Standing before a large crowd at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in January, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich laid out the company’s plan to change the future of technology. He debuted a 3-D printer that’s 10 times faster than any of the others on the market. He chatted with the CEO of iRobot, who rolled onto the stage via a teleconferencing automaton that flaunted Intel’s new emotion-detecting cameras. Then he closed his keynote with a plan that might prove far more challenging than either of those other innovations: Over the next five years, Intel plans to invest $300 million in something called the "diversity in technology initiative," which will aim to bring the company’s workforce to "full representation" by 2020.
"It’s time to step up and do more," Krzanich said. "It’s not just good enough to say we value diversity and then have our workplaces and our industry not reflect the full availability and talent pool of women and underrepresented minorities."
Krzanich’s announcement was met with great applause, and rightly so. Silicon Valley companies have been subject to sharp criticism and scrutiny over their lack of racial and gender diversity, and pressured by activists such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson to disclose their employee figures to the public. The industry’s dismal numbers—for example, just 24% of Intel’s workforce is female (although Renée James is the chipmaker’s president), 8% is Hispanic or Latino, and 3.5% is black or African-American—has led to healthy debate over the past 12 months, inside and outside the Valley, on where to even start closing the gap. Apple, the most valuable company in the world, recently announced a $50 million grant to cultivate more computer engineers at historically black colleges. But the hefty figure that Intel pledged—which is really a drop in the bucket (like Apple’s), considering its record 2014 revenue of $56 billion—does have symbolic value: Here was Intel, the company that commoditized the microprocessor that forms the innovation bedrock of Silicon Valley, stepping up and vowing to once again transform the technology industry, this time through diversity.
"Intel’s pledge is probably the most exciting thing to happen so far," says Laura Weidman Powers, cofounder and CEO of Code2040, an organization that connects college and graduate engineering talent with tech jobs. "They said, ‘We’re going to do this by 2020.’ That is a great way to motivate folks and to hold themselves accountable."
The sizable task of heading up the initiative belongs to Rosalind Hudnell, Intel’s chief diversity officer and VP of human resources, who’s been at the company for more than 20 years. "We’re going to publish our goals and we’re going to track our progress and show all of you," says Hudnell. "Forget tech—who else has said that?"
And yet, when I speak with Hudnell a few weeks after the announcement, she has few details to reveal. That’s because Intel doesn’t yet have a solid plan for how or where the funds will be spent. Hudnell explains that much of the money will go toward building more diverse hiring teams that might lure a wider range of job candidates. But the one thing she is explicit about is which part of the talent pool Intel is focusing on. "We have always set our goal against full market availability," she says. Intel will home in on high-skills minorities who will graduate in the next half decade, like high school AP students and collegians headed toward engineering. "We’re not going to drive incremental improvements that might take us another decade or 15 years," she says, then invokes a golf metaphor. "I would call it the short game."
Intel’s pledge puts it far ahead of its cohort. But when it comes to funneling more minorities into tech, will five years and $300 million be enough to make a significant dent? The "short game" approach isn’t reassuring.
By focusing on the imminent college graduates, Intel could change its demographics of its workforce fairly quickly. As it stands, 18% of computer-science degrees in the U.S. go to black and Latino graduates, but only 9% pursue careers in the field. Intel wants to persuade those grads that Silicon Valley is a viable place, that every kick-ass hacker isn’t white, male, and hoodied.
The more significant societal problem, however, is that for most minorities, the pipeline to the tech industry starts to dry up way before college. According to the U.S. Department of Education, for example, 81% of Asian-American students and 71% of white students in high school have access to the full breadth of math and science courses—including classes like calculus and physics—compared to 57% of black students and 67% of Latinos.
"We start losing talent in third grade," says Freada Kapor Klein, a diversity advocate in the tech industry. Her not-for-profit, the Level Playing Field Institute, is building an interactive website that displays research on pipeline "leaks"—where male and female African-American, Latino, and low-income talent slip out of the path to tech before they even make it to a job interview. Consider Drew Houston, the white cofounder and CEO of Dropbox, a cloud-storage startup valued at $10 billion. Houston has described being "drawn like a moth" to the glowing screen of the IBM PC junior his parents bought when he was 3 years old. He started learning the programming language BASIC at 5. This is hardly a common childhood for most U.S. minorities. Even the majority of coding programs geared toward females "are focused on privileged girls who have plenty of safety nets, parental support, and after-school help," says Kapor Klein. "Nobody’s looking at, ‘How do you [specifically] get African-American girls and Latinas interested in coding earlier?’ "
Intel’s short timeline runs the risk of encouraging the hasty adoption of strategies that lack sustainable infrastructure. Christine Beaubrun, a 25-year-old Haitian-American, worked as a barista after earning a BA in studio art, still unsure of what career to pursue. Then she applied to the Flatiron School, a five-month, New York–based web-development boot camp. Upon graduating last fall, she was recruited as a cloud software engineer for Intel’s Santa Clara office. "I want to have a long career in technology," Beaubrun says. But since she comes to the industry without a full computer-science background, she knows she needs strong advisers. She’d like to see Intel use some of the funding to create mentorship programs for those who come from underrepresented backgrounds or are recruited through atypical channels. "It’s just not enough to hire minorities for the position," Beaubrun says. "It’s also making sure they’re prepared to do their job and continue to deliver great work."
That’s a critical viewpoint. Intervention is needed throughout the pipeline that should bring minorities to Silicon Valley. From pre-K to high school, aggressive measures need to be taken to ensure that there is access to the tools needed to build a technological foundation. In college, there should be more opportunities for minorities to attain training they might not have received earlier. Postgrads do indeed require Intel’s promised recruitment efforts. Mentorship programs might sharpen the skills of someone who’s retrained herself for a second career.
To its credit, Intel offers some programs that touch on other pipeline points. The Intel Computer Clubhouse Network is a global, tech-focused after-school program which Hudnell developed. The 1st Year TouchPoint program connects black employees with more experienced peers. Hudnell herself had an important mentor, Carlene Ellis, Intel’s first female vice president. "She [helped] me to understand the Intel culture," says Hudnell. "That was a game changer in my career." Beaubrun says that no one had ever told her about the 1st Year TouchPoint program. She asked me to email her more information so she could sign up.
Intel’s plan is in its very early days, and there are already some promising initiatives. Marlon Nichols, director at Intel Capital—the company’s investment arm—has been charged with scouting startups with "diverse management teams." The logic here, Nichols says, is that these successful startups will go on to hire more minorities, because when more diverse teams are doing the hiring,"Those unconscious biases go away," he says.
"There are many places I go where I am still the only black woman in the room," says Hudnell. She knows the necessary change is massive. She likes the boldness of Intel’s 2020 target for full representation. "We’ve proven we can do it incrementally, but now we have to prove we can do it all at once and sustain it." Doing so will require some audacious leaps that take Intel—and perhaps the whole industry—well beyond this promising first step.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.