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A diversity consultant says real change may hit the tech industry due to the George Floyd protests and the coronavirus crisis. Silicon Valley hasn't changed much after past scrutiny, but this time could be different.

ReadySet CEO Y-Vonne Hutchinson
  • Silicon Valley has long had a diversity problem, but in the past the industry has largely been able to evade addressing it.
  • But a combination of the coronavirus crisis and the protests over the death of George Floyd have led to a new moment in the Valley where it may be finally forced to contend with its own legacy of systemic racism, said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO of ReadySet and an expert on inclusion and diversity issues.
  • People inside and outside tech companies are no longer as enthralled with the industry as they once were, and are more willing to call the companies out for failing to address race and diversity problems, she said.
  • With the economy depressed by the coronavirus crisis, companies can't simply get back to business as usual as they have in the past, she said.
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The ongoing protests over the killing of George Floyd and police brutality have trained a spotlight on systemic racism and the lack of inclusion all around the country, including in Silicon Valley.
The tech industry had already come under scrutiny many times for its hiring, promotion, funding, and business practices as they pertained to the treatment of women, blacks, and other people of color. But usually, after some initial tumult and the occasional promise to do better, the Valley quickly got back to business as usual.
Y-Vonne Hutchinson thinks this time around is likely to be different. It's not so much that the tech industry has changed, but the context has — there's no "normal" to return to. The coronavirus crisis has forced many out of work, killed more than 100,000 people in the US, and shown the ineptitude of the government, said Hutchinson, the CEO of ReadySet. The pandemic has also forced many people to stay home, where they're seeing videos of the protests that depict a deeply disturbing picture of how policing is conducted in this country.
"Everybody's feeling some kind of pain right now, and that pain and that level of dissatisfaction, that's the difference," said Hutchinson, whose Oakland, California-based firm helps companies in the tech industry and elsewhere move towards having more diverse and inclusive workplaces. "We're putting up with less bullshit."

Silicon Valley has long had a diversity problem

For all the talk about tech being a liberal industry and the Bay Area being a bastion of liberalism, Silicon Valley has, since its founding, been dominated by white men who have provided relatively few opportunities to women or people of color. Just 1% of founders of venture-backed startup companies are black, according to a report issued late last year by RateMyInvestor and Diversity VC. Only 9% are women.
Susan FowlerAnd the lack of diversity extends all the way up the ecosystem. In 2018, just 3% of people in investment positions at venture-capital firms were black and only 21% were women, according to a study by the National Venture Capital Association and Deloitte. Meanwhile, of the 123 senior level managers and executives at Apple in 2018, just one was black and only 25 were women, according the company's own report on its workforce demographics.
The industry has repeatedly drawn scrutiny for the disconnect between its oft-professed liberal values and its actual practices. At least twice in the last 21 years, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has come to the Valley to admonish firms to hire more black and Latino people and put them on their boards. Immigrant-rights supporters have called out companies including Amazon and Microsoft for allowing their technologies to be used to assist in mass deportations and for meeting with President Trump even as he was pushing anti-immigrant policies. And former Uber engineer Susan Fowler helped spark a homegrown MeToo movement in the Valley after she publicly documented the sexual harassment she experienced at the ride-hailing firm.
In response to such movements and pressures, some companies and managements pledged changes. Some people were forced from their jobs. But the unequal system largely stayed intact.
Companies bet they could get away with making few substantive changes, Hutchinson said. As long as the money was still flowing into tech company coffers and into venture funds, and the public was still largely enthralled with the tech industry and its products, they figured no one would really hold them responsible to be more diverse or inclusive. "And they were largely right, she said.
"Nothing changed because nothing had to change," she said, continuing, "People knew they could keep the party going."

Hutchinson argues things are different now

But things are different now, Hutchinson said. These are no longer the salad days in Silicon Valley. Tech firms have cut costs and laid off thousands of workers in an effort to try to survive the downturn. Many have seen their revenues hit hard. And investors' portfolios have taken similar hits.
Meanwhile, people inside and outside tech companies are no longer as enamored with those businesses as they once were, she said. Many have called on such companies to do something about the dissemination of racist and incendiary messages through their services, including by the US president.
Former and current Facebook employees have spoken out about CEO Mark Zuckerberg's decision to leave up a message from Trump in which he seemed to countenance the use of violence against protesters. Meanwhile, when YouTube tweeted out out a message of opposition to racism and violence, numerous people called it out for promoting videos from white nationalists on its service.
Likewise, when other tech companies and investors have expressed support for the protests, people have pressed them to demonstrate what they were doing to address their own systemic problems with race, Hutchinson said.
"I think internally [in the tech industry], you're seeing levels [of] dissatisfaction you haven't seen before, and i think externally ... you're seeing that public accountability," she said. "And for a lot of people in Silicon Valley, even without these marches, there was a reckoning that was starting to happen."
It's too soon to know whether the present moment will actually lead to lasting change. But Hutchinson is hopeful. Tech leaders are following up on expressing support for diversity with actual checks to organizations that promote racial and social justice, she noted. That kind of follow-through often hasn't happened before.
Meanwhile, SoftBank announced Wednesday that it's setting up a new $100 million fund that will be run by and will be dedicated to investing in businesses founded by people of color. And Andreessen Horowitz announced that it's launching a new non-profit fund to invest in companies launched by non-traditional startup founders.
"It's too soon to tell how deep and sustainable this change is going to be," Hutchinson said. But, she continued, "if there ever was a time for deep revolutionary change to happen, that time is now."
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SEE ALSO: This female founder went from teaching middle schoolers to mentoring tech entrepreneurs — here's her unusual path and how she plans to help others succeed in Silicon Valley
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