The Flaw in Silicon Valley’s Diversity Approach


With its glass walls and windows overlooking the Boston harbor, the Venture Development Center (VDC), located at UMass Boston, can sometimes feel like a bubble. As you walk through the glass doors at the front desk, you are transported into a different world with its own culture. The same could be said for any workplace. Every company develops a culture that can easily become isolated from outside influences. The longer you dwell in your company’s “bubble”, the more normal the culture seems to become. Normal here is a diverse culture. Yet, every once in a while, the outside world forces you to consider that your workplace, and the culture within, may not be typical. Just recently I experienced that kind of “bubble-bursting” outside intrusion.

Innovation’s Diversity Problem

This past July, on my way into work, I came across a news report on National Public Radio (NPR). The report was on the lack of diversity within the innovation community, highlighting Facebook in particular. Regarded as one of the world’s most innovative companies, Facebook’s self-published workplace diversity numbers painted an unflattering image of the social network’s workplace culture. According to the reported numbers, 4% of Facebook’s workforce identified as Hispanic and only 2% of Facebook’s workforce identified as African American. For comparison, 55% of their workers identified as White. As NPR reported, numbers like these are part of a disturbing trend at many tech companies. Self-published diversity reports from Google and Intel show diversity in the workplace is lacking. Google reported that only 4% of their employees identified as Hispanic with 1% identifying as Black. Similarly, 8% of Intel’s employees were Hispanic and 4% were Black.

Since tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Intel have begun publishing diversity reports, the innovation community as a whole has come to recognize diversity as both fundamentally fair and a good business practice. Companies acknowledge that innovation can be accelerated forward or held back by the availability and access to talented individuals. Research has shown that greater diversity in the workplace builds creativity, drives innovation, and can help decrease high turnover rates. 

Silicon Valley’s Solutions to the Problem

In an effort to foster diversity within their workforces, as well as attract more diverse talent to join the innovation community, many Silicon Valley companies have announced new initiatives to help bridge the diversity gap. Facebook, for example, hired Global Head of Diversity, Maxine Williams, to work across multiple departments to ensure women and underrepresented minorities have the same access to positions and opportunities as their white, male counterparts. Companies like Intel and Google are going a step further. Intel’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, recently unveiled their Diversity in Technology initiative. With this initiative, Krzanich implemented new hiring and retention goals that, he hopes, will achieve full representation for under-represented minorities at Intel by 2020. To show how serious he is about this initiative, Krzanich announced Intel would invest $300 million to develop and maintain a pipeline of talented engineers from under-represented backgrounds. Krzanich said the company would also increase its engagement with education programs that provide technical educational and learning services to underserved areas. In line with Intel’s initiative, online marketplace Etsy pledged over $200,000 in 2014 to Hacker School, to be used as need-based grants for minority programmers. Tech giant Google is also hoping its new initiative, the Google NextWave program, will bridge the diversity gap. The NextWave program nurtures entrepreneurs who come from under-represented communities by providing them with financial support and mentorship.

Diversity Initiatives in Boston’s Innovation Economy

Recent efforts by companies like Google and Intel are promising and show that diversity is being made a priority. Here in Boston, encouraging diversity in our innovation community has also become a high priority. Just as tech giants have implemented their plans to support diversity, so too have some of Boston’s own innovators. This year, OpenView Venture Partners and Startup Institute announced a strategic partnership aimed at bolstering diversity within startup companies and VCs in Boston. OpenView partner Devon McDonald said in a press statement that the aim of the partnership is to “source a more diverse talent pool.” McDonald added that he hopes the partnership will set an example for other VCs. As well, in 2014, Boston Foundation awarded a three-year, $450,000 grant to MassChallenge. The grant will be used to support the efforts of MassChallenge to “bring women & under-represented minorities into Boston’s innovation economy.”

Consider Culture from the Beginning

Stories similar to the NPR report I heard that morning in July are practically everywhere. Almost daily, it seems there is a new story about how one company’s workplace is severely tilted in favor of white males. They have quickly become staples of discussion within the innovation community. But I would invite fellow members of the innovation community, big and small, to change their perspective on how to remedy this issue. Focus less on increasing the number of employees who identify as a racial minority and more on promoting a culture of diversity in your own company.

Part of the VDC’s mission from the get-go was creating and fostering a place where diversity breeds success. Not just racial diversity but diversity in education, socio-economic status, geographical origin, and ethnicity. Our portfolio of partner companies speaks to that objective. At our lunch table, the VDC’s diverse community is vividly depicted and experienced. It’s very common to hear various accents, see a variety of skin colors, be told personal anecdotes that betray a wealthier or more impoverished upbringing, and to have teams who work in different industries, share a single, wooden lunch table. The VDC also exists as part of UMass Boston’s outstanding culture of diversity.   

I applaud Silicon Valley tech giants like Google, Intel, and Facebook, as well as fellow Boston innovators MassChallenge, OpenView Partners, and Startup Institute, for their initiatives to increase diversity within the innovation industry. At the VDC, we have firsthand knowledge of how having distinct backgrounds, business ideas, and experiences can benefit a community. But when discussing ways to bridge the diversity gap, innovators must be cautious not to view diversity as “checking the right boxes”. Instead, view the issue of bridging the diversity gap more about creating a place where people of a wide variety of backgrounds feel comfortable.

The majority of the news stories choose to focus on how low the number of minorities within a company is and how to get that number higher. All well and good but I think there needs to be a shift in focus. Borrowing sentiments from the VDC’s founding mission, I propose the innovation community focus more on fostering a culture that is inherently diverse. The diversity initiatives previously mentioned are working to offer access and exposure to the innovation economy, which, they hope, will increase the variety of cultural backgrounds within tech and innovation companies. If successful, these initiatives will produce larger pools of talented and diverse individuals. But, if these talented and diverse individuals can’t find a space that goes beyond just “hiring” diverse ethnic backgrounds but rather “encourages” people of different cultural backgrounds working together, these companies’ efforts to bolster diversity will have little impact. A line from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams couldn’t be more appropriate for the VDC- If you build it they will come. And come they have.


Image: Author Christian Vialva (right), at the 2014 VDC Holiday Party.

As part of our efforts to continue to create a culture and environment where ideas and experiences are exchanged freely, we will be the host venue for IDEAS UMass Boston. This conference is a place where cutting edge thinkers share their latest- or their next- big ideas, with the headlining event being a panel discussion on “Diversity in Innovation”. We hope you’ll join us.