From the start, Silicon Valley’s diversity problem wasn’t just apparent to Stephanie Lampkin—it was personal. After graduating from Stanford’s engineering program in 2006, she embarked on a career in tech and immediately realized that, as an African American, she was a rarity. It’s a distinction that has stubbornly remained over the last decade.
“I had already been working in tech for years when Jesse Jackson launched his push for diversity in Silicon Valley in late 2014,” says Lampkin. “His challenge made news, of course, but I remember walking around the SOMA neighborhood in San Francisco and in Palo Alto back then and realizing, I just don’t see any black or Latino people in tech jobs in any of these places. Something fishy is going on here.”
Despite widespread recruitment efforts, the industry has struggled to make real progress. Last spring, an Equal Opportunity Commission report found that 83 percent of executives in high tech were white. As for the entire tech sector, African Americans made up only 7 percent of the workforce; Hispanics represented 8 percent; and women 36 percent. According to the Project Diane report, a 2016 study on the state of black women in tech produced by digitalundivided, of more than 10,000 startups secured venture capital from 2012 to 2014, only 0.2 percent were founded by African-American women.
These numbers (along with various studies revealing bias for white job applicants over blacks despite duplicate resumes) highlight the problem that Lampkin now addresses head-on as the founder and CEO of Blendoor. It’s a blind recruiting app that counteracts the “unconscious bias” in hiring practices. By showing only a candidate’s qualifications—and hiding details such as their name, age, employment history, and criminal background—the service matches companies with candidates strictly on merit.
Lampkin’s own journey to tech entrepreneurship was an improbable and remarkable one. She was born on welfare to a single mom, who was homeless for a time while pregnant. Growing up in the poor southeast section of Washington D.C., Lampkin was fortunate to have a role model in an aunt with a computer science degree. Because of her, Lampkin was drawn to the promise of technology. “My earliest exposure to tech was through her,” Lampkin says, “and I was completely enthralled.”
By 13, she was learning to code. She took AP Computer Science in high school and earned a scholarship to Stanford. After graduation Lampkin landed a job at Microsoft. On the surface, it seemed that she’d made it. “I bought a house when I was 21, and spent more than five years at Microsoft,” says Lampkin. “I learned a lot, but I didn’t see a lot of opportunities to grow.”
So Lampkin went back to school. At MIT’s Sloan School of Management, she earned an MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship and innovation. Despite her advanced degrees and work experience, she still faced barriers. Six months after receiving her MBA, she nearly landed a lead analytics position at a major tech company but was told they’d keep her resume on file for sales and marketing openings, instead.
By that point, she had not only worked at Microsoft, but also Lockheed-Martin and Deloitte, in software and technical-related roles. Yet here she was, still being told she didn’t have the tech credentials.
Lampkin was not only having a hard time breaking out of women-based stereotypes, but even when she was a finalist for jobs, she was losing out to white and Asian men. At one point, she’d discovered she was making 20 percent less than a male colleague in the same role despite having better performance metrics. Lampkin knew she wasn’t the only one experiencing these challenges. A 2015 report by Joint Venture found that men in Silicon Valley earned as much as 61 percent more than their female counterparts. The more doors that were slammed shut for her, Lampkin says, the more the bias “was difficult to ignore.”
Determined to redress the bias, Lampkin conceived Blendoor. She spent two years developing the app and finally launched in public beta in March 2016. For candidates, it provides a chance to showcase their qualifications to top employers with just a swipe. Blendoor has signed on more than 400 companies, including Salesforce, Yelp, Google and Microsoft, giving them access to about 10,000 candidates. The companies not only have access to a diverse pool of qualified candidates, but they also receive data and analytics to assist their inclusion efforts beyond recruiting. “Today, we’re more enterprise-focused than ever,” Lampkin says.
From the start, people in tech have recognized how innovative Blendoor really is. A high point came in November 2016, when Lampkin’s app won the audience-favorite “Game Changer” award at Google Demo Day. “The audience votes for the startup most likely to disrupt its industry,” notes Becca Sampson, the lead planner for Google Demo Day. “Last year, the Demo Day audience clearly felt that Blendoor had the most potential to change the industry of hiring and recruiting.
“Stephanie has done a remarkable job,” Sampson says, “of taking a technology that people are familiar with and applying it to an issue that can be challenging. Talking about bias in hiring can be nerve-wracking. It can make some people timid. But I always love to hear from entrepreneurs who have first-hand experience with a particular issue, as Stephanie has, and when they realize there isn’t a good solution out there, they create that solution themselves. The way that Stephanie went about addressing a problem that she understood on a personal level really connected with the Demo Day audience. And I think it reminded everyone that there are so many different ways to approach these challenges.”
If the focus in Lampkin’s first year out of the gate was simply putting Blendoor on the map, this year, it’s sales and revenue growth. Ultimately, she hopes the startup becomes a “gold standard for how companies are measured in terms of inclusivity,” she says. “We’re still putting candidates through job application pipelines, but we’re also figuring out how we can build a platform so that no matter how applicants apply, through LinkedIn or Monster or wherever, they’ll get what we call ‘Blendoorized.'”
Despite her early success—from a growing client list to a stream of honors from Google, MIT Tech Review, and others—Lampkin is still fighting for equal footing. In this case, for funding. “It would be incredibly naïve to assume that the same unconscious bias that Blendoor is designed to mitigate in hiring doesn’t exist in the venture capital world,” she says. Although million-dollar-plus startup investments have become more common, Blendoor has raised just $160,000.
Lampkin’s persistence, though, has made her company her own “Little Engine That Could.” “Growing up poor, my earliest lessons in life involve tenacity and resourcefulness,” Lampkin says. “Blendoor’s story is just beginning. Our vision is to become the norm, not the exception when it comes to sourcing talent, enabling companies to be more inclusive, productive, and innovative.”
#FacesofFounders, a campaign by the Case Foundation, Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Google for Entrepreneurs, and UBS, in partnership with Fast Company, celebrates dynamic and diverse entrepreneurs. Learn more at facesoffounders.org.