Conference tackles Silicon Valley’s woes post COVID-19, starting with workplace diversity
An aerial view of downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

    Community leaders gathered at Joint Venture’s 17th State of the Valley conference Tuesday to discuss strategies for helping Silicon Valley address inequities.

    Each year Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a local nonprofit, hosts the event to discuss the findings of its Silicon Valley Index report: a 100+ page gold mine of data detailing just how the South Bay is faring in terms of economic growth and success.

    In the face of a pandemic, the region’s 2021 progress report is unsurprisingly bleak. But panelists at the conference were able to shine a hopeful light on Silicon Valley’s future by bringing forward concrete solutions for change.

    Tuesday’s event — the first half of a two-day conference — focused on speakers who discussed ideas to help the environment, improve transportation and create more diverse workplaces.

    Joint Venture CEO Russell Hancock kicked off the conference by summarizing the index, which illustrated how big tech thrived in 2020 while everyday residents struggled to keep their jobs and roofs over their heads after the pandemic hit.

    Outside the pandemic, the report makes it clear the region has lacked opportunities for people of color and has struggled to support its low-income communities amid a growing wage-gap even in previous years.

    “The purpose is to educate ourselves, look at the big picture, talk about the crisis, talk about the recovery and to think big about what is possible,” Hancock said.

    Improving diversity in the workplace was a hot-button issue.

    While tech thrived, the industry failed in its efforts to recruit diverse employees, according to Shellye Archambeau and Freada Kapor Klein who took part in a panel called “Building a more inclusive Silicon Valley.”

    Employers needed to tackle diversity issues head on, they said.

    “Why don’t we say we expect managers to be able to identify diverse talent, hire diverse talent, develop diverse talent, retain diverse talent, mentor, sponsor and promote diverse talent?” Archambeau said.

    “If we set that as the expectation all the way through the company, and we actually measure against it, and we actually follow through on the commitments … guess what? People are going to do it. People usually do what they’re asked to do — when it actually counts,” she added.

    Kapor Klein said the No. 1 reason employees leave their jobs is what they perceive as unfairness. Black and Latino men are more likely to leave tech because of microaggressions and stereotyping, they said. Women of color, particularly engineers, leave chiefly because they are passed over for promotions. LGBTQ individuals leave most often in the face of bullying, they said.

    “On the positive side, there are some specific DNI (diversity and inclusion) initiatives that, in fact, can improve culture and reduce this unwanted turnover,” Kapor Klein said.

    The efforts need to start with Silicon Valley youth, she said, noting Black and Latino children lack internet access more often than their white peers.

    Kapor Klein founded SMASH, an organization that seeks to empower students of color to succeed in science, technology, engineering and math.

    Archambeau said businesses shouldn’t wait until they notice a lack of diversity to start hiring a broader range of employees. She said business leaders can help build a more inclusive and equitable Silicon Valley if they think about building diversity into their companies from the moment they launch them. This includes not only ethnic and cultural diversity, but educational diversity.

    Archambeau said Silicon Valley employers should stop focusing on pedigree and start focusing on skill sets when hiring to give skilled people the chance to prove themselves even if they haven’t worked for Google or don’t carry a Harvard degree. They also need to branch out from their existing networks, she said.

    “HBCUs — historically Black colleges and universities — graduate over 60% of African American STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) grads in this country, but you talk to most companies and they aren’t fishing in that pond,” Archambeau said. “There are 100 HBCUs, so it exists, that the overall talent, the skills, etc., exist, but people have to be willing to move outside of their individual networks to be able to get there.”

    Archambeau said for those companies that are struggling with how to increase diversity, they don’t have to figure out next steps alone. For example, Kapor Klein said SMASH has a program that helps startups find and train interns at the college level.

    “There are so many avenues to building a diverse company and you have to just roll up your sleeves and take a risk and ask for help,” Kapor Klein said.

    Other panels Tuesday included “Silicon Valley and the battle for the planet” with speaker Sally M. Benson from Stanford University and “Transportation in a post-pandemic world” with thoughts from Shiloh Ballard from the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition and Kevin Fang from the Mineta Transportation Institute.

    The second half of the two-day event takes place Wednesday. To register, click here. Registration is $35.

    Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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