The fire inside Rev. Jesse Jackson

The lack of diversity in tech isn’t a new story. However, the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into the push for diversity and inclusion are often missing from the story. Without the work of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a tireless advocate for civil rights, there would undoubtedly be even fewer minorities and women in the tech industry.

Jackson first came into the public view in the sixties, when he worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to advocate for civil rights for African-Americans. In 1965, the pair, along with other civil rights advocates, participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches in an effort to obtain the right for African-Americans to vote.

Jackson has since dedicated his life’s work to providing equal opportunity to blacks in the form of employment, housing, education and social services. He’s done this through the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a social justice movement that got its start in 1971 with the creation of Operation PUSH. PUSH initially stood for “People United to Save Humanity,” but was later changed to “People United to Serve Humanity.” PUSH’s mission was to protect black homeowners, workers and businesses.

In 1984, one year after he ran for president of the United States, Jackson started the National Rainbow Coalition. The plan was to obtain equal rights for all Americans — regardless of race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, etc. — through the implementation of social programs and affirmative action for minority groups.

In 1996, Operation PUSH and Rainbow Coalition merged to become the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Jackson and his team made their first big push to address diversity in tech during the dot-com boom with the launch of its Silicon Valley Digital Connections Initiative.

Today, the organization is working toward advancing diversity and inclusion in tech by focusing on employment in both technical and non-technical positions, representation on boards of directors, suppliers and access to capital. Rev. Jackson’s rationale for his focus on tech right now is simple.

“It’s a source of employment,” Jackson told me at PUSHTech 2020, a diversity in tech conference put on by the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, last week. “It is a growing industry and it’s pervasive.”

Last month, tech employment in the U.S. hit its highest growth rate in more than a decade, surpassing 6.7 million people, according to a recent report by nonprofit IT trade association CompTIA. In fact, the tech industry employs more people in the U.S. than the construction, finance, insurance and vehicle equipment manufacturing industries. Because this industry is so large and continuing to grow, it’s important that African-Americans, as well as other underrepresented minorities, are included.

We didn’t know how good baseball would be until everyone could play. We didn’t know how good basketball could be until everybody could play. We don’t know how good technology can be until everybody can play. 

— The Rev. Jesse Jackson

What everyone had already been thinking was now backed up by hard data: One of Silicon Valley’s biggest employers was predominantly white and male. That prompted Jackson to write an open letter to Silicon Valley, urging other tech giants to follow suit and jump on the transparency train.

Within a matter of weeks, companies like Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter followed suit. Now, releasing diversity reports has become the rule, not the exception.

These diversity reports have revealed that minorities are hard to come by in the tech industry, especially in leadership and engineering roles.

In leadership positions, minorities — blacks, Asian, Hispanic and “other” ethnicities — make up an average of about 30 percent of the roles at LinkedIn, Apple, Intel, Microsoft, Amazon, eBay, Twitter, Google, Yahoo and Facebook, according to 2015 EEO-1 reports. Blacks, on average, hold 2.1 percent of all tech jobs across Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Intel, eBay, LinkedIn and Yahoo.


Tech Company Diversity in Technology Positions | Graphiq

Meanwhile, black startup founders only receive 1 percent of venture capital, according to a 2010 CB Insights report. A 2016 study painted a similarly bleak picture around the amount of venture funding that goes to minorities. Of all venture deals that happened from 2012 to 2014, only 0.2 percent of them went to black women, according to a 2016 report from #ProjectDiane.

Tech companies want you to believe that this is because there are not enough qualified minorities pursuing tech. You’ll often hear these companies citing the “pipeline problem,” but the fact of the matter is that the lack of diversity in tech is due to racism and discrimination, which leads to a lack of opportunity and access to capital. Diversity and inclusion in tech, Jackson says, is the civil rights issue of our time.

“One civil rights movement was to end legal slavery,” Jackson said. “Another was to end legal Jim Crow and the lynching season. That was a civil rights movement of that day. Another was the right to vote. You can abolish slavery, get rid of Jim Crow, and vote, and be broke and impoverished without access to capital, industry and technology, and deal flow and relationships. This is the civil rights of our time: access to capital, access to computers, how to make them, how to sell them.”

In comparison to the civil rights movement of the sixties, Jackson says the fire inside him is actually hotter. His internal fire and drive for justice has always been about knocking down barriers, he told me. Every time a barrier is erected — like the right to use a public library or public toilet, or the right to play in the MLB or NBA — “we beat those barriers down,” Jackson said.

Some of getting free is an attitude. Some people say, ‘The one thing worse than oppression is to adjust to it.’ When you resist it, big things come that way. 

— The Rev. Jesse Jackson

“We didn’t know how good baseball would be until everyone could play. We didn’t know how good basketball could be until everybody could play. We don’t know how good technology can be until everybody can play. We demand the right to participate, and when we participate, we make the game grow.”

Today, one of the many barriers minorities face is a lack of access to Silicon Valley. One way to overcome that barrier, Jackson said, is through a good offense, which entails demanding jobs and leadership positions at tech companies and mastering the art of coding. He wants to see computer labs in churches teaching kids how to code.

“Kids are eating it up, yum yum,” Rev. Jackson said. “They like [coding] very much. They’re making things happen with it. So, some of getting free is an attitude. Some people say, ‘well, the one thing worse than oppression is to adjust to it.’ When you resist it, big things come that way.”

The long game

Jackson is in this fight for the long haul and plans on working until he can’t work anymore. As long as there is a Silicon Valley, he says, we need to have a movement to open the doors and keep them open.

“Part of opening up doors is you keep on building bridges and making things happen,” he said. “We’ve never lost a battle we’ve fought, and never won a battle unless we’ve fought. We fought against slavery, we finally won. We fought against Jim Crow, we finally won. We fought for the right to vote, we finally won. We’ve not really fought the battle for access to capital, so we’re free but not equal.

“Now the next phase of our struggle, beyond freedom, is equality. You can be free, but without equality, you can’t expand — you can’t grow.”

With the PUSHTech 2020 conference, the idea is to bring together a critical mass of people interested in advancing diversity and inclusion in tech who might not know each other but who ought to know each other.

It’s our job to take the covers off and turn the lights on. And when the lights come on, the rats run in holes. We’re going to keep the rats running. 

— The Rev. Jesse Jackson

Throughout the day, there were discussions on supplier diversity, chief diversity officers, access to capital and more. During the morning keynote chat between Jackson and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, we found out about Intel’s plan to release salary data in its next diversity report. That’s a big deal, Jackson told me, because of the pay disparities between people of different races and genders.

In the U.S., women make 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. For women of color, that figure is even lower. African-American women earn 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes, and Hispanic women make 56 cents per dollar earned by white men.

“In the release of this data twice a year, it should have an impact on other companies doing the same thing,” Jackson said. “They really resist opening up the books. The books are embarrassing. The pay disparity between blacks and browns and whites of the same jobs — the disparity, it’s embarrassing.

“Between men and women doing the same job, it’s embarrassing. Who gets investment capital is so bad it’s embarrassing. It’s our job to take the covers off and turn the lights on. And when the lights come on, the rats run in holes. We’re going to keep the rats running.”

Top image: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Jesse Jackson Promotes Inclusion at PUSHTech 2020 | 7:43