Rep. Barbara Lee says the pipeline problem is ‘a total myth’

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-13 California) took time out of her busy schedule to join us for TechCrunch Sessions: Justice. During our wide-ranging discussion, she talked about the issues in tech that unfortunately do not get enough attention: a lack of diversity in tech, the so-called pipeline problem, the digital divide and access for all to the legal cannabis marketplace.

Rep. Lee has represented the 13th District of California — Oakland and the surrounding East Bay cities — since 1998. Since then she has been an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which formed 50 years ago this month with 13 members and continues to have an enduring impact on the nation.

“They were truly the conscience of the Congress,” Lee says, “because these 13 members of Congress on each and every issue, they pushed the envelope for justice — for racial justice. Yes, for the African American community, but in their initial founding statement, they said for all marginalized communities in this country. And so if you fight for justice for African Americans, you’re fighting for justice and equality for everyone who has been left out of this country’s promise of the American dream.”

On a lack of diversity in tech

Rep. Lee, Rep. Maxine Waters and other Congressional Black Caucus members have visited companies in Silicon Valley and New York to address the issue of diversity in tech. In 2015, as a part of TECH2020 [PDF], the members met with CEOs of some of the biggest companies in the world to get their take on diversity in tech and the struggles the wider industry seems to have when it comes to increasing representation on their teams.

We’ve made many trips to Silicon Valley and to New York and have met with the tech sector over and over and over again. We see a glimmer of hope, but not much. When you look at the numbers of the workforce in terms of employees, I think we’re looking from maybe — as it relates to African Americans — but maybe from 2 to about 7%. If that. When you look at the retention numbers, cultural hostility in many respects that tech sector employees tell me they were faced once they’re in, they don’t stay a long time, because the culture has not been a culture friendly for African Americans and Latinx individuals. And it’s a problem. And we’re gonna keep pushing. I co-chair TECH2020, which we started five years ago. And we’ve heard so many excuses from the tech sector.… We’ve got to crack that culture. And I’m telling you, we’ve got to do it before we exercise our regulatory reform, and I’ll stick because there’s no way in America, any tech sector, any company should have only — and especially in California — only 2 to 7% of African Americans in the in the workforce. (Timestamp: 2:48)

The conversation around diversity in tech is one that began years ago. Public diversity reports illustrate the struggle in which companies still find themselves engaged. And potential unwillingness to address the issue. Rep. Lee says she and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus have their eyes on the industry as a whole. And she talked a bit more about what tools the federal government has in its arsenal to help encourage companies to engage in equitable hiring.

We have Black members everywhere on key committees that are conducting oversight and making sure that the tech sector, especially those — many received federal contracts, and they’re required to comply with executive order 11924. And they just don’t. They get away with it. And so no, I’m not satisfied. I think we made some progress, we see more diversity officers and more human resources officers who are African American, and I work closely with them. And I know the challenges that they’re faced with it. So I try to help them from the outside to make those companies respond in a more adequate and in a fair and equitable manner. (Timestamp: 5:26)

On the so-called ‘pipeline problem’

The “pipeline.” It’s what company heads point to when they’re asked why their rosters lack diversity. The thing is, it’s not real.

It’s a total myth. First of all, we have — I know African American engineers, African American professionals who, quote qualify for these jobs. But I do know there’s unconscious bias, i.e. racism in the companies. And so a lot of the companies have developed these anti-racist policies and programs where they tried to do the deep dive and try to help people understand unconscious bias and what have you, but they don’t take the results and implement them. And so it’s just really, you know, it’s not good. When you look at the tech sector jobs, I believe it’s about 40% are non-tech-related. And so you can’t tell me that we don’t have African American accountants, and, you know, auditors, African American communications firms, all of the services that they buy, they don’t contract with, and the non-tech jobs they don’t hire black people for. And so it’s a shame and disgrace, but we’re gonna keep pushing. (Timestamp: 6:08)

On investing in diversity

Oakland, California-based Kapor Capital, the investment arm of the Kapor Center for Social Impact, raised $125 million for its third fund. The firm’s investing thesis promotes startups that are committed to building diverse teams and a culture of inclusion.

Thank god for Kapor… They’re committed to racial equity and racial justice. And in terms of their venture capital strategies in terms of how they seed firms to begin to enter into this space. What they do all over the state and in the country is remarkable. And I’m so proud that they are in Oakland, because Oakland, I think, is a microcosm of all of the possibilities, but all the challenges that we as African Americans and people of color have in America. (Timestamp: 10:55)

On cannabis

There remains a disproportionate number of Blacks incarcerated due to drug offenses. And as states continue to legalize marijuana, most recently in New Jersey just last week, the industry is seeing incredible growth. But Black Americans are being excluded from the economic benefits of that. As the co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus, Rep. Lee has plans to ensure the capital in the burgeoning legal cannabis market is available to all.

I also have legislation called the RESPECT Act, which is about equity in the industry. The licenses — as of last year only maybe 1% or less were granted to African Americans. This is a trillion-dollar industry. And I don’t want to see what’s happening in the tech sector happening in the cannabis sector now, so we’re at the beginning of this. So we have in the MORE Act and in my bills, requirements to set up offices of equity and how you bring companies and help companies — I know in my own district we have an Office of Equity — to help them weed through the bureaucracy to get their licenses. But also access to capital. Sometimes it’s [$300K] to $500K just for a license… But I am determined — I am determined that we’re going to see those who have been most affected by these, this horrific draconian war on drugs get access to the industry and to the benefits. This industry creates jobs — good-paying jobs. They create economic opportunities, and they create community reinvestment opportunities, and so why not? And we’ve got to move forward. And we’re making a lot of progress. (Timestamp: 13:03)

Read the full transcript here.

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