A Tree Shaker and a Jelly Maker Try to Fix Tech

Joe Garofoli, SFGate, December 6, 2014

Two civil rights leaders–one old-school, the other half his age–are attempting to tackle Silicon Valley’s diversity problem with different tactics.

Former NAACP head Ben Jealous, 41, wants to change the industry from the inside, embedding himself as a venture capitalist with Oakland’s Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact. He serves on boards, networks with founders, and funds companies in a bid to steer more people of color into the tech world.

Meanwhile the Rev. Jesse Jackson, 73, is using his trademark bullhorn activism to attack an industry that is two-thirds male and overwhelmingly white and Asian. He uses his media savvy to publicly shame companies, and he hints at calling for a boycott of the products that have made Silicon Valley one of the wealthiest regions of the country.

Their approaches match a metaphor Jackson has previously used to describe vital players in any social movement. Jackson is the “tree shaker,” who agitates an entrenched institution. Jealous is the “jelly maker,” who picks up the fallen fruit and transforms it into something a wider audience can enjoy.

“I have chosen to cross the threshold from being tree shaker to jelly maker,” Jealous said. “But I also understand that tree shaking is important to the jelly-making process. And Rev. Jesse Jackson has done an effective job of adding volume to lots of other people’s ongoing, long-standing complaints at just the right moment.”


On Thursday at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, Jealous was the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for a Kapor Center for Social Impact program aimed at helping youths of color get involved in tech.

The event was co-sponsored by Google and other tech firms, which have been criticized for poor records of hiring people of color and women. But Jealous didn’t try to shame the executives from Google, Twitter or Yahoo in the audience. Instead, he appealed to their business sense, saying America will not remain competitive if its workforce does not include ideas from people of all backgrounds.


Jealous, who left the NAACP last year after turning around the flagging civil rights organization, doesn’t believe Silicon Valley lives up to its aspirations of meritocracy. He wants to see the tech world consider applicants who didn’t go to top schools like Stanford. Early next year, the Kapor Center for Social Impact will release interactive graphics showing the “leaks” in the science and technology education pipeline–where low-income and minority candidates fall off the path to tech. The reports also aims to highlight which educational approaches work and which don’t.


Jackson’s operatives buy shares of stock in the offending companies so they can gain access to stockholder meetings and blast the companies publicly for their lack of diversity.


Jackson will step inside the valley’s gates Wednesday to lead a discussion at Intel’s Santa Clara headquarters where 20 tech companies will explain their plans to hire more people of color and women.

Some tech leaders are listening to their message. At the fundraiser Jealous spoke at Thursday at Twitter, Janet Van Huysse, the company’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, said, “Tech companies, as everyone in this room knows, have really struggled to build a truly diverse workforce. And Twitter is no exception.”

Jealous’ new employer is building a relationship with Twitter. Kapor Klein has visited Twitter several times and offered suggestions on how to diversify the firm’s recruiting and promotion process.


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