Jack Dorsey, chief executive of messaging company Twitter Inc. and payment processing firm Square Inc. said his companies are trying to break bad habits and recruit more female and minority employees.
“The only way that we’re going to serve customers correctly, no matter where they are, is if we have empathy for them,” said Dorsey Friday at a meeting of the National Society of Black Engineers at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. “And the best way to have empathy for them is to have folks who are more representative of them.”
Concerns about the low numbers of minorities at Twitter have been a major concern for Dorsey since he returned last year as chief executive of the company he cofounded in 2006. But diversity is a hot-button issue throughout Silicon Valley, with companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and others reporting relatively few minority employees and hardly any minorities or women in upper management.
Tech firms face growing pressure from activists and the Obama administration, which last year launched a $100 million initiative to train more low-income workers for technology jobs.
And it’s unclear whether Boston-area tech companies are any different, since, unlike their counterparts in Silicon Valley, few have published data on employee diversity. One company that has, data storage company EMC Corp., reported that as of March 2015, its US workforce was 23 percent female, 16.5 percent Asian, 3.9 percent Hispanic, and 3.7 percent black.
Damon Cox, director of economic development at the Boston Foundation, hopes to set up a research project to compile diversity employment among local firms.
“The tech space is always touted as this meritocracy where race doesn’t matter, gender doesn’t matter,” Cox said. “But it does matter. We all know that there’s a problem.”
One issue facing tech companies is the few African-Americans available. Of the more than 99,000 engineers who graduated from American colleges in 2014, just 3,500 were black, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
“There has to be some sort of culture shift within our community where it’s OK to be a math nerd, it’s OK to want to program computers,” Cox said.
In Boston Dorsey said Twitter’s past employment policies were the result of insular attitudes common among startups.
“We started Twitter with a bunch of people that we knew, and they recruited people they knew, and we kept going and going,” said Dorsey. “At some point, we just realized, we’re only getting people that we know.”
Dorsey also blamed another tradition — hiring only from prestigious universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “A lot of companies are stuck on these ideas,” he said.
At Twitter, these policies have resulted in an executive team of whites and Asians, according to a report issued by the company last year. Only 4 percent of its workforce was Hispanic and 2 percent was African-American.
Even so, Twitter is quite popular among minorities. The Pew Research Center found the service is used by 25 percent of black and Hispanic Internet subscribers. But Dorsey said his company’s low minority employment makes it harder to meet these users’ needs.
“We’re not going to be creative and we‘re not going to be relevant ... unless we have a diverse point of view that is actually representative of who uses the service,” he said. In fact, Lesley Miley, the only African-American engineering manager at Twitter, resigned in November in protest over the company’s failure to hire more black employees.
Dorsey gave his talk at a meeting attended by thousands of African-American engineers and engineering students, including many who might want to work at Twitter.
Khira Momodu, a junior studying industrial engineering at Arizona State University, said many blacks would be uncomfortable at a tech firm with few black colleagues. “A lot of us don’t feel like we fit into that company,” Momodu said.
But she praised Dorsey’s efforts to change this, especially “Code Camp,” a program from Square that teaches engineering to minority students.
Gloria Kimbwala, a university specialist for Square, runs a Code Camp and recruits new employees by visiting schools with higher minority enrollment. And she pays little attention to a potential hire’s grade-point average.
“I just want to make sure that you can code. To me that’s what matters,” said Kimbwala.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.