiversity, raising funds for its efforts to train and develop workers of color for jobs in Boston’s technology community. Coding boot camps intended to democratize the learning process have sprung up and created hiring partnerships with the region’s largest employers, and a leading trade group has called on the local community to double its Black and Latino workforce by 2030.

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Yet the fundamental drivers of racial inequality are deeply embedded in Massachusetts, and will take years of systemic reform to overturn, employees interviewed said. Families of color in Massachusetts earn significantly less than their white counterparts, rendering many unable to live in high-end school districts or invest in expensive training required of most technology jobs. The state’s top universities, where companies prefer to recruit, churn out low levels of Black and Latino graduates.

Data from 2020 show that only 5 percent of Massachusetts’ tech workers are Black, and around 7 percent are Latino. And of the 100 largest public companies in the state, around two-thirds did not have a Black board member. (Nine percent of the state population is Black, and 12 percent is Latino, census figures show.)

David Delmar Sentíes, founder of the coding boot camp Resilient Coders, said a key element fueling the disparity is hiring managers’ desire for candidates with bachelor’s degrees. In an industry where some of the most celebrated executives are college dropouts, including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, Sentíes said it is still the case that large companies in Boston flock to the region’s top universities to fill their ranks.

“This is the land of BC, BU, Harvard, MIT, Tufts, and Northeastern,” he said. “People take it for granted. But to insist that somebody has a degree, means that you’re eliminating from consideration like 70 percent of Black and Latinx folks.”

Chandler said that a more systemic reform in how companies evaluate job candidates is needed.

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She pointed to coding challenges — exercises used in the interview process for technology jobs — which skew in favor of candidates who have obtained computer science degrees from four-year colleges.

She remembers her own experience, as a graduate of the Resilient Coders boot camp, taking a hiring test at a large technology company in Boston and being asked questions on theoretical computer concepts like binary trees. Chandler did not get the job.

“That’s something [college graduates] learned in the four years that they’ve had in school,” she said. “I went to a boot camp for eight weeks. I’m not learning all of that. I’m learning how to code.”

The business case for diversity is strong. Boston Consulting Group found in 2018 that companies with diverse management teams earned 20 percent more revenue from new innovations than less diverse organizations. Paul Gompers, a professor at Harvard Business School, showed that diverse venture capital firms were more successful at investing in companies that end up acquired or going public.

Despite that, Corey Thomas, chief executive officer of Boston-based cybersecurity company Rapid7, predicted that diversifying Boston’s tech industry will take years.

Thomas — the lone Black CEO of a publicly traded company based in Massachusetts — said that for companies to get serious about living up to antiracist ideals, they must “get rid of some of the elitism” in the industry, and recruit from nontraditional areas, including community colleges and programs such as HackDiversity.

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He also said that tech leaders should place less emphasis on hiring through internal employee referrals. “If you have employees who actually spend time with people [that have] backgrounds like them,” he said, “then those are the only people you’re going to see in your referral ecosystem.”

Natalie Cantave, a Somerville-based tech worker who is Black, said that during the racial reckoning last year, what bothered her most was not any overt acts of bigotry, but how she was treated by her “well-meaning” white friends.

Cantave remembers friends on her Twitter feed kept saying “Black Lives Matter.” Her white colleagues at work, a startup accelerator in Boston, scheduled time on her calendar to “check in.” Another friend sent her $50 over Venmo, even though she was not in need.

“It feels like it’s well intentioned, but it’s more about them feeling good, and that’s what’s harmful,” she said. “It’s easy to throw up a tweet or send money, but it’s harder to do the work where it really counts.”

“Hiring somebody to do a workshop or presentation is cute," said Cristina Costa, a Boston-based tech worker turned diversity consultant. "It’s nice ... but if companies really want to make those changes, they have to invest into it.”
“Hiring somebody to do a workshop or presentation is cute," said Cristina Costa, a Boston-based tech worker turned diversity consultant. "It’s nice ... but if companies really want to make those changes, they have to invest into it.”Barry Chin/Globe Staff

As racial unrest grew, tech workers in Boston said a common phenomenon sprung up: diversity panels.

Cristina Costa, a Boston-based tech worker turned diversity and inclusion consultant, remembers speaking at a Zoom panel last summer on “How to be an antiracist,” at Mainstay, an education technology company in Boston. Before speaking, she talked to a few employees of color there. They told her they were unhappy with the work environment there and wanted hiring managers to interview and hire more diverse talent.

Costa, who is Latina, said she talked about the importance of diversifying the hiring pipeline, and remembered the two-hour conversation felt good in the moment. But months later, in February, an employee at Mainstay told her things had “not changed at all,” she recalled.

“I’m not surprised,” Costa said. “Hiring somebody to do a workshop or presentation is cute ... but if companies really want to make those changes, they have to invest into it.”

Told of the criticism from his employees and Costa, Mainstay chief executive Andrew Magliozzi said in a statement. “Hosting panels is far from enough. ... We recognize the hard work, time, and re-learning of certain behaviors and perspectives that must go into any effort to build a culture that is rooted in equity, justice, and belonging.”

Tech entrepreneurs of color also said venture capital firms need to do better. In the first half of 2021, just 1.2 percent of the record-breaking $147 billion in venture capital invested in US startups went to Black founders, Crunchbase data shows. In Boston, where record-breaking levels of venture capital funding are flowing into the city, entrepreneurs of color say they don’t see it.

Adjoa Edzie, founder of a music technology startup Gruuvv, said that as a Black female entrepreneur, she will have to work twice as hard to get noticed by venture capitalists in Boston.

“There’s white males that would go to a firm and have a great idea and pitch it with nothing, and they can get funding,” she said. “But if you’re a person of color, you have to have the [product demo], the traction, following, and contacts just to get considered. ... I want to make sure I have as much traction as possible. I don’t want to get laughed out of the room.”

Daniel Acheampong, cofounder of Visible Hands, a venture capital firm in Boston which funds and trains underrepresented founders, said mentorship programs have grown, but that leads to its own problems, which Black founders have noticed.

“They’re over-mentored and under-invested,” Acheampong said. “If I had the magic wand, I’d say to VCs: ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’”


Pranshu Verma can be reached at pranshu.verma@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @pranshuverma_.