To Increase Diversity, Tech Firms Must First Rethink Their Strategy on Campus

Last year, many Silicon Valley tech firms began speaking publicly about the need for greater diversity in their workforces. They issued reports revealing dismal numbers, and some announced initiatives to improve the statistics.

New reports show that, one year later, little has changed, and major tech firms remain as white, Asian and male as ever.

Realistically, substantial change will take many years of significant, on-going investment. Part of the investment must take place within these firms as they evaluate their hiring practices and assess factors such as unconscious bias; part of the investment must also be directed on campus, given the critical role universities play in developing the talent pipeline.

Recruiting at a broader range of schools will increase all kinds of diversity — not just ethnic and gender diversity, but also diversity of thought, background and perspective, which in turn will lead to stronger teams and increased innovation.

Here are some specific ways in which the private sector can work with universities to nurture a more diverse talent pool:

Provide engineering-specific mentors, beginning freshman year. When I was an engineering student at Dartmouth, it was hard to find other students who looked like me. Granted, given my Korean/African-American lineage, not many people look like me anywhere, but I felt more self-conscious about this at Dartmouth than I had as a poor kid living among fellow minorities in my native Queens, NY. Lacking a family or social structure that could support, much less guide me through my studies, I yearned for mentorship from people who could relate to me and help me figure out which classes to take, how to land internships, and how to translate both into a fulfilling career.

In my job, I often hear from minority students, such as Nigerian-born UC Berkeley engineering student Omotayo Olukoya, that they find themselves in a competitive disadvantage for jobs. Here’s why: People tend to befriend people like themselves. When there are few minorities in a major, like computer science, it can be hard for those few students to find friends in their department. This was exactly my experience in college: I had tons of friends, but very few of my fellow minorities were enrolled in the engineering school with me.

It’s those friends and friends of friends who tell you which classes to take in order to attract employers and who coach you through coding interviews. Olukoya describes bombing his first coding interviews while students with poorer grades aced them upon receiving coaching from peers.

Mentors, either associated with the engineering school or employed by tech firms hoping to hire a diversity of students, could advise students — beginning freshman year — on which classes to take, how to find a good internship, and how to prepare for interviews. Even once or twice a year Q&A sessions between tech employees and students would go a long way toward equalizing the valuable social capital that may be hindering minority students from appearing as competitive as they actually are or have the potential to be for potential employers.

Provide connection points on campus and beyond. It’s hard to convey just how intimidating it is to look into a sea of students who look nothing like you. Just knowing there are people out there like them, even if they don’t attend their school or live in their town, can provide students with the confidence and support they need to keep trying, even after the inevitable periodic academic and professional setback.

Facebook just announced a new program to lure promising freshmen minorities on campus for tech internships. This will not only help Facebook recruit more qualified minorities; it will also provide an invaluable social network for these talented students.

While most tech firms don’t have the resources of Facebook, many can afford to sponsor student attendance at professional networking events such as the Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing and the wildly popular Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, as well as events hosted by the National Society of Black Engineers and theSociety of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

This is not uncommon: Several tech firms already sponsor student (and employee) attendance at Grace Hopper. Stanford’s School of Engineering is sponsoring students to attend this year’s Tapia Celebration; tech companies should be doing so, as well. It would be a great way to identify and nurture relationships with talented minority students, and would signal a commitment to their long-term success.

Recruit at a broader range of campuses. For too long, too many tech firms have recruited exclusively at Stanford, MIT and a small handful of other schools, and they have relied heavily on employee referrals. Both of these practices perpetuate the status quo. Tech firms need to broaden their search to far more campuses. There are many great engineering programs out there in addition to Stanford and MIT. There are also many great engineers attending midrange engineering programs. Recruiting at a broader range of schools will increase all kinds of diversity — not just ethnic and gender diversity, but also diversity of thought, background and perspective, which in turn will lead to stronger teams and increased innovation.

It has been 14 years since I graduated college, and the tech diversity conundrum persists. While the problem is still the same, the conversation has made progress. Hiring firms are getting smarter and more serious about hiring diverse teams. Changing their approach to on-campus recruiting will help them move in the right direction.

(Reposted from Recode)

Written By: By Tony Luckett, Director, Partnerships, Piazza