CODE2040 CEO Calls For More Transparency, Accountability And Cultural Changes In Tech

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Tech companies have gotten better about disclosing their diversity data, but there are still a ton of companies that haven’t done so. In the reports that do exist, what’s often missing are insights around retention rates, which can be good indicators of a company’s culture and what it’s like to actually work there. I recently sat down with CODE2040 CEO Laura Weidman Powers to talk about that and more. Below is a lightly edited Q&A.

Megan Rose Dickey: What is CODE2040 and why does the organization specifically focus on blacks, Latino/as?

Laura Weidman Powers: CODE2040 is a non profit. We work with tech companies to help them gain access to more diverse talent and we work with black and Latino college students to help smooth the pathway into the industry. We decided to focus on blacks and latinos specifically because they are quite underrepresented in silicon valley in technology but they’re actually less underrepresented in computer science. so, 18% of computer science undergrad degrees go to black and Latino students, but you see numbers closer to 5% at companies, so there’s a real opportunity for companies to access the talent that’s already out there.

MRD: How have some of the students fared in the real world? What are some success stories?

Weidman Powers: This past summer, we had 35 students in the fellows program. Ninety percent of those students get full time offers at their tech companies, which is pretty great.

MRD: Is there any sort of guarantee you’re offering students?

Weidman Powers: The guarantee is that they are part of the CODE2040 family and we’ll be there to support them in their career moving forward. Often because they do so well, they get a job offer out of it. But even those students who don’t get a return offer get an offer at another tech company, so 100% of our alums are working in tech in some way, shape or form.

MRD: What else do you think needs to happen in tech industry in order to create a truly diverse and inclusive community?

Weidman Powers: I think two main things. One is transparency and accountability around the numbers, what is being tried, what’s working and what isn’t. We’re starting to see more companies come forward and say we have specific goals and targets, whether it’s a percent increase or companies are that putting a stake in the ground about what they want to look like and how they want to see their companies evolve. The more that companies can be specific and public about what they’re trying to do the more transparency and accountability will actually help move the needle. The other thing is culture change. We’re starting to see companies recognize that just bringing in new people isn’t the solution because if folks show up and they don’t feel welcome or don’t see a path for advancement, they’re going to bounce, so companies need to actually consciously think about not just who we’re getting in the door but what does our culture look like so that everyone has a chance of of success.

MRD: While running CODE2040, have you experienced any racism or sexism?

Weidman Powers: Yes. It shows up in different forms. Every now and then there’s kind of a hateful tweet or blog post or comment. Never read the comments on the internet. But I think that sort of comes with the territory. Really what we’re trying to work against is the more subtle things that are hard to even pinpoint as racism or sexism. When we first started talking to several companies, we heard, ‘we’re interested in your students but only if they went to an Ivy League school. That’s the kind of comment that isn’t racist or sexist, — no, not on it’s face — but it’s certainly sending a message about what you believe is valuable and how an individual needs to conform in order to be seen as having worth in an environment. So there are subtle things like that that I think most of us wouldn’t call racist today but that have huge racial implications.

MRD: That got me thinking about the racial implications when people say you have to lower the bar in order to achieve diversity.

Weidman Powers: Yeah, that may cross the threshold into being racist. The assumption is that you’d be lowering the bar if you hired somebody who didn’t conform to your current notion of talent. The people who say, ‘I would love to hire more women or hire more people of color, but I don’t want to lower the bar,’ the assumption implicit in there is a racist or sexist assumption.

MRD: Going forward this year, how do you hope the conversation in diversity in tech will evolve?

Weidman Powers: I hope that it evolves into a conversation that is inclusive of everybody that has influence. I think too often diversity is considered to be the realm of HR but really a lot of what needs to happen is a shift in culture, a shift in mindset and beliefs, and that’s everybody. I think we’re already starting to hear the conversation move from diversity to inclusion, or to include inclusion, and I think that’s important because frankly, we’re never going to succeed if its just black and brown people trying to make the change. We need everybody to buy into this and some of CODE2040’s most visible and successful champions are white men. They’re just as important to the mission as our students are. We have a very diverse team. We need to make sure everybody’s is included if we’re going to actually create change.

This is the last part of a five-part series. If you’re new to the series, be sure to watch our interviews with Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant, Slack engineer Erica Baker, Trans*H4CK founder Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler and Paradigm CEO Joelle Emerson.