Business & Tech

shirley leung

Tech firms have a lot to do to fix diversity

11/16/2016 BOSTON, MA CEO Melissa James (cq) (center) spoke with Andy Jacques (cq) (left) during a Tech Connection meet-up at 50 Milk Street in Boston. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Melissa James (center) spoke with Andy Jacques during a Tech Connection meet-up in Boston on Wednesday. James is CEO of the company.

Everyone knows the tech industry has a problem recruiting black and Latino workers.

How bad is it?

This bad: In Massachusetts, black people make up only 3 percent of computer workers and Hispanic people account for 5 percent, while white people constitute 72 percent. Workers of Asian or Indian descent are 19 percent of the computer field.

Advertisement

That’s all according to a recent Mass Technology Leadership Council report. But when the group convenes again on Friday to discuss weighty issues of global disruption, diversity will also be on the agenda in a big way.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

A coalition of business, academia, and nonprofit types have come together to launch Hack.Diversity, a program to recruit black and Latino computer science and engineering students from local urban colleges. The pilot effort will place graduating students in internships at area tech companies and give them mentors and support to land a permanent job.

The first cohort in May will involve about 20 students from Bunker Hill Community College, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The inaugural group of participating companies are Carbonite, DataXu, HubSpot, and Vertex.

“This has been way overdue,” said Jody Rose, executive director of the New England Venture Capital Association, whose group cofounded the program with Melissa James, CEO of Tech Connection, and Boston venture capitalist Jeff Bussgang.

Diversity in the tech industry is where women were a decade ago in pushing for female directors on corporate boards. What drove both movements is a talent shortage and a realization that talented groups are being left behind.

Advertisement

This is not just a Massachusetts problem. Silicon Valley tech giants have reported embarrassingly low numbers of black and Latino employees. At Google, only 2 percent of its workforce is black and 3 percent is Hispanic; Apple does better with 9 percent of its workforce black and 12 percent Hispanic. To put this in perspective, black people make up 13.3 percent of the total US population and Hispanic people about 17.6 percent.

The tech industry has launched various initiatives around the country to diversify its ranks, but nothing has really taken off.

“We’re not waiting for anybody else to figure out the solution to this problem,” said James, who founded Tech Connection, a Boston company that helps the tech industry find diverse talent.

Rose and James make compelling advocates for Hack.Diversity. They are both black women who forged their own paths in the tech industry. Rose began her career in cable and telecommunications and migrated into digital media with the rise of the Internet. That led to business development jobs at startups like Boston’s flash-sale website Rue La La.

James was the first in her family to go to college when she attended University of Massachusetts Amherst. When she graduated, she worked as an office manager for Sample6, a Cambridge startup focused on food safety technology. Afterward, she went to Google in Kendall Square as a recruiter. She founded Tech Connection in 2014.

Advertisement

Their families didn’t regard tech as a traditional path. James remembers how her mother was puzzled by the culture, one that allowed jeans in the workplace.

“Where is your uniform to go to work?” James recalled her mother saying. “Where is your suit?”

11/16/2016 BOSTON, MA Natalie Douglas (cq) (left) and Violet Kabaso (cq) attended a Tech Connection meet-up at 50 Milk Street in Boston. ()
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
At left, Natalie Douglas (left) and Violet Kabaso were among the attendees.

Carbonite CEO Mohamad Ali can relate. He grew up in Queens, attending what he described as the “second-worst junior high school in New York.” He only developed an interest in tech in the seventh grade when a teacher pulled him aside to show him the computer lab.

“It changed my life,” Ali said.

He went on to become the first in his family to go to a four-year college, majoring in computer engineering at Stanford University. He rose to top posts at Hewlett Packard and IBM before becoming CEO of Carbonite, a Boston data protection company, in 2014.

“I am convinced that given the opportunity people will rise to the moment,” said Ali, who got involved with Hack.Diversity through Bussgang. “The appetite and aptitude is there. It’s the opportunity that is missing.”

Ali said Carbonite’s workforce mirrors the Mass TLC’s findings and explained that his company struggles with hiring black and Latino workers because the pipeline isn’t big enough. Public colleges are where you find more minority students, and the problem Hack.Diversity solves is steering more of those students to tech companies in need of diverse talent.

Bussgang, the venture capitalist, approached Rose and James in the spring about launching a pilot to bridge the gap between the innovation economy and local black and Latino communities. He read how Google had unsuccessfully tried to recruit software engineers from a historically black institution, Howard University in Washington, D.C.

In Bussgang’s mind, Google struggled to retain black engineers because Silicon Valley was too white. What if the tech sector borrowed a page from nonprofit groups like Posse Foundation and Year Up? The idea: Recruit black and Latino students, and then provide them the support and mentorship to succeed in the tech world.

Bussgang has been in the sector long enough to know the diversity won’t happen unless there’s an intentional approach.

“The market doesn’t seem to work,” said Bussgang.

That’s for sure. The status quo could use some disruption.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.