The inaugural Converge, a half-day event presented by the Technology Association of Georgia and Accenture, focused on how diversity and inclusion should drive innovation within the technology industry.
The topic has become a common headline across the tech industry as the diversity gap continues to show now only in the hard workplace numbers, but in tech product development, as well. One recent study found that diversity at executive levels is actually getting worse.
An industry panel of local tech leaders, moderated by Dr. Kamau Bobb of Google and Georgia Tech, discussed how they prioritize diversity within their companies — and the challenges they face in doing so. Dr. Bobb is the Global Lead for Diversity Strategy and Research at Google and the founding Senior Director of the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech.
In his introduction, Dr. Bobb shared remarks about how segregation and infrastructure access across the city of Atlanta can affect the local talent pool.
“The challenge in a community of technology companies is when they’re talking about innovation, more often than not they’re talking about it in self-interested ways. You have X percent of people, you have X percent of opportunities. That’s important, but it’s not addressing the root cause,” Dr. Bobb shared to over 400 attendees.
According to a recent Bloomberg analysis, Atlanta takes the top spot of large cities in the U.S. for income inequality. One in four people living in metro Atlanta sit at the poverty level.
“Atlanta is the second-most segregated city in the United States. The reason that this matters is that we’re also the most diverse metropolitan areas in the country,” says Dr. Bobb. “The significance of segregation in the city is correlated to how likely you are to get shot in your neighborhood, whether your garbage is picked up, and your access to healthcare.”
Dr. Bobb explained that prioritizing diversity doesn’t only include hiring, but also providing resources to emerging talent from different income levels.
“Diversity as we’re talking about it doesn’t address the root cause. The root cause is that we [black people] as a community have a disproportionate amount of influence at the moment and it affects our relationship with the education infrastructure that correlates with this,” says Dr. Bobb.
“The reason that this matters is that there are certain subsets of people that don’t have the educational rigor and experience that makes them qualified to participate in the landscape we’re talking about. If you don’t have that experience, you can’t play.”
Start them young
Early education — beyond only STEM programs — came up as a solution throughout the ensuing panel. Robert Long of Coca-Cola; Fahim Siddiqui of The Home Depot; Joe Crowley of BlackRock; and Dawn Whaley of Sharecare contributed to the discussion moderated by Dr. Bobb.
“Part of the reason we chose Atlanta was because we knew there was a skilled diverse workforce, but also an opportunity for us to really share what we learn,” said Crowley, the Global Head of Learning and Head of HR for BlackRock’s new Atlanta iHub.
“We’re thinking about early education, talking to students before graduation and really influencing how people think about technology and how can we support that to build a long-term solution.”
Coca-Cola CIO Long said his team is brainstorming ways to encourage kids to see food science as a career opportunity and then provide opportunities in Coca-Cola once they get older.
“When you’re cooking with your mom and trying to figure out how to add ingredients, seeing that as a future is something that we try to instill in younger kids,” he says.
Another way to build a pipeline? Hiring potential candidates as temporary or contract workers and upping their capabilities through new responsibilities to the point where they can be hired full-time, said Long.
While BlackRock has seen success recruiting from Georgia Tech and Georgia State, Crowley mentioned that they’re also trying to tap into those with less ‘traditional’ backgrounds — for example, students coming out of coding bootcamps.
“We just need you to know the fundamentals on how to write Java, for example, and we can teach you about our proprietary technology. How can we invest in some of these fundamentals and then tap into it?” says Crowley.
Siddiqui, The Home Depot’s SVP of Information Technology, agreed on the need to start revisiting how employees are trained. The Home Depot recently introduced a 16-week program open to all levels of employees to learn about the technology side of their work.
“We need to start finding other ways for disadvantaged folks to have an opportunity to become part of the success,” says Siddiqui.
Diversity is vital to the success of your product
While building a pipeline and investing in local communities with emerging talent are important, in the present, diversity is also essential to the actual business of product development.
Sharecare President Dawn Whaley shared that the healthtech company’s diversity and inclusion goals not only encompass race and gender, but age as well. This employee base has been essential for product development and audience fit, she said.
“We need [employee] diversity to help make our product because… healthcare affects each and every person differently,” said Whaley. “We need all of those voices represented to ensure that we’re developing it for the broadest possible audience.”
Crowley agreed. “When interpreting all of that data, whether it’s AI or natural language processing, we need diversity… being open and honest with our hiring managers as we build our teams.”
Dr. Bobb concluded the discussion with a challenge to Atlanta’s tech community: to rise to the occasion and disrupt the pattern in the tech industry.
“Our challenge as a community of tech people, academics, and corporate folks is to make sure that we exercise our influence in service of the outcomes we’d like to see. The way we’ve done it thus far has not disrupted the pattern,” says Dr. Bobb. “This is our mission, this is our city. Let’s do it.”
All photos courtesy of TAG