Oakland Hackathon Tries to Broaden Silicon Valley’s Recruitment Pipeline

Joe Garofoli, SF Chronicle, February 7, 2014

Silicon Valley touts itself as a meritocracy where people climb the economic ladder based on the power of their ideas. But many people of color can’t even find that ladder, let alone climb it.

They’re not part of the valley’s white-male-dominated “bro culture,” advocates say, and aren’t connected to the social and educational networks where companies recruit talent.

“Shame on Silicon Valley, but shame on the rest of us, too,” said Van Jones, a former veteran Bay Area activist and current co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire.”

His Oakland nonprofit, Rebuild the Dream, is one of the driving forces behind Start-Up Weekend Oakland, which begins Friday at the Impact Hub Oakland. More than 300 participants are expected to take part in a hackathon with an overriding theme of driving more African Americans and Latinos into the tech world’s recruitment pipeline.

It’s part of Rebuild the Dream’s national campaign dubbed Yes We Code.

Organizers say their goal is “a Silicon Valley that lives up to the dreams of Dr. King.”

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“Communities of color have to bear responsibility for not making this our No. 1, 2 and 3 priority and pointing our kids to these opportunities,” said Jones, who will speak at a Saturday evening reception along with Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls Code and Mitch Kapor, inventor of Lotus, who now focuses on race in tech at his Kapor Center for Social Impact.

“You still have way too many kids of color who think that they’re going to be basketball stars or entertainers or Barack Obama,” Jones said.

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{snip} Less than 1 percent of the founders of venture capital-backed startups in 2010 were black or Latino, according to CB Insights.

And while the Silicon Valley regional economy was struggling back to health between 2009 and 2011, white men saw their incomes rise by 4 percent while African Americans saw theirs plummet by 18 percent, according to the 2013 Silicon Valley Index.

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Only 6 percent of U.S. tech workers are African American and 7 percent are Latino; 15 percent are Asian American and 71 percent are white, according to 2011 census data. Despite its claims of meritocracy, tech’s demographic breakdown is comparable to the white-collar finance and insurance industries, according to 2012 data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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“How can you have a culture that talks about its meritocracy, but when you press them, you see that they’re 70 percent white,” said Nicole Sanchez, managing partner for the Kapor Center for Social Impact and a speaker at the weekend hackathon.

“It’s the whole ‘bro culture,’ where it was started by a couple of guys who were roommates; then they just started hiring their friends or people like them. It’s like a fraternity in a lot of these companies,” Sanchez said.

Aside from all the moral and ethical reasons for diversifying their workforce, “there are competitive reasons, too,” Sanchez said. “Some of the most disruptive technologies are created by people who are living on the margins.”

Those startups include companies like Regalii, co-founded by a Dominican Republican native now living in the U.S., which tries to make it easier for immigrants to send money back to relatives in their home countries—an industry long dominated by companies like Western Union.

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