"I'm very happy to see that the conversation has shifted, so quickly. I mean, I say that, and kind of almost have to laugh to myself, because this is the conversation that black folks have wanted to have for the last several decades," said Austin Clements, partner at OPV, an early stage venture capital firm created to address the unmet investment needs of small business owners, and managing director of Grid 110 South LA, which provides entrepreneurs with free access to community, mentors and critical resources.
"Now that people are paying attention, I have two options, I can either be shaming people for like, 'Why are you late to this party?' or I can be welcoming and say 'hey, you know, thanks for showing up.' And I tend to take the latter because that's going to be what makes the next decade, look a lot different than the last."
Unlike the response to COVID-19 pandemic, where the tech community rushed to directly help and support the effort for PPE, testing and other needs, the response to the protests have been a little more subdued and mixed.
Some tech companies and leaders have asked how they can help, but for many people, "they don't necessarily see the connection (to) their professional career, their professional skill sets, and how it can address the current issue," said Jasson Crockett, manager of economic policy for the Los Angeles Mayor's Office of Economic Development.
"I would encourage tech (workers) not to feel uncomfortable wading into this space simply because they are tech and they don't see a direct resolution from their professional skill set. Bring your humanity. Bring your commonality as an Angeleno and as a person."
In an annual countywide survey released in April, the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles found "a growing generational and economic divide" among residents. Nearly ⅔, or 64%, of respondents between the ages of 18 and 39 said that L.A. wasn't a place where people who work hard can succeed, but merely a place where the rich can keep getting richer. That's not even accounting for the racial aspects of widening income inequality issues.
Clements said in recent years, despite increased conversation around diversity and inclusion in Silicon Valley, "there are a lot of minorities, particularly brown and black people that have been left out, and no one could really understand why. Or, there have been all kinds of excuses from, you know, there's a pipeline problem to, you know, all the culture fit and every excuse that you could possibly come up with." He added: "I haven't been seeing a lot of broadly accepted diversity efforts in tech."
As the chair of PledgeLA, an initiative created by the Annenberg Foundation and the mayor of Los Angeles to promote civic engagement and diversity within the tech community, Clements has been trying to help broaden that effort. Today, PledgeLA has more than 200 signatories from L.A.'s venture capital and tech community who have pledged to "increase our community engagement by supporting organizations that are making a difference throughout Los Angeles"; "to actively and continuously improve equity, diversity, and inclusion at all levels of our organizations and in our investment decisions"; and "to hold ourselves accountable by measuring and transparently reporting on our progress and impact on these outcomes."
It is on that last point that many companies have been less willing to engage. The results for the survey and data from the participating companies who did respond are expected to be released soon, Clements said.
But, as an example of their findings, one of the questions asked to respondents was about how people got their jobs. For the overwhelming percentage of white respondents to the survey, they got their jobs through a friend or referral from someone that worked at the company itself. That was not the case for every other group, Clements said.
"If you're not tied into this community and these aren't your firsthand relationships, it's hard to actually break into this (tech and VC community)," Clements said. "If you're black, you're literally replying to a LinkedIn post cold and you're at a disadvantage, quite frankly."
Clements added: "If we just keep asking everybody that's sitting in the room who else they know in the room isn't going to look any different over time."
That seems to be evident in past actions by the tech community. Roughly five or six years ago, some of the larger tech companies began publicly admitting that their employees were less representative of the overall population, especially at the executive level, Clements said.
"Unfortunately, they either just have not been equipped or just haven't tried or made it a priority to make any meaningful or substantive advances to improve those numbers," Clements said. "And the reality is, they've gotten away with it. I mean, if we look into stock prices of all these companies, like they've shot up and so I guess theoretically, they haven't had to from a business case standpoint prioritize that. I think that there's the moral case and a business case at this point for ensuring that your staff and your community is more representative of the actual populations of the city."
The numbers have been clear, in studyafter study, that diverse companies and funds reap dividends from the diverse perspectives and insights brought to the table. Take just one conclusion, from McKinsey & Company, "Our latest research finds that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians."
But recruiting people outside of your network takes work. With the shakeup of the economy due to the novel coronavirus, there's a real danger that companies especially in the startup community abandon any existing diversity efforts because of a tightened bottom line, said Emily Slade, cofounder and COO of Valence, a new tech platform and community incubated by Upfront Ventures that's focused on connecting black professionals with mentorship, job opportunities and capital.
"We just have to really encourage everybody to stay focused on the fact that this work is very important," Slade said, "and we've just begun."
Valence currently works with hundreds of companies and has more than 7,000 black professionals on it.
The American ideal of a meritocracy has long been a vaunted ethic in the tech and business world. Those communities and their leaders have evangelized the idea that with hard work anyone can pull themselves up the ladder of wealth and influence by their bootstraps. But the panelists did not agree.
"We live in a world in which your talent, your skill and your ability and potential come secondary at best, probably tertiary to who you know," Crockett said. "And when you start with that as the baseline, then by no way is this a meritocracy, not even close."
As a former teacher for at-risk young adults, Crockett said it seems as if "we continually feed this message of meritocracy to keep people going, because if not, fi we all in one voice admit we don't have a meritocracy right now and there's no plan for how we're going to change it, we're just admitting it, that's a scary reality for a lot of people who are on the fringes of society, who say, 'shit, why am I trying.'"
All of us should be asking what we're doing to acknowledge and support and foster the efforts of everyone, and requires first taking the step of admitting that there is no meritocracy right now, Crockett added.
The speakers weighed in on many more issues and also addressed some of the many audience questions received by dot.LA, including around the topic of recruitment and a perceived "pipeline problem." dot.LA also plans to post additional responses by panelists to questions asked during Thursday's panel. In the meantime, please watch the video below for insights directly from these speakers.
Lastly, a takeaway thought from Crockett:
"What is important is that we capture (this) momentum, unlike in the past, when there has been a moment in time that these conversations have reached a fever pitch but then the energy dissipated," Crockett said. "It is tough to sustain that energy for a topic that makes so many people feel so incredibly uncomfortable, and for which there are so many such a wide range of opinions and perspectives. And so my hope is that the tech community can be an important part in sustaining this conversation beyond the protests beyond next week (because) when you talk, my boss listens."
Do you have a story that needs to be told? My DMs are open on Twitter @latams. You can also email me at tami(at)dot.la, or ask for my contact on Signal, for more secure and private communications.
Strategy Session: Lessons of the Moment – Rebuilding & Equality in the Future of LA Techwww.youtube.com
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