August 8, 2016
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The hidden talent in Silicon Valley’s own backyard

Oakland's Hack the Hood creates opportunities for young people of color to be a part of the tech boom in their communities

Students at Hack the Hood took a field trip to Yahoo! headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, last year. Photo by Sonya Redi

In 2008, I was head of product for Yahoo! Personals when I was laid off from the tech giant.

The law of continuous revolution gave me a good shove, and within months I was launching a start-up I incubated at Techstars. I shut it down six months later. But the experience fueled me to start (with Kwan Booth and Amy Gahran) a local news nonprofit called Oakland Local in 2009. And in 2012, I co-founded a #techinclusion nonprofit, Hack the Hood, that focuses on creating more opportunities for young people of color.

Even though my last role as a product lead in a large tech company was almost 10 years ago, so much of the views expressed and the experiences described by Bo Ren in her recent essay in response to Facebook calling its lack of diversity a pipeline problem, rang true as similar to things I have experienced in the past.

In fact, as I read Ren’s essay, many stressors I’ve felt as a woman product manager without an MBA or an engineering degree (but a record of building and developing interesting products for consumers, often as part of and often as a lead in, a very innovative team) came flooding back. The feeling of not being good enough, the constant challenges, the side eye—even as a white woman with privilege, I’ve experienced some version of all of them.

How can it be that almost fifteen years later, women are still hearing the same biased statements about being product managers and leaders?

How can it be that women are still being told they are abrasive and too aggressive after they are asked to lead?

Why is it that women who have product vision are challenged by males and told they’re not technical enough to be a product manager—or, on the other side, that they lack the business skills to do the job?

I have heard all of those 15 years ago, which makes it so infuriating that we are still hearing them now.

In her essay, Ren suggests if diversity was a product we’d shipped, it would be seriously broken, so the thing to do is to rebuild that product.

We need to create the access and opportunities for everyone who has a specific set of skills and experiences to find meaningful employment in their field—and create ways that they are able to access those skills and education in the first place.

In other words, the ways some people working in tech hold onto power and refuse to share it need to be addressed right now if we’re going to have an equitable and inclusive tech industry. And yet, to make that happen, we’re going to have to think about how we go beyond empowering women to have a fair shot.

We need to create the access and opportunities for everyone who has a specific set of skills and experiences to find meaningful employment in their field—and create ways that they are able to access those skills and education in the first place.

Race, class, gender, identity, sexuality, or age should not be the determinants. And yet there are far too many hiring managers at tech companies, big and small, who feel otherwise. Diversity and inclusion managers at many companies tell me how frustrated they are that the hiring managers at their organizations look at people who come out of non-traditional backgrounds—community colleges, coding boot camps, and apprenticeship programs, for example—as inferior candidates that are in no way a match for the skills that those who have gone to particular four-year colleges and specific graduate programs offer.

So, no interviews, no hires. Or, if they get in, they experience being othered, exceptionalized, and judged until they can’t take it and move on.

I co-founded Hack the Hood because I wanted to see young people from the low-income communities of color in our region—including my own rapidly gentrifying corner of Oakland—be a part of the tech jobs boom. I believed that many of our young people could become innovative, successful workers and leaders at companies like Facebook, Yahoo!, and Google.

These young people have a lot to offer. They are bright, hard-working, resilient, innovative problem solvers, exactly the kinds of people technical companies want.

And yet, for too many people doing hiring, Hack the Hood members are challenging candidates for whom they feel they are doing a favor when they call them in for an interview. Not only are they entry-level candidates in companies with few entry-level roles, they’re also the candidates who are not part of the usual networks, the usual schools, and the usual companies. And that, as Bo Ren points out, is another area where tech companies are reluctant to take risks.

Yet, these young people have a lot to offer. They are bright, hard-working, resilient, innovative problem solvers, exactly the kinds of people technical companies want—someone who is dedicated to creative ways to solve problems, someone unafraid to learn something that is hard.

They just need a way in.

If the big tech companies really care about inclusion, and about being a resource for the communities where their facilities are based, they will change their hiring pipelines and debug the diversity gap. This investment in talent will pay off in better products, more invested workers, and a greater contribution to the social fabric of the communities where they operate.

And look, if we’re going to be real, the most important thing to ensure is not that people of color get to work at Google or Facebook, but that those young people of color—and everyone who doesn’t fit the tech majority of the moment—have the same opportunity as anyone else to participate in innovating the technologies and solutions needed for us to thrive.

And, equally importantly, they do it with equal pay, equal opportunities for advancement, and the same support for launching and owning their own companies that only the most privileged enjoy today.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared on Hack the Hood’s blog.

Susan Mernit

CEO and co-founder of Hack the Hood