By Megan Rose Dickey
The Rev. Jesse Jackson knows lack of diversity in tech isn’t a new story. However, the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into the push for diversity and inclusion are often missing from the story. Without the work of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a tireless advocate for civil rights, there would undoubtedly be even fewer minorities and women in the tech industry.
Jackson first came into the public view in the sixties, when he worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to advocate for civil rights for African-Americans. In 1965, the pair, along with other civil rights advocates, participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches in an effort to obtain the right for African-Americans to vote.
Jackson has since dedicated his life’s work to providing equal opportunity to blacks in the form of employment, housing, education and social services. He’s done this through the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a social justice movement that got its start in 1971 with the creation of Operation PUSH. PUSH initially stood for “People United to Save Humanity,” but was later changed to “People United to Serve Humanity.” PUSH’s mission was to protect black homeowners, workers and businesses.
In 1984, one year after he ran for president of the United States, Jackson started the National Rainbow Coalition. The plan was to obtain equal rights for all Americans — regardless of race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, etc. — through the implementation of social programs and affirmative action for minority groups.
In 1996, Operation PUSH and Rainbow Coalition merged to become the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Jackson and his team made their first big push to address diversity in tech during the dot-com boom with the launch of its Silicon Valley Digital Connections Initiative.
Today, the organization is working toward advancing diversity and inclusion in tech by focusing on employment in both technical and non-technical positions, representation on boards of directors, suppliers and access to capital. Rev. Jackson’s rationale for his focus on tech right now is simple.
“It’s a source of employment,” Jackson told me at PUSHTech 2020, a diversity in tech conference put on by the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, last week. “It is a growing industry and it’s pervasive.”
Last month, tech employment in the U.S. hit its highest growth rate in more than a decade, surpassing 6.7 million people, according to a recent report by nonprofit IT trade association CompTIA. In fact, the tech industry employs more people in the U.S. than the construction, finance, insurance and vehicle equipment manufacturing industries. Because this industry is so large and continuing to grow, it’s important that African-Americans, as well as other underrepresented minorities, are included.
We didn’t know how good baseball would be until everyone could play. We didn’t know how good basketball could be until everybody could play. We don’t know how good technology can be until everybody can play.
What everyone had already been thinking was now backed up by hard data: One of Silicon Valley’s biggest employers was predominantly white and male. That prompted Jackson to write an open letter to Silicon Valley, urging other tech giants to follow suit and jump on the transparency train.
Within a matter of weeks, companies like Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter followed suit. Now, releasing diversity reports has become the rule, not the exception.
These diversity reports have revealed that minorities are hard to come by in the tech industry, especially in leadership and engineering roles.
In leadership positions, minorities — blacks, Asian, Hispanic and “other” ethnicities — make up an average of about 30 percent of the roles at LinkedIn, Apple, Intel, Microsoft, Amazon, eBay, Twitter, Google, Yahoo and Facebook, according to 2015 EEO-1 reports. Blacks, on average, hold 2.1 percent of all tech jobs across Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Intel, eBay, LinkedIn and Yahoo.
Meanwhile, black startup founders only receive 1 percent of venture capital, according to a 2010 CB Insights report. A 2016 study painted a similarly bleak picture around the amount of venture funding that goes to minorities. Of all venture deals that happened from 2012 to 2014, only 0.2 percent of them went to black women, according to a 2016 report from #ProjectDiane.
Tech companies want you to believe that this is because there are not enough qualified minorities pursuing tech. You’ll often hear these companies citing the “pipeline problem,” but the fact of the matter is that the lack of diversity in tech is due to racism and discrimination, which leads to a lack of opportunity and access to capital. Diversity and inclusion in tech, Jackson says, is the civil rights issue of our time.
“One civil rights movement was to end legal slavery,” Jackson said. “Another was to end legal Jim Crow and the lynching season. That was a civil rights movement of that day. Another was the right to vote. You can abolish slavery, get rid of Jim Crow, and vote, and be broke and impoverished without access to capital, industry and technology, and deal flow and relationships. This is the civil rights of our time: access to capital, access to computers, how to make them, how to sell them.”
In comparison to the civil rights movement of the sixties, Jackson says the fire inside him is actually hotter. His internal fire and drive for justice has always been about knocking down barriers, he told me. Every time a barrier is erected — like the right to use a public library or public toilet, or the right to play in the MLB or NBA — “we beat those barriers down,” Jackson said.
Some of getting free is an attitude. Some people say, ‘The one thing worse than oppression is to adjust to it.’ When you resist it, big things come that way.
“We didn’t know how good baseball would be until everyone could play. We didn’t know how good basketball could be until everybody could play. We don’t know how good technology can be until everybody can play. We demand the right to participate, and when we participate, we make the game grow.”
Today, one of the many barriers minorities face is a lack of access to Silicon Valley. One way to overcome that barrier, Jackson said, is through a good offense, which entails demanding jobs and leadership positions at tech companies and mastering the art of coding. He wants to see computer labs in churches teaching kids how to code.
“Kids are eating it up, yum yum,” Rev. Jackson said. “They like [coding] very much. They’re making things happen with it. So, some of getting free is an attitude. Some people say, ‘well, the one thing worse than oppression is to adjust to it.’ When you resist it, big things come that way.”