In spite of growing up on paycheck to paycheck my entire life, I am the 2% and have been since 7th grade.
While I grew up closer to the bottom 2% of income earners in the country (United States of America) than the top, since middle school I have represented the 2% of black people at school and at work.
At Delbarton School, a college-prep school in New Jersey, USA the student population was about 2% black. Stanford University actually had ~7.5%, though in advanced classes with 12 students, that usually meant I was the only black person there. At LinkedIn, I am back home at 2%.
Blacks in tech has been a major topic since tech companies started releasing their employee data in 2014. Few companies in the tech industry have more than around a 2-3% black population, and the numbers get even more sparse the more senior people become.
Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to both be recruited by tech firms, and work on diversity recruiting efforts.
Prior to working at LinkedIn, I interviewed tech executives at top companies to gain a sense of how the industry as a whole approached diversity & inclusion. At LinkedIn, I am working in diversity recruiting as part of my talent acquisition rotation for LinkedIn’s Business Leadership Program.
These experiences have shown me some of the reasons why recruiting black talent to this industry is such a difficult problem to overcome. Based on my experiences, many of the issues stem from one overarching idea:
tech culture contradicts the way black people have been socialized to think about work.
Therefore, the goal of this post is to inform people about the misalignment between the tech culture and the black culture.
Brief History Lesson
Without going too into the weeds, work has historically been one of the only ways black people could demand respect in a white, mainstream world.
A person’s title, image, company, alma mater, language patterns and more served as signposts that influenced the ways other people treated that person.
For many, work was the only hope people had to feel respected.
Therefore, when our grandparents told our parents about career opportunities to pursue, their advice kept these notions of respectability in mind. Be a banker, lawyer, doctor, or professor because these traditional careers offer stability, a well-defined career trajectory, and promote an image of success. You had to look a certain way, talk a certain way, and act a certain way to even have a shot of blending in.
For many people, blending in was the best they could hope for in a world that time and time again worked to their detriment.
With that history in mind, now think about the tech industry.
You don’t have to be suited & booted; it’s actually discouraged. Here, you can wear a T-shirt, hoodie, and jeans to work.
Pssshh, what’s that?
In tech, it’s up to you to figure out your career trajectory, and find the companies that can help you grow.
There is no track to go from Analyst to Associate to B-school to VP to Director and so on. Nothing is set in stone, and that is why people in the industry love it. And don’t get me started on blending in--stand out! Be yourself, you are unique; own it.
These tech cultural tenants oppose the ways black people have been taught to think about their careers.
There is nothing that screams “respect me” about a person showing up to work in a T-shirt, hoodie, and a backpack. For us, that image is more likely to be cast as a thug than as a person on their way to work (especially if your hood is up).
A friend and fellow LinkedIn employee, Jonathan Jackson, even had an issue getting through security at a company event that featured him as an on-stage panelist. (The security personnel were not LinkedIn employees).
The lack of stability, and ill-defined career trajectory is scary to a lot of people. Even for me, a person inundated by tech and entrepreneurship culture during my 4 years at Stanford, walking away from traditional opportunities in banking and consulting took A LOT of convincing.
Not to mention, black people are often skeptical about environments that invite them to “be themselves” or “feel at home” because history has taught us that the moment other people get a little uncomfortable, that stuff goes out the window (for us, at least).
For example, black women who wear their natural hair often worry that it will be perceived as “unprofessional”. Other people may worry that by being themselves, they may not be seen as a “cultural fit”.
In essence, the foundations of tech culture disrupt the foundations of black corporate culture.
Tip of the Iceberg
There are other big issues that I do not address in this post, like
Overall exposure to tech / understanding what it means to work in tech,
A lack of Mark Zuckerberg / Steve Jobs-level prominent black tech figures, and
The fact that tech companies do not physically overlap with large populations of black people.
But for me, the cultural issues that exist make it difficult to approach these other topics. In the future, I will explain the irony of Silicon Valley’s diversity problem, and ways to frame tech opportunities that might make them more attractive for diverse talent.
Cover Image, Foursquare's (L-R) Harry Heymann, Dennis Crowley, Nathan Folkman and Tristan Walker | Dennis Crowley