Redefining ‘Diversity in Tech’

I co-hosted a dialogue recently sponsored by Net Impact. Our group at the Table4Twelve program was diverse and represented a decent cross-section of who works in tech. Yet, I left feeling uneasy.

As someone who’s benefited from my ’model minority-ness’, I continue to ask myself what can I do to change the equation for others? It’s easy to hire and work with people who look just like me. Asian-Americans have a seat at most tables in the tech world. It’s easy to keep quiet and just make money. Very few of us went through civil rights struggles. I try to think outside of the box. As an American first and foremost, how do I give back to the landscape which has benefited me?

There’s a huge American population who’ve been disadvantaged for generations — unlike my Asian story. They went through Hell to get me the civil rights I take for granted today. Many underrepresented communities simply don’t have access to the education channels which enable careers in tech. In many cases, they were overlooked based on cognitive bias.

Overt prejudice is common, too. America elected a president who clearly does not like underrepresented minorities and recent immigrants. Yet, he likes the thriving Asian community. There are too many large companies and startups which I’ve worked for where African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans were not employed for whatever reason. We are in the 21st century. Shockingly, not a single employee looked the part in some of the most successful startups which I’ve dealt with. There were Asian and Indian faces in the room, but something didn’t feel right especially when I kept meeting customers of these same companies who came from underrepresented backgrounds.

A few companies looked like their customers, but most did not. Tech leaders set the tone and it’s clear that some don’t value diversity, including many executives from privileged Asian backgrounds. I think it’s a cardinal sin not to hire employees who look like your customers.

I have a perspective on how we got here. For many companies, the narrative of achieving ‘Diversity in Tech’ continues to happen organically. It’s not difficult to recruit South Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans for technical roles. The talent pipeline is significant within these tech-obsessed communities.

Another checkbox gets filled by women from Asian backgrounds who actively pursue STEM careers because of a cultural push from early childhood. Most Asians have STEM career paths woven into their DNA fabric. Any type of career outside the realm of tech, medicine, business, or law has generally been frowned upon by Asian families. I should know firsthand as the son of an IBM lifer.

As a result, ‘Diversity in Tech’ is largely an Asian immigrant story represented by over 20% of the workforce in large tech companies. Sensing opportunity, the talent pipeline from Asian communities grow, too. The tech industry is a growing pond where even the smallest fish can grow big and fast on diligence alone. The story repeats itself as Asian immigrants lock up green cards and start blazing trails for their children so that that they can overachieve— by winning spelling bees, achieving patents, becoming tech entrepreneurs, and so on. History has been made quickly by this close-knit, laser-beam focused population in the US.

A virtuous cycle gets fulfilled as American companies invest heavily in the homelands of where their Asian talent pool was born. For example, many Western companies have become top employers in India. My own experience dovetails this narrative after having been to India and Japan for work. Paths to success continue to regenerate from Asia. The East-West global pipeline was built over the last 30 years. Tech talent continues to flow back and forth.

Many tech leaders believe the diversity equation has already been solved because of the Asian narrative. The problem is that the tech industry has enabled a walled garden of Asian talent, not a place where other minority groups can easily set afoot. Gender diversity has improved given the strong emphasis of STEM in schools. However, efforts to increase underrepresented minorities have shown only marginal gains.

Based on the recent dialogue with Net Impact, I hope such conversations are mirrored in tech boardrooms across the country. How can we create successful narratives for minorities (who aren’t Asian)? How do we create similar tidal waves of opportunities for them? Shouldn’t your employee base look like your customers?