“Just Being Who We Are Is Extremely Risky”: An Honest Discussion On Race In Silicon Valley

A small group of African-American tech leaders met recently for a roundtable discussion that was funny, frank, and uncompromising.

“Just Being Who We Are Is Extremely Risky”: An Honest Discussion On Race In Silicon Valley
[Photo: Damon Casarez]

As part of the reporting on this month’s magazine profile of Tristan Walker, Fast Company brought together a roundtable discussion of other African-American tech leaders. The conversation spanned everything from hiring practices of top firms to entrepreneurial funding.


Fast Company: What are your thoughts about the diversity reports from Apple, Facebook, Google, and other tech companies?

Larry “L.J.” Erwin: I know the numbers are unsettling, but I applaud the Googles and the Facebooks and Yahoos for actually releasing those numbers. I’ve worked in an industry before called “finance.” It’s been around for at least 150 to 175 years, and the numbers (a) are not as open and as transparent as they are at Google and Facebook and (b) are probably about the same, 1% to 3% [of the total workforce]. And they’ve got a 120-year, 125-year head start over Silicon Valley. So Silicon Valley is definitely scaling at a faster rate than finance.

Tyler Scriven: I have a slightly different view. In the report that Google published, they said they’ve spent roughly $40 million on diversity efforts over the past 10 years. They’ve spent, I’ll guess, several hundreds of millions of dollars in the past two years on self-driving cars. If companies like Google truly wanted to solve this problem, they’d spend more than $40 million over 10 years and make a much more significant effort. So my conclusion is that right now we actually don’t want to solve it.


Amoy Walker: Just looking at the numbers is not enough. Like, what is the actual issue: Why are there not enough African-Americans in STEM, and what’s the recruiting process? That’s what we need to focus on, rather than the chatter around numbers.

Erin Teague: The problem starts much earlier, right? Only about 4% of the total engineering graduates every year are black, and only 18% of the total computer-science graduates are women. There need to be more people who enter college and pick these majors. But the real problem is at the top of the funnel, as in K–12. Most students decide at a very young age whether or not they’re good in math and science.

Tony Gauda: Traditionally, the African-American successes children see are athletes and entertainers; they’re not STEM. I had a home that was very supportive of engineering and STEM, and I just thought it was my only alternative since I couldn’t play basketball, and I definitely can’t dance.


Teague: There need to be people in your household who say, “You should be like this rock-star engineer.” I didn’t even know what a computer programming language was until my freshman year of college. So when you’re 18 and a freshman and decide to study this, you then realize everyone in the class has had exposure to this programming language for 10-plus years. It is hard to compete. On top of that, you’re the only one who’s black, and you’re the only one who’s a woman. You look around and don’t see anyone who looks like you. And, you’re like, Oh, I’m clearly not supposed to be here. [Laughter]

In many African-American households–since we don’t descend from centuries of wealth in this country–parents want their kids to be a lawyer or a doctor, or go to Wall Street to make a lot of money so they can come back and take care of the family. Is the African-American community too cautious for tech and its “fail fast” mantra?

Erwin: Black folks like me have to take care of family members at home, so jumping into a startup is very risky when you can make it either on Wall Street or do something more stable in finance. If my company fails, the people who are counting on me also fail.


T. Gauda: You have to have a very high risk tolerance, and we are traditionally risk averse. As it is, just being who we are is extremely risky.


Kanyi, you and I talked before about the fact that a lot of the people who are able to take chances in tech–the Mark Zuckerbergs and so on . . .

Kanyi Maqubela: Are rich? [Laughter, crosstalk] Or have access to rich people? Are already in networks where somebody can write them a $50,000 check? Absolutely. I hear about bootstrapped rounds and angel rounds and friends-and-family rounds, and I just think to myself, Man! There are people who just know and are related to folks who can write $50,000 checks all around them! It’s in their ecosystem.

T. Gauda: And imagine that the worst happens, that your startup fails. You’re still good, right? You can just go back to whatever school that you decided to take a leave of absence from . . . or just draw from your trust fund. But when you start a company and you’re a black entrepreneur, in some cases there is no alternative. It’s a much different experience.


Tristan Walker: Let me tell you a story. We only had five Fellows in our first class at Code2040, but they were amazing. We had one Fellow who had a 4.7 out of a 5.0 GPA, was copresident of his school, varsity athlete at MIT. They went through the program and excelled. But when they interviewed at larger companies, they had to do these “whiteboard” interviews, where you’re given a coding challenge and you go to the whiteboard and attack it. And our guys didn’t get hired, right? They had never done a whiteboard interview. So, in that case, is there something wrong with the fellow, or is there something wrong with the interview process? Folks need to really understand what implicit biases they have. Until they do, the numbers aren’t gonna change.

Maqubela: The meritocratic glow of Silicon Valley is so frustrating. It creates a pass for people who use things like the “culture” filter. What’s the culture filter? An easy excuse to be prejudiced. It’s culture bias, like [not hiring someone] because they didn’t like Animal Collective as much as you do? Seriously.

A. Walker: What’s Animal Collective?


Maqubela: Animal Collective is a great band. . . [Laughter at Maqubela] No! I’m just not impressed with how impressed we are with ourselves in the Valley, how impressed we are with our processes and attitude. Because we’re actually creating a pass whereby we end up being worse.

Do you all feel intense pressure to succeed?

Erwin: Absolutely.


T. Walker: Yes. I totally do. The harsh reality is that the folks in this room have to show that we can actually make this shit happen to inspire a generation of people to want to be a part of this. Whatever burden that falls on us is what it is, but we have that responsibility. And to the extent that we do, the great thing about this culture is that we’ve taken over every single vertical, co-opted it, and made those verticals more special.

T. Gauda: Yeah. I definitely feel a sense of responsibility. In my career, I’ve interviewed and hired more than 100 people, and I can’t remember a black candidate that I passed on. But I had a very low percentage of black candidates. We need to be more visible and make sure that more people understand that this is a viable career. Because most people think, “They’re not gonna hire me.”

Faith, do you get a lot of people coming to your recruiting firm asking explicitly for people of color?


Faith Scriven: No, I do not. [Laughter] God, give me the worst question. No, unfortunately, I do not. I work on very specialized projects, and the employers are usually extremely detailed about what they want. So even for a mid-level or lower-level engineer, they’ll tell us, “I only want someone who went to Stanford,” or someone who has started a company before. So when I’m researching those profiles, I generally come across very few minorities. These employers want the crème de la crème. And when it comes to the crème de la crème based on their criteria, very few are minorities.

T. Scriven: And most companies in Silicon Valley say, “We hire from these five schools, period,” right?

F. Scriven: Yeah.


T. Scriven: If you go to those five schools, the percentage of minorities and the percentage of women is X and Y. Let’s say it’s 3% and 10%. If those companies hire only 10% of the people they interview, then the number [of minority hires] you get is zero. Right? It’s zero. And to the extent that they are unwilling to go outside of those five schools, it’s going to stay zero.

Teague: Then, if you happen to get in the door without having gone to one of those schools, you’re going to have to overcome some significant impostor feelings. That is a hard place to be, just feeling like you don’t belong, like you’re not credible.

Is all the media attention to this subject changing anything?


Maqubela: Releasing the numbers is playing some role. As a company, you’ll get called out publicly, and people can pile on. If that makes someone think about diversity, just because it’s all bad marketing for his company, that’s better than nothing, to be frank.

T. Gauda: I would just hate for it to stop there.

Maqubela: Oh, without a doubt. But it is catalytic. The social web enables a bit of acceleration.


Erwin: People in general are becoming more aware of technology in their lives. When I was a kid growing up back in the ’90s, I was the only kid on my block with a Tandy 1000. Now kids who are 15, 16 years old have a supercomputer in their pocket. Technology is much more consumer-driven, and people are interacting with it at a much more intimate level. So people are starting to see that maybe technology is something they can go into now, because they have an intimate relationship with it.

Do you see any change inside those companies that have released their numbers?

Erwin: One diversity initiative at Google is expanding its job-search criteria. For the most part, because it was driven by engineers from Stanford, they only wanted engineers from Stanford, and maybe Cal Berkeley, or maybe Michigan. They are asking what other top programs could have minorities that meet the expectations. They expanded the search.

T. Gauda: The question is whether the people making the hiring decisions will feel empowered to decide that, “Hey, this guy is good enough, this guy can solve the problem even if he’s not from our core group of schools.” Or will they always be worrying, “Is this going to count against me at some point?” That’s a huge issue. Because the last thing they want to do is be in a meeting when this developer is fucking up, and it’s like, “Yeah, he didn’t go to Stanford,” and the boss is like, “We already talked about this, you only hire people from Stanford! What the fuck are you doing?” That conversation will happen.

Maqubela: But the conversation that won’t happen is if I hire a black guy and that black guy is fucking up. What that boss is thinking in their head is…

T. Gauda: You can’t print that shit.

Sorry, it’s on the record . . . [Laughter]

Maqubela: It drives me nuts, because if I hire a white man and he messes up, I don’t think twice. I just made a bad decision. But if I hire a woman of color and she messes up, it’s just like . . .

T. Gauda: Did she get the job because you liked her, or did she get the job because she was qualified? In some cases, when you’re the person in power and are making hiring decisions, that pressure is there.

Maqubela: Here’s a question. Let’s say I hire a black person and that person makes a mistake. My white colleague thinks, “Did you hire that person just because they’re black?” My honest answer is, “Yeah, that’s part of it. Yeah, because they’re black I actually gave them a bias, just the same way that because that person is white you gave them a bias, okay?” Why is “Did you do this for somebody just because they’re black” an insult? “Did you do this for somebody just because they’re white?” isn’t an insult, and that happens all the time.

Jaimel Gauda: That’s human nature and we’re not allowed to do that.

Maqubela: It’s frustrating. People are “big upping” each other because they look like each other. People are big upping each other because they are white. And if I big up somebody because they’re black it’s a problem somehow. That drives me nuts because, listen, I recognize [a new black hire]. We have a similar skin tone, and in fact, I do want to support somebody who looks like me. I think that’s a good thing. Let’s encourage that. I don’t see why that is frowned upon. I don’t see why that’s reverse racism.

T. Walker: As a black man, if you do something well, people judge it two times in the positive direction. And if you do something terrible they judge it two times in the negative.

T. Gauda: I think it’s 10 times in the negative. [Laughter] I think there’s significant downside.

Last question: What would you like to see happen in tech in 20 years? How would you like the tech community to look, in terms of diversity?

T. Gauda: I’d like it to be more of this. More people that look like this. I mean, you’ve got a venture capitalist, an entrepreneur, a schoolteacher, an engineer, a business development individual, and a customer success director. In tech in Silicon Valley, traditionally, if you looked 10 years ago, we didn’t even exist. I mean, we are some of the first.

Maqubela: Right. And I want black people to be massively, undeniably successful, so that nobody can say anything. Because they are just killing it. There is no better argument than success. On some level, that means I should get back to work. On another level, it means I should help Tony whenever I can, help Erin whenever I can, invest in the Tristans every time there is an opportunity, because success is the conversation ender.

Erwin: And tying in on that, let’s see black entrepreneurs not only start companies but lead them to where they are a household name. Having those profiles of leadership would be very important for the next 20 to 50 years.

A. Walker: Go ahead, Walker & Co. [Laughter]

Erwin: Big up to Tristan for doing that.


About the author

J.J. McCorvey is a staff writer for Fast Company, where he covers business and technology.