Hacking The Pipeline: How Black Colleges Are Taking Tech's Diversity Issue Into Their Own Hands
While the big tech companies release diversity reports, students and mentors at HBCUs are coding their own future.
Leslie Tita's tone grows oddly anxious as he curls into the back of a Lyft, and speeds away from Howard University. Tita is a successful entrepreneur who owns a co-working space for entrepreneurs from Africa. He's strikingly tall and sturdily built, with long fine dreadlocks and an infectious grin, and doesn't seem the type to be worried about anything. But ask him about the "pipeline problem" in tech — the notion that tech companies don't hire enough people of color because there is not enough available talent — and you'll see his brow furrow.
“Lately there's been a lot of talk about race in general and that’s translated to tech, but what worries me is that it feels very trendy,” he says. "I have mixed feelings on how the big companies are trying to address it without working together, and I feel this fear that in a couple of months it's going to die down."
Tita has reason for this trepidation: Despite tech’s insistence that the talent pool for engineering students of color is insufficient, that it is a so-called pipeline problem, data suggests that’s not exactly true. A study in USA Today last year suggested that universities are graduating black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate that technology companies are hiring them.
Perhaps its because they're looking in the wrong places. The feeder universities for the big tech companies, like MIT and Stanford, have their own diversity issues. (At Stanford, African-Americans represent a paltry 7.8% of undergraduates. At MIT it's 10%.) In short, tech firms are building pipelines from places without any black people to begin with.
Which explains why Tita is volunteering his weekend as a mentor for an event called HBCU Hacks — a series of two-day hackathons held at historically black colleges and universities, organized by the nonprofit organization Black Founders. At these events, computer science and engineering students of color spend their weekends to conceive of, code, and hopefully finish some variety of app, game, or technical product. In short, they're trying to re-route the pipes.
That is, if they can get the internet working. A few minutes before we bailed in the Lyft, Tita was moving across the floor inside the wood-paneled reading room in Downing Hall, a linoleum-floored engineering building on the edge of the Howard University campus. Fifteen or so students were also milling about quietly, idly tapping their phones or staring at the ground, backpacks on their shoulders. Tables strewn with ethernet cables sat empty, and a table with breakfast food and cold cardboard jugs of Starbucks coffee had been picked apart by bored and hungry students. One student wearing a hooded sweatshirt with Google's logo across the back tended to a sagging sign that read "HBCU Hacks." It should be an exhausting, nonstop event, but the students and mentors were idle, due to a particularly vexing hurdle: a campus-wide internet outage.
"There's really only two things you need for a hackathon, and that's a computer and internet and, of course, we're missing one of them," said Tita, before letting out a strained laugh.
The Howard hackathon comes at a time when tech companies are under increasing scrutiny for their lack of diversity. Yet as the likes of Apple, Google, and Facebook increasingly roll out diversity reports and announce new efforts to fix the pipeline problem, the obvious fact remains that it's especially hard for people of color to gain employment at the elite companies of Silicon Valley. Diversity is frequently discussed among big tech companies now but it remains underserved in terms of actual hiring.
“We are working to increase diversity in the talent pipeline and make Yahoo a great place to work for a diverse employee base,” Yahoo’s 2015 report read after disclosing that African-Americans made up just 2% of its workers. Facebook, whose 2014 report revealed the 5,500 person company had only 81 black employees, stressed that it was "trying desperately to have a more diverse workforce and deal with the constraints on the pipeline.” And yet to some extent, the problem may be that tech companies view the problem as, well, a pipeline.
Despite hopeful and sometimes even grand gestures from companies like Apple, which last year gave a massive grant to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, much of the difficult work of building companies that genuinely reflect the ethnic makeup of their users will ultimately fall to the students of color and their institutions. The majority of that work — as many black entrepreneurs see it right now — won't take place onstage or at a press conference, but under the fluorescent lights of co-working spaces and engineering halls, where engineers, coders, and designers of color strive to build the workforce that can bridge Silicon Valley's diversity gap.
It’s this sense of self-reliance that has led people like Monique Woodard, the executive director of the diversity-in-tech nonprofit Black Founders, to partner with historically black colleges and universities across the country for this series of hackathons. Black Founders hopes to create the foundation necessary to build a culture of innovation in the tech space that, pipeline or not, Silicon Valley won’t be able to ignore.
“You see a lot of companies paying lip service about diversity, but when you talk about HBCUs there’s some pushback. That’s not where they’re recruiting,” Woodard told BuzzFeed News. “They are still looking for a Stanford student, a Harvard student, an MIT student — they just want that person to be black now. That’s not always realistic. Why not work with the engineering and business schools at HBCUs as well?”
Of course, no matter where they come from, they need internet to get there. And currently, the Howard hackathon is all out of that. But resourcefulness is the rule of the day. So Tita hatched a new plan and offered to host the students at his office, I/O Spaces, a few miles up the road in Silver Spring, Maryland. "Everybody call an Uber or Lyft," one of the hackathon organizers told the group. "Grab a buddy and let's just get out of here."
On the ride over, Tita was upbeat and focused on getting the students up and hacking. "I think it's so important to give young engineers at these HBCUs the chance to see what it's like to build something and maybe even get the chance to get funding," he explained. "But really, it's a chance to say to them, 'Hey, this is real — this tech stuff is not just like a specific niche of people. You can build a startup.'"
As the Lyft driver pulls up to the co-working space Tita says that part of his urgency comes from the realization that although the world appears to be paying closer attention to racial inequality across the country, he’s worries it’s a momentary cycle, and is aware that window might close.
But his wariness passes quickly. “The good thing is that even though it's a trend, people can make good money off of trends,” he says, flashing a smile before entering the co-working space. “The question is, how can we, as black entrepreneurs, make the best of this moment in time?”
Hackathons aren’t much as far as spectator sports go. Save for trips to the bathroom and scuttling back and forth to a modest table stacked with pre-made sandwich wraps and soda, the students rarely move from their respective seats. Allee Clark, a senior computer science student at Howard, is working at a table with three other students on an app called Nemesis, which will employ a Tinder-like swipe interface to allow friends to find worthy partners to debate on any number of issues. “Arguing with people is pretty much the oldest and best part of the internet,” he laughs, before explaining that the group will try to develop “a behavioral API of sorts to show what kind of person you are.” The project is light-hearted and Clark and his team are using the weekend as valuable practice. They are less focused on the outcome than the experience. “If I weren’t here, I’d probably be be back in my room trying to build something else, but here there’s at least some free food,” Clark says.
That lackadaisical mood is a bit disheartening to Aaron Saunders, a local entrepreneur and adjunct faculty member teaching computer science at Howard. Saunders worries that Howard and other HBCUs have fallen behind in providing a curriculum advanced enough to graduate top-tier engineering talent.
“When I finally got in to teach, I told myself I was going to focus on getting students to build, and it was a struggle because I was asking them to make something and they’re only being taught theory, not real-world application,” he explained. “They're prepping kids to go off to Lockheed Martin and IBM and those kinds of jobs and that’s all fine and good but they’re not doing what Stanford and the best universities are doing — preparing kids to create things — to create their own company.”
Worse, Saunders worries that curriculums at many HBCUs can be too slow to evolve to match what’s happening in the private sector, putting graduates at an even further disadvantage when they try to score jobs at big, fast-moving tech firms. “My personal opinion is that I don't think a lot of these kids are, on the whole, ready to work at Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter. And that's the harsh reality,” he said. “If you’re not turning out a product these tech companies want, then you’re setting people up for failure.”
While Saunders admitted tech curriculums lag at many public institutions across the country, he argues the effects are amplified at HBCUs like Howard. “If you go to some other state schools and say, 'Hey, raise your hand if you know somebody in software development,' there's a likelihood that in that network they know somebody. That doesn’t exist at HBCUs. The difference is other communities have a strong network. Most here don’t.”
The students suggest a more nuanced perspective: Access to bigger tech companies is available, but only on the companies’ terms. “Google is always around; they have Googlers that come to stay and teach at Howard’s campus, so Google is literally, like, downstairs,” one junior engineering student said, speaking of Howard’s Googler in Residence program. (Google declined to make its Googlers in Residence available for comment, but Yolanda Mangolini, Google's director of diversity and inclusion, told BuzzFeed News via a prepared statement that "Historically Black Colleges and Universities are and have always been an important pillar in the black community, and embedding our Googler engineers as instructors has helped bring practitioners to the classroom.")
Indeed, the Googler in Residence program has its engineers embed and teach not just at Howard, but also at Hampton University, Fisk University, and Spelman and Morehouse colleges. The mere fact of that presence can make a difference, say students. “Google makes it a lot easier to get an internship, not because they’re biased toward us but because they are here. Microsoft and Facebook are around maybe twice a year at most, but when I apply to Microsoft using their site I get nothing; no response, no confirmation email. Never. It's like it's going into a black hole,” another junior mechanical engineering student said.
For Alanna Walton, a Howard sophomore in computer engineering, Big Tech’s real presence at the university has helped shape the trajectory of her still-young academic career. After taking a class with the Googler in Residence, Walton secured an internship at the search giant over the summer. By the time she made it back to campus this fall, she’d already begun laying the groundwork for her startup idea with three other Howard students, a customizable haircare business called GottaBeYour. Walton is soft-spoken and wears a high school shirt that reads “Powderpuff Seniors” but speaks about her business with the concern of a seasoned entrepreneur, already trained in speaking about scalability and unreliable vendors.
At the hackathon, Walton sits cross-legged on the ground, balancing her laptop on her knees, deep in focus. Amid haggling with shampoo vendors for GottaBeYour and bootstrapping the project with the money she made at Google, she’s using the weekend to build something different. “Bringing something that you already started into a hackathon, that feels weird or kind of like cheating,” she said. “Plus, I can try something different and maybe learn another thing or two — I’m really into wireless beacons right now.”
And so she and her partner Lucretia Williams are working on Food EZ, an app that allows people to set up drive-thru orders ahead of time but that aren’t sent to the kitchen until you reach the beacon’s connectivity radius. “Maybe it won’t work, but the technology is really interesting and there’s a lot to figure out.”
To talk to the hackathon mentors this ability to embrace and be comfortable with failure is just one of many cultural barriers complicating diversity programs — and learning to embrace it is critical. “We talk about culture fit all the time and accepting failure is just completely outside of our culture. We don't have the luxury to fail,” Howard graduate and mentor Beverly Turner, who runs her own private technology exposure programs, said.
That willingness to try something new — and maybe fail at it — is prized worldview in Silicon Valley. Failure, breaking things, the perennially available exciting and potentially lucrative opportunities on the horizon for every failed startup founder: This is the standard template for success in the tech industry. But as even the most successful entrepreneurs of color have found, the luxury of failure is a foreign concept.
"When I go to some of these hackathons, kids are getting up to pitch like it’s no big deal and then when you see the groups with more minorities, they're less inclined to get up and it's a fear of the unknown," Turner said. “If you're first-generation college we're looking at you like, ‘You have loans to pay off and you're working at a startup with lesser pay prospects?’ Nope. Rejection and failure are a luxury. And we're trying to create that experience and luxury so we can develop an attitude that says, ‘Here's your space; get used to this.’”
The self-reliant attitude that pervades the hackathon is largely the result of the current State Of The Pipeline. Here, in its most unglamorous form, the work and culture of a rising generation of technical talent is being forged. And while the students and their projects and their mentors tell one side of the story, the list of sponsors speaks loudly as well.
Aside from Black Founders, companies like BeaconGrid, Autodesk, and Capital One provided proprietary technology and on-scene mentorship for the better part of two days (a Marriott employee was in attendance in a semi-unofficial mentor capacity), but none of Silicon Valley's biggest names were present, physically or financially.
“You see some companies that really have a desire to have diversity baked into their company and then you have others where it seems to be they want to do the large, splashy thing that gets them attention. They don’t want to do the hard thing like be at a hackathon where the Wi-Fi goes out and then we have to schlep to the next place,” Woodard said.
“It's so easy to do a splashy conference and then you're done in three days,” she continued. “It's so much harder to do something that's very focused for months and that doesn’t necessarily have a timeline where you're done. Here, where the real work gets done, there’s no press and parties and diverse people you can take photos next to, and it's going to be slightly less glamorous.”
As the students peck out lines of code deep into the fall afternoon, Saunders, recently back from making the rounds and dispensing advice to hackathon participants, expressed his frustration with the lack of communication between Silicon Valley and his Howard students.
"I went to the Apple development conference last year and I could literally count the number of black people I saw on my hands," he said. "But when you break it down it makes sense. You need to fly, since most HBCUs are on the East Coast, and it's an expensive thing. Just getting a scholarship for the conference ticket isn't enough. And then there's the preparation. Who's preparing the kids to get there? I'm going to teach [Apple's developer programming language] Swift next semester, but I sent an email to Apple in advance saying, 'Look, I will teach it and I want some kids to get the opportunity to get the scholarship and so you tell me exactly what they need to know.' To me, that's how you need to fix the problem."
It would seem to be a reasonable expectation. Last June, before kicking off its annual developer's conference, Apple CEO Tim Cook sat down with Mashable to roundly criticize the tech industry for its slow efforts to change its cultural and demographic makeup. “I think it's our fault — 'our' meaning the whole tech community,” he said, while adding, “I think the most diverse group will produce the best product; I firmly believe that.” Cook then made a surprise appearance at an orientation for Apple’s student developer scholarship winners, which, for the first time, was expanded to include STEM students. His words were a chaser of sorts for the company’s March announcement that the company was making a $50 million donation to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to help “create opportunities for minority candidates to get their first job at Apple.”
Yet Saunders thinks that outreach is equally important. He's in the early stages of working with Apple to get direct guidance on his upcoming course. (The company declined to speak on the record for this story, pointing to previous comments from its head of human resources on expanding its diversity efforts.)
"It feels sometimes like money is being thrown around without any real accountability," he said of Big Tech's pipeline donations. "If I'm giving $50 million and I'm on their end, I'm thinking, What am I going to get back? These are businessmen and women who are very smart and good at what they do and why would you throw money at something without a return on your investment? Don't they want something out of it? Or is it really just about checking a box?"
Watching the students at the hackathon and observing their mentors, the pipeline metaphor feels particularly inappropriate for tech diversity's current climate. The idea of a pipeline — an object which flows in one direction with little resistance — represents the diversity struggle as framed by Silicon Valley.
But there is no such pipeline. The world as we know it is a vast network of streams and rivers that flow in many directions, all at once. Rather than a downhill, one-directional flow of human capital, the network demands a more complicated infrastructure, built out by both parties and then constant, vigilant maintenance.
“These are people, not pipes,” said Karla Monterroso, VP of programs at CODE2040, a startup that places minorities in tech companies like Apple, and provides training for the students it places in jobs to prepare them to be the only person of color in a workplace. “I think there’s a difference between not knowing how to find a candidate and that candidate not existing, but those two things get equivocated.” Monterroso sees her job, in part, as a translator: Right now, the tech companies “go where they know,” but the same can be said for minority students. “If I don’t explain that the system is messed up, students blame their own intelligence and they give up.”
Closing that communication gap — which leads minority students to see tech as an impregnable, alien monolith and Silicon Valley to look at a tiny number of institutions as a proxy for talent and promise — is where this fabled pipeline starts pumping. And it seems like it’s up to those who can communicate with both sides to get it going. What Saunder, Woodard, and Monterroso have in common is the ability to code switch. They can see, more clearly than most, what’s happening in both worlds and act as a conduit.
Monterroso, for one is hopeful.” A lot of companies are starting to understand that they don’t get something,” she said. “We’re past the point where they’re asking, ‘Do we need this?’”
The diversity issue — tech’s next big problem to solve — isn’t going to be fixed with the usual Silicon Valley methods. It’s not inventiveness that’s required, there’s no industry to be disrupted, a billion dollars is cool, but it’s not a panacea. If these titanic companies don’t learn where and how to look for employees of color, then there’s a real chance that it might not happen. If the Apples, Googles, and Facebooks of the world are serious about repairing their diversity problems; there is a group of people in a room at Howard already building.