Silicon Valley is great at disrupting business norms — except when it comes to its own racial and gender diversity problem. In an open letter last week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson sounded the alarm yet again. He urged tech giants and startups to speed up the hiring of more African-Americans and Latinos — "to change the face of technology so that its leadership, workforce and business partnerships mirror the world in which we live."
One nonprofit group, Black Girls CODE, isn't waiting around for more diversity reports. The group is taking action with regular weekend coding seminars for girls of color. And this summer, it's held boot camps where young girls learn the basics of tech design and development.
"I wanna make games, stuff like that," says Natalia Cox, one of the girls at Black Girls CODE's camp. "Tech is gonna take over the world. I wanna be a part of that!" The 13-year-old from San Jose, Calif., says she hopes to work in the tech field one day.
"Organizations like this help bring more people into the pipeline just as much as a diversity board at a large corporation," says Keisha Michelle Richardson, who volunteered to mentor young girls at a camp session in San Francisco. Richardson is entrepreneur and senior software engineer at Westfield Labs.
"The biggest takeaway that I'd love them to get is just a love for building something with technology," says Richardson. "A love for tinkering. A love for someday maybe thinking about pursuing a career with this burgeoning industry."
In addition to brainstorming and prototyping app ideas, the campers take field trips to leading tech companies.
"I like to point out to the girls, 'Look around, do you see people who look like you here?' " says Lake Raymond, the summer camp and after-school coordinator for Black Girls CODE.
On a recent tour of Google, she says, many of the girls were taken aback. "They seemed a little shocked to actually be in a place where you don't really see anyone who looks like you."
What data companies have released show that the tech giants driving the American economy remain white and male-dominated. Outside of management, software developers and hardware engineers are often among the highest-paid jobs in the industry. Estimates are that fewer than 13 percent of computer engineers in the Valley are female. Far fewer are African-American women, it's estimated, but few companies have released hard data breaking down the numbers by race and gender.
Twitter has. Reports show black or African-American women make up just 0.5 perfect of the microblogging site's workforce. CEOs in the Valley say they're working hard to boost diversity. But Apple recently reported only modest progress in improving the diversity of its overall workforce.
Other organizations working on the issue include the nonprofit group Hack The Hood, which is trying to widen the gateway to new tech jobs for minority and disadvantaged youth. There's also the nonprofit Code2040, an internship program that aims to bring black and Latino engineering students into Silicon Valley. And in California's Salinas Valley farm region, a program is targeting Latinos — a traditionally underrepresented group in tech — for computer science degrees.
Black Girls CODE's Summer of Code included project-based camps in the Bay Area as well as Washington, New York City and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. The group says camps offer a place where "girls of color can learn computer science and coding principles in the company of other girls like themselves and with mentorship from women they can see themselves becoming." About half of the girls participating received a scholarship to attend.
For some girls of color the path to a tech career remains riddled with obstacles. In schools, as we've reported, girls of color in America are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls and are often are subject to harsher and more frequent discipline than their white peers.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Silicon Valley is great at disrupting business norms, except when it comes to its own racial and gender diversity problem. Fewer than 13 percent of computer engineers in the valley are women and far fewer are African-American women. Tech companies say they're working to change that, but one nonprofit group based in the Bay Area isn't waiting around. The group, Black Girls CODE, has been running new camps this summer for girls to learn the basics of coding, prototyping and app development. NPR's Eric Westervelt paid a visit to one of the camps and captured some of the voices there.
SOPHIA NECIOSUP: My name's Sophia Neciosup. I'm 13, and I joined this camp just to try something new.
KISHA MICHELLE RICHARDSON: They'll be paper prototyping, and then I'm hoping to get them to actually build the screens in App Inventor too.
SOPHIA: The message is the title that says that it's an LGBT Hope Network. The focus is the big picture that has the messaging and Snapchat of the chats and the action is join, the join button.
SOPHIA: I've liked it so far, so I feel nobody else I know does this kind of thing. And I feel cool being a girl and of color doing this kind of thing that I don't really see often, not even in movies. So I think it's really cool.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The whole point of this is to build an app fast and see if it's something that people want. So today we're...
RICHARDSON: UX is a feeling. It's the feeling that you want people to feel when they visit your app.
My name is Kisha Michelle Richardson. I'm a senior software engineer at Westfield Labs. Organizations like this help bring more people into the pipeline just as much as a diversity board at a large corporation.
There should be some form of action because it's interactive. It's an app. If they can't go anywhere then I don't know what it is. It's not really an app.
There was nothing like Black Girls CODE in Brooklyn. I grew up in Bed-Stuy in Crown Heights. In fact, there were no science-oriented projects. The biggest takeaway that I'd love them to get is a love for building something with technology, a love for tinkering, a love for maybe one day thinking about pursuing a career in this burgeoning industry.
LAKE RAYMOND: I'm Lake Raymond, and I'm the program coordinator for summer programs, camps and afterschool programs. We actually took a field trip to Google yesterday, and I like to sort of point out to the girls, like, look around. Do you see people who look like you here? And they seemed a little shocked to actually, you know, be in a place where you don't really see anyone who looks like you is a culture shock.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So you all are businesswomen. So I want you guys to work on your pitches and sell me on your idea. So you need to think of...
NATALIA: My name's Natalia. I'm 13 years old. I want to make games 'cause right now technology - I think it's going to take over the world. Yeah. I want to be a part of that, yeah.
SIEGEL: Voices from a Black Girls CODE summer camp in San Francisco collected by Eric Westervelt of the NPR Ed team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.