Bankole: American exceptionalism hinges on diversity
From all reasonable indications, Silicon Valley is failing at diversity even as some companies in the innovation capital of the world embrace the trend of rolling out diversity and inclusion programs to simply appease their critics.
The most recent report from the Ascend Foundation, which examined official records from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, found out that from 2007-15 race, not gender, was the biggest impediment for people of color to climb the leadership ladder in the tech industry.
The report released last year showed that black and Hispanic representation is getting worse in an industry that is dominantly run by white men, and where white women are making some progress. Asians, according to the report, are most likely to be hired, but are the least likely to receive promotion.
It is certainly not encouraging to be in the minority status in Silicon Valley, where the products you are making are being consumed by a diverse customer base, including people that look like you. The only difference is that leadership in your workplace is out of your reach, despite your education, experience and output.
How do we change that?
Some will choose protests against tech industry leaders. Others will opt for public shaming or boycotts to morally convict companies that are notorious for ignoring racial diversity in their ranks.
I prefer a dialogue with the next generation of innovators and technology leaders to turn the tide against the current diversity index in Silicon Valley.
So last week I went to Lawrence Technological University for a dialogue about the challenges of diversity and innovation in leadership, as speaker for the College of Management’s pre-commencement ceremony. The event was to recognize students graduating with a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in business and information technology.
It was the perfect setting because for the last 85 years, the Southfield-based Lawrence Tech has prided itself as the institution in southeast Michigan that produces some of the best engineers, scientists and business influencers. Some of the students that came out of that university have moved on to Silicon Valley to innovate.
In fact, university President Virinder K. Moudgil told me, “We are the best kept secret in the region,” and the dean of the College of Management Bahman Mirshab added that their students have gone on to do amazing work in science.
Because I believe that leaders are not born but made, one way to address the diversity gap in the tech world is by ensuring that the industry captains of the future understand the value of inclusion. To do so, we must wisely make the business case for diversity.
I began my remarks by citing a 2015 report, “Diversity Matters,” which found out that companies with more diverse workforces perform well financially. The report from McKinsey & Co, a global management consulting firm, also noted that “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”
“You must become the engineers and scientists who will build new roads and paths into the future, with diversity as your guiding light and innovation as your inspiration,” I told the graduates. “You must not allow ‘diversity’ to be just another buzz word.”
At a time when there is a school of thought that frowns upon the idea of multiracial diversity as a good force to advance our world, I told the graduates that we need a radical intellectual movement such as what arose during the Enlightenment Period of the 17th and 18th centuries.
“You must become that movement. You must become the compelling evidence that diversity works. It is good for business and it goes hand-in-hand with innovation,” I said.
The fact is, being open to a broader perspective of views and opinions and appreciating our various cultural differences and norms only strengthen the United States as a melting pot. Because for generations, our cultural landscape has been shaped by the experiences of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Those experiences give this nation its mosaic identity.
We all have an obligation to uphold the identity that extols the virtues of diversity, which in my view is the very definition of American exceptionalism.
If we are going to depend on science to produce the finest men and women for the finest hour, it is incumbent that diversity becomes the cornerstone of the progress we are hoping science will make.
History has always turned to science for some of the most difficult questions of the day.
In 1949, five years after World War II, Winston Churchill, the British war time prime minister, went to Boston to deliver the MIT mid-century convocation, where he underscored the role that science plays in our world.
“If, with all the resources of modern science, we find ourselves unable to avert world famine, we shall all be to blame, but a peculiar responsibility would rest upon the scientists,” Churchill said. “I do not believe they will fail, but if they do, or were not allowed to succeed, the consequences would be very unpleasant because it is certain that mankind would not agree to starve equally, and there might be some very sharp disagreements about how the last crust was to be shared. This would simplify our problem in an unduly primordial manner.”
He was right. The problems of our time are not beyond our abilities, and they do not surrender to our convenient unwillingness.
With all their impressive knowledge, skills and zest, Lawrence Tech grads are well positioned to make their own difference on the diversity and inclusion landscape of our country while leading in innovation.
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