By Jackie Krentzman
Long before the current generation of diversity and inclusion practitioners began trying to figure out how to make companies more diverse and inclusive, there was Freada Kapor Klein.
Kapor Klein, the cofounder with her husband, Mitchell (who developed Lotus Notes), of the Kapor Center and the Level Playing Field Institute, has been working on the knotty problem of diversifying the tech industry since the 1980s.
Over the decades, Kapor Klein has seen the technology sector explode—and the struggle for gender and racial equity continue to be challenging.
The Kapor Center, begun in 2000, was launched to diversify the STEM industry through educational programs, community outreach, and investing in diverse entrepreneurs (through its venture capital and investment arm, Kapor Capital). The center’s core program is SMASH, which runs a summer STEM academy for underrepresented high school students on college campuses in eight cities. The academy offers not only rigorous education in STEM disciplines, but mentorship, a social justice curriculum, and life skills programming. SMASH has been, well, a smashing success. For example, alumni have received bachelor degrees in a STEM field at rates twice the national average.
In 2018, the Kapor Center released its “Leaking Tech Pipeline” report. It’s objective is to reveal the areas—pre-K-12 education, higher education, the tech workforce, and entrepreneurship and venture capital—in which people of color are at a disadvantage, culminating in some eye-opening figures. For example, just 1 percent of investment team members at VC firms are black.
For work such as this, former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, now a partner at Kapor Capital, has called Kapor Klein “the moral center of Silicon Valley” for her quest to hold tech companies accountable.
Diversity Woman spoke to Kapor Klein to get her unvarnished take on the D&I challenge in the STEM sector.
Diversity Woman: How have the challenges for women and underrepresented groups changed over the last 30 years?
Freada Kapor Klein: I have been connected with and investing in tech companies and start-ups continuously since leaving Lotus in 1987. Back then, ironically, there were more women in tech than today. Many of the original computer operators, for instance, were women of color. So it is important for people to understand that what is going on in tech now is backward.
Back then, sexism was much more blatant, but in some ways it was clear and out-front. For example, you could fire someone because she got pregnant. Today there are more protections so you can’t do that. But the numbers [of women] have fallen in technology in part because women, particularly women of color, get passed over for promotion.
In 2017, we did a Tech Leavers survey that showed that the engineering and technical positions are overwhelmingly occupied by white males. Those jobs tend to drive the culture of tech companies, and these employees are valued more highly than those in finance and marketing, where you find more women.
DW: What are some of the major hurdles for women and women of color in STEM?
FKK: I think that tech has a huge problem in understanding what diversity and inclusion and equity and fairness are all about. Tech, as we know it today—I am thinking of Silicon Valley–style tech, the land of high-growth venture-backed start-ups—has a culture antithetical to diversity. The industry sees itself as incredibly smart and talented, and that it is inventing the future. But it is also utterly biased in that it attracts and retains and promotes its own, not necessarily those with a good idea. The industry likes to think of itself as a meritocracy. But it isn’t. It all comes down to networks and group think. And there hasn’t been enough direct open and difficult conversation on that topic.
DW: Are you seeing buy-in from the C-suite, so that companies can increase their talent pool and retain diverse workers?
FKK: When you first meet with chief diversity officers, you get a lot of enthusiasm around what their companies are doing. They are happy to evangelize their bold initiatives and such. But then you get a group of CDOs together in a room over a glass of wine, and every single one is frustrated that the C-suite doesn’t really get it or care. There is insufficient staffing and budgets and even goals and metrics for what CDOs do. The goals for D&I departments are generally much lighter than for any other strategic aspect of the business, and nobody cares if you meet those numbers—if you miss your numbers of, say, diverse hires, heads don’t roll. This means no one is caring.
That is the chasm where all the cynicism and distrust amplify, and is why you get the level of turnover you get.
DW: How is the culture antithetical for women and women of color?
FKK: Here is one example. Chief diversity officers will tell you off the record that there is a problematic tension between white women and underrepresented women of color. Depending on the company, sometimes Asian women can align with either white women or women of color.
I ask, every time I talk to CDOs, how many women ERGs (employee resource groups) are exclusively white or white and Asian. Often there is some very uncomfortable shuffling and looking at their shoes. This is a common issue that nobody wants to talk about.
There is a lot of potential for heads of D&I to wrap their arms around the issue of what it would mean to be a true ally. What does it mean for women to have conversations across race and class and talk about the enormous differences in their experiences within the same company? There is the potential for breakthrough in addressing head-on these issues of intersectionality.
DW: How does a company change its culture?
FKK: First, you need to get to a critical mass in terms of race and gender. The tipping point is in the 20 to 30 percent range—not just in entry-level positions, but also across the board, including in the C-suite and in engineering.
Until you get there, the culture doesn’t change, and it doesn’t feel safe. Tech’s current approach to diversity is like filling a bathtub with the drain open. A lot of resources go into sourcing and recruiting, but little goes into the critical component of auditing the culture for being welcoming.
DW: How can data be used by companies to better understand how to recruit and retain a diverse workforce?
FKK: I would love for CDOs to get much more sophisticated about reading and understanding the research that they use to make decisions. For example, we tested for five common D&I interventions to see which make differences around the experience of biases within a company. As far as I know, no one has done that sort of study or used that kind of data—meaning, to see what decreases in biases in organizations make a statistical difference in increasing the retention of unrepresented groups.
Further, companies assume that certain activities work, without the data backing it up. For example, people do unconscious bias training without testing—and studies show that the training doesn’t make any difference. In fact, some studies show it makes things worse.
That is why so many women, especially women of color, leave. The data show that underrepresented women of color in tech are being passed over for promotion. But I don’t think many CDOs have a good command of the research and rigorously drill down in the data to even find this out.
As a result, you have people making assumptions and decisions based on stereotypes. I am reading Michelle Obama’s book [Becoming]. Her high school guidance counselor told her that she was not Princeton material. Those very same sorts of expectations based around race and/or gender are still being played out in the tech industry. DW