More than a decade before diversity became a hot issue in Silicon Valley, Jason Young came home on winter break from Harvard to discover that his family was being evicted.
Having grown up in a single-parent home with an absent father who was frequently incarcerated, Mr. Young, 33, can identify with other young black men he now calls “hidden geniuses” — the promising male teenagers who grow up in challenging circumstances mere miles away, but light-years apart, from Silicon Valley’s tech money machine.
That experience led Mr. Young to found theHidden Genius Project two years ago. The program immerses high school men of color in coding, web and app design, team building and other skills intended to give them a leg up in the tech economy. Mr. Young says he focused on young men because similar groups existed for young women, and because young males face particular challenges in school and their communities.
His project is one of a multitude of grass-roots efforts that have sprung up recently to address one of Silicon Valley’s most acute diversity problems: the scarcity of African-Americans in the tech industry.
“We are helping these young men to understand who they are and what they’re capable of,” said Mr. Young, who runs his education technology start-up, MindBlown Labs, in the same Oakland building as Hidden Genius Project. “We’re giving them a pathway and putting them on it.”
Silicon Valley has been engulfed in a diversity debate for more than a year, in part because data released by giant tech companies like Google, Facebook and others showed how overwhelmingly tilted the population of tech workers is to white males. The data highlighted that the low number of African-American tech workers is particularly acute, worse than even the dearth of women and Hispanics in the industry.
Google revealed that its tech work force was 1 percent black, compared with 60 percent white. Yahoo disclosed in July that African-Americans made up 1 percent of its tech workers while Hispanics were 3 percent. In areport last month, Apple said it had made progress increasing diversity in hiring in the last year, though African-Americans remained the smallest fraction of its tech work force at 7 percent, compared with 53 percent white, 25 percent Asian and 8 percent Hispanic; the rest were undeclared, multiple or other.
According to the United States Census Bureau, African-Americans and Hispanics have been consistently underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations. In 2011, blacks represented 11 percent of the total work force but only 6 percent of STEM workers. Hispanics were 15 percent of the total work force and 7 percent of STEM workers.
The figures released by the tech companies have led to a flurry of initiatives to address the issue. Spurred by advocates like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., who runs the nonprofit Rainbow PUSH Coalition, there are now “black tech” summit meetings and efforts by historically black colleges and universities to produce more science, technology, math and engineering graduates. These have been joined by a growing number of professional networks, including a new Black Tech Employees Resource Group, and nonprofit groups like Black Girls Code and Code2040, which are bushwhacking the professional trail.
“A lot of African-Americans want to grow up to be LeBron James, Jay Z or Barack Obama,” said Van Jones, the CNN political commentator and founder of #YesWeCode, a year-old program that has raised $3 million to connect young adults in Oakland to apprenticeships in tech companies. “They don’t hear about David Drummond at Google, who is at the center of one of the biggest companies in the world.” (Mr. Drummond is a senior vice president and Google’s chief legal officer.)
The idea with all of the new efforts, Mr. Jones said, is to create a generation of black entrepreneurial “uploaders” — those who create profit-making apps instead of simply downloading them.
How effective some of these initiatives will be remains unclear. “No one new idea will drive systemic change,” said Rosalind L. Hudnell, the chief diversity officer at Intel, which has pledged $425 million over the last few years to diversity efforts. “There is no quick fix.”
At the heart of the issue, underrepresented minorities “are up against a series of barriers and obstacles that their Caucasian and Asian counterparts don’t have,” said Freada Kapor Klein, founder of the Level Playing Field Institute in Oakland, which sponsors programs to increase diversity in technology. “The farther outside the tech ecosystem they are, the harder it is.”
And entry into the tech firmament remains challenging, even for African-Americans with engineering degrees. Consider Erin Teague, 33, director of product management at Yahoo, who grew up in a predominantly black suburb of Detroit and later became the only black woman among 1,200 students at the University of Michigan’s engineering department.