How Some Companies Are Trying to Boost Tech Diversity

Equality through coding?

Key Takeaways

  • Groups are offering training to minorities to bring them into tech fields. 
  • Even amidst a grim economic forecast, technology firms are still hiring.
  • Minorities and women face substantial barriers to getting tech jobs, studies have found.
Student sat at desk in bedroom looking at phone
Peter Cade / Getty Images 

Nonprofits and small businesses around the country are trying to train more underrepresented people for technology jobs as the economy slides into recession.

Minorities and women represent only a tiny percentage of technology workers and face obstacles to join the growing field. The coronavirus pandemic also shows the need for minorities to boost their technology skills as more jobs move online.

"We believe that much of our nation’s talent is hidden in plain sight."

"As a single mother trying to get into the tech industry, I didn’t see a lot of people like myself," Krista Peryer, co-founder and president of The Geek Foundation in Springfield, MO, said in a phone interview. "There’s just a tremendous need out there for people who don’t fit the typical description of a white tech guy with a college degree." 

Still Jobs but Few People of Color to Fill Them

Computer science is the fastest growing occupation in the US, but those who work in the field don’t reflect the country’s demographics. Just 3.1 percent of American tech workers, and only about 3 percent of Silicon Valley workers, are Black. Even Black and Latinx computer scientists from top universities tend to not get hired by big tech. The five largest tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) only have a workforce of about 34.4% women. Women’s representation in computer jobs has decreased since 1990.

"As a single mother trying to get into the tech industry, I didn’t see a lot of people like myself."

The dearth of underrepresented groups in tech isn’t necessarily due to a lack of opportunities. Even amidst a darkening economic forecast, technology firms are still hiring. And traditional jobs are increasingly making use of technology as people work from home during the pandemic. Amazon, for example, is hiring for 33,000 corporate and tech roles, most of which will be working remotely. 

Substantial Barriers

Big tech companies have made promises to diversify their workforce through training and hiring, but they’ve often fallen short. This summer’s Black Lives Matter protests forced some tech companies to take note of inequalities. Best Buy recently announced it would hire more than 1,000 new tech employees in the next two years, of which 30 percent will be people of color or women. After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, Best Buy CEO Corie Barry wrote an open letter to customers, vowing to address racial discrimination.

"What do we do to change the cycle in which Black men or women, with tragic frequency, are harmed by those who are supposed to protect them? Or the gut-wrenching truth that to be a person of color in America is often to not feel fully safe, seen, or heard?" she wrote on the company website. "For me, it starts with seeing the situation for what it is, acknowledging these experiences for what they are, and, quite simply, apologizing for not doing enough."

Getting good jobs at companies like Best Buy has been tough for underrepresented groups. Minorities and women face substantial barriers for tech positions, studies have found. Students of color are often discouraged from pursuing computer science and many perceive that computing is a white male profession. Parents and teachers often discourage girls and minorities from pursuing computer-related activities. Companies often silo minorities into less skilled roles.

"They haven't been exposed to technology careers and they already have a preconceived notion of what it looks like."

Peryer’s Geek Foundation is among the groups trying to beat back these stereotypes. The organization recruits women and minorities and offers them free training in subjects ranging from IT to web development. She founded the organization in 2015 and it now has two teachers and about 30 students recruited from nonprofits who work with underrepresented groups. Local companies donate laptops, while students, who often don’t have internet access at home, can use Wi-Fi at the foundation’s headquarters. 

"By making our classes free we are making it more accessible to people who don’t have access to technology," Peryer said. "It’s all about helping to break the cycle of poverty."

Talent Hidden in Plain Sight

The Foundation isn’t the only free initiative for technology training, either. There’s also Per Scholas, with locations around the country that offer intense, short programs leading to tech certification. "We believe that much of our nation’s talent is hidden in plain sight," said Per Scholas’s Damien Howard. "People from what we call overlooked talent pools and communities simply lack the opportunity, not the motivation or intellectual curiosity, to join the ranks of our nation’s growing tech sector."

Young black couple, woman on computer
kali9 / Getty Images 

Many of the Geek Foundation’s students are single mothers with full-time jobs, so classes are offered in the evenings and free childcare is provided. 

"We try to be as flexible as we can be about letting the students go at their own pace if they need to," Peryer said. "In traditional tech class there’s a very strict schedule, but we understand our students have a million other things going on in their lives."

Business to Business

Some entrepreneurs are starting businesses specifically aimed at educating minorities for tech careers. Joshua Mundy runs the Pivot Technology School, in Nashville, TN, which is aimed at underrepresented students. 

The school charges students $6,500 for computing courses, about half what they would normally cost, he said in a phone interview. 

"We think that by charging students they take their education more seriously," he said. "They have skin in the game."

Pivot Technology School COO/President Quawn Clark (left) and CEO Joshua Mundy (right)
Pivot Technology School COO/President Quawn Clark (left) and CEO Joshua Mundy (right). Jodie Smith / Pivot Technology School

The school partners with local businesses to provide scholarships that pay half the tuition for many students. Pivot Tech offers online courses in Data Analytics, Data Visualization, Web Development, Coding, and other subjects. To lure students who otherwise might not veer towards tech training, the school advertises in the local Black community and offers flexible payment plans.

"We don't want money to be a factor," Mundy said. "And I think that has been the reason why a lot of people have not gotten into the tech career path. Another reason is just about exposure. They haven't been exposed to technology careers and they already have a preconceived notion of what it looks like. And they don't see themselves in that type of position and role."

For Pivot Technology student Mariah Beverly, cost was an issue when deciding to take a course in web development. She said in a phone interview that she had looked into many other schooling options, but they were too expensive, adding “I was sure I wasn’t going into debt.”

Beverly, a 28-year-old mother of three, was laid off recently from one of her two jobs as a server at a hotel job due to the coronavirus-related downturn. She still works full-time in technical support for Asurion, a cell phone insurance company. 

"I just didn’t have the money for a lot of places," she said. "Also, Pivot was online and offered a flexible schedule, and with kids that’s really important."

Father working from home while his two children are playing in the living room
NoSystem images / Getty Images

Beverly has a high school degree, but didn’t graduate from college and she said she hopes the extra training will help develop her career at Asurion.

"I'm always looking into jobs and a lot of them are like software engineers and web developing," she said. "So they have a lot of those positions available and I'm hoping to one day move up. But also, I am working on my own personal side business as a web designer and logo designer." 

For workers like Beverly, better jobs in technology might come through small businesses and nonprofits that offer training rather than the largesse of big corporations. Meanwhile, she’s working towards her next promotion.