by Esther Shein

What IT leaders are doing to boost Blacks in tech

Feb 23, 2021
Diversity and InclusionIT Leadership

Attuned to racial inequities and the benefits of diversity, some IT leaders are overhauling pipelines, rethinking retention, and encouraging Black IT pros to grow their networks and careers.

As a Black woman with a computer science degree and 30 years of experience under her belt, Lisa Gelobter felt the time had come to use her skills to do something about issues of bias, discrimination, and harassment in the workplace.

“I’ve gotten to a place where my resume is pretty unimpeachable,’’ says Gelobter, whose past credentials include serving as chief digital officer for Black Entertainment TV (BET), CDO of the Department of Education in the Obama Administration, and as a member of the team that launched Hulu. “It’s okay for me to stand up and put my voice and reputation on the line, where folks coming up still have to make their way.”

That wasn’t always the case. Gelobter recalls dealing with microaggressions and inequalities, such as getting interrupted in meetings when she tried to voice an idea, “and it’s not heard, and then a man or a white person will say something and it’s a brilliant idea.”

Lisa Gelobter, founder, tEQuitable tEQuitable

Lisa Gelobter, founder, tEQuitable

She was also mistaken for an administrative assistant “at every company I’ve worked at,’’ even after she became a vice president. “The range of things — of being touched or spoken to inappropriately or talked over or [told to] fetch the lunch — it spans the gamut and it’s constant.”

So Gelobter founded tEQuitable, an independent and confidential platform that enables employees to report problems and seek professional advice on how to respond to systemic issues ranging from the subtle to the overt.

“Living the day to day is no different than it was 30 years ago, which is scary,’’ she says. “There has been for the longest time this … idea that you can bring more diversity and underrepresentation into engineering and tech firms. People have been talking about it since I’ve been in the industry, and yet, the numbers haven’t changed dramatically.”

Black workers have felt the economic burden acutely since the pandemic began. The unemployment rate for Black Americans was virtually unchanged at 9% in January, compared with 6% for white Americans.

Black and African Americans accounted for just 9% of workers in IT occupations in 2019, despite making up nearly 13% of the U.S. workforce, according to newly released research from Glassdoor. The firm’s latest report looked at company ratings by race/ethnicity. Of the 28 employers the firm examined with at least 15 Black or African American employee ratings, only three are in the tech industry, Glassdoor said.

“Unfortunately, most major U.S. tech employers had insufficient data on Glassdoor from Black or African American employees to be included in our analysis,’’ the firm noted.

Glassdoor’s analysis revealed that overall company ratings by Black or African American employees are below average: 3.3 rating compared to the Glassdoor average of a 3.5 rating, the company said. “This means that, overall, Black or African American employees as a group are less satisfied at work when compared to all employees.”  

While tEQuitable is geared at any company in any industry, Gelobter says it’s especially important for the tech industry to take notice. 

“There are so many open IT jobs and if we don’t start inviting the underserved into innovation nation, we will have a shortfall that will impact the economy and the nation,” she says.

Even prior to the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, many organizations and IT leaders say they have been paying attention to racial inequality and deploying concrete initiatives to partner, train, and hire Black workers to deliver meaningful change.

Leaning in further

IT services company Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), which has 25,000 employees, “has had great success hiring Black talent in IT,’’ says Nathan Rogers, senior vice president and CIO. That said, “clearly, as a company, we need to continue to lean in further and not rest on past successes.”

Bridget Chatman, vice president of inclusion, diversity, and corporate social responsibility, SAIC SAIC

Bridget Chatman, vice president of inclusion, diversity, and corporate social responsibility, SAIC

One of the recent efforts SAIC made along these lines was to elevate Bridget Chatman to be the new vice president of inclusion, diversity, and corporate social responsibility a few months ago from her role as a senior director of business development.

“My mandate is to advance diversity further and inclusion and growth,’’ Chatman says. She collaborates with Rogers and other leaders across the company to operationalize inclusion and diversity and drive it down from HR throughout the organization.

Rogers says IT has a large internship program and also recently implemented an apprenticeship partnership that is focused on working with people who want a career change, and specifically those from minority groups.

SAIC has also had in place an inclusion and diversity program called MOSAIC for several years. “None of this is new — our goal is to advance and mature a lot of programs we’ve had in place and bring them under one umbrella,’’ Chatman stresses.

She has also started to “advance our exposure and work with HBCUs,” referring to historically black colleges and universities. Chatman says other initiatives include working with the program Black Girls Code, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and Oakwood University in Alabama.

Nathan Rogers, senior vice president and CIO, SAIC SAIC

Nathan Rogers, senior vice president and CIO, SAIC

“We are tapping into those to build a pipeline early,” Chatman says. “We believe that diversity and inclusion are intrinsic to the company culture so much so, we included inclusion as part of the company’s values.”

The initiatives are driven by the need for talent and a focus on the future, rather than current social events, she says.

Building a pipeline

The nonprofit Tech Impact is partnering with the state of Delaware and other nonprofits to build an inclusive pipeline of diverse IT talent through training and job opportunities while encouraging companies of all sizes to recruit these individuals for IT jobs, said Patrick Callihan, executive director.

The organization provides educational services and workforce development programs in Wilmington (Del.), Philadelphia, and in southern Nevada, Callihan says. One of its programs is geared at job opportunities for underrepresented 18-year-olds who do not have a college degree, he says.

In Delaware, Tech Impact recently received $15 million in funding toward workforce development, and $4 million of that will go into IT training, he says.

“In Delaware when you look at diversity in IT, the Black population here is 21% but only 11% is working in IT,’’ Callihan says. “That’s pretty significant underrepresentation.”

While he doesn’t know how many Blacks have been placed in jobs through Tech Impact, Callihan says it is more than half of the hundreds of people who have gone through their program, which has been around for 10 years.

Patrick Callihan, executive director, Tech Impact Tech Impact

Patrick Callihan, executive director, Tech Impact

He says he has not gotten overt resistance from employers to hiring Black individuals.

“What I’ve encountered are more systems that are preventative in nature,’’ Callihan says. “What I mean is, for example, ‘We only hire people with four-year degrees.’ That to me is a systemic system that promotes racism because we know less Blacks are going to college and graduating, and specifically, less with computer science degrees. So if that’s your orientation to hiring, whether intentional or not, it’s preventing the organization from bringing in a really diverse group of people.”

Callihan says he doesn’t think it’s unusual for large corporations to have policies that are subtly restrictive in hiring, but he does see that changing.

Setting people up for long-term success

At Deloitte Consulting, the “predominant issue” with minority employees has been retention, according to Kwasi Mitchell, a principal, who also serves as the diversity and inclusion lead for the firm.

As a result, Deloitte has placed a “heavy focus” on understanding the issues minority technologists have in the organization in their first two years, Mitchell says. Each new employee is also provided with a career coach, and “very deliberate thinking” goes into how they are paired to help set them up for long-term success, he says.

Kwasi Mitchell, principal and D&I lead, Deloitte Consulting Deloitte Consulting

Kwasi Mitchell, principal and D&I lead, Deloitte Consulting

The coaches are responsible for ensuring employees are exposed to cutting-edge projects such as AI and machine learning so they will have ample opportunities for “great career growth,” he says.

To further ensure Black employees are engaged outside Deloitte, the company pays to send them to conferences like AfroTech and SXSW to grow their networks, Mitchell says.

Deloitte also has a number of alliances with partners such as Salesforce and participates in its Pathfinder Program, which gives people who may not have a four-year degree training in technology and management skills, he says.

There have been 540 Pathfinders trained by both companies as of June 2020 and they are then hired by both as well as other partners, Mitchell says. In 2021, the companies will train more than 200 Pathfinders, he says.

“Not only are we getting access to talent that is underutilized but people who can develop skills, rather than be solely focused on college degrees,’’ he says.

In the aftermath of BLM, Deloitte also joined the One Ten, a coalition of 35 to 40 large employers that have committed to hiring between 250 and 500 employees annually, Mitchell says.

“What I like about One Ten is not only do you have the commitment but the opportunity to hire more,’’ he says. “It moves significantly the diversity of the talent pool in relatively short order, particularly with the ability to work with other employers.”

This is important, he says, because “everyone’s been trying to do it by themselves and that’s why we haven’t made much progress, from my perspective. … It’s a demonstration of shared values and priorities when it comes to things like righting systemic injustices.”

In his own career, Mitchell says he has been lucky to have had sponsors who went beyond mentorship and used their political clout to help get him hired. That has resonated, and one of the key aspects of his role has been to make sure sponsorships are “embedded into all the ways we operate, so people have equitable opportunities.”

Accelerating the ability for a job in IT

Insurance giant Chubb in 2018 launched a Technology Associate Program (TAP) to expand its talent pipeline with diverse early career professionals. The two-year program offers an accelerated induction into the insurance business, exposure to senior executives and the ability to grow as technologists, according to Julie Dillman, global head of operations.

Julie Dillman, global head of operations, Chubb Chubb

Julie Dillman, global head of operations, Chubb

“These associates act as ambassadors for our talent acquisition strategic partnerships with Rutgers University and Stevens Institute of Technology, to ensure a more inclusive selection and hiring process,’’ Dillman says.

This year, the Chubb global IT team launched a partnership with Per Scholas, an initiative that addresses the inequities in access and opportunity faced by underrepresented ethnicities in technology, she adds.

Per Scholas prepares selected individuals for high-growth careers in the tech industry. The partnership “will also provide Chubb access to a diverse talent pool for technical opportunities,’’ Dillman says.  

These initiatives help Chubb attract and retain the best diverse candidates, she says. “Personally, this is fundamentally about leadership.”

Talking the talk

In its hiring process, accounts payable automation software company Beanworks follows the Topgrading methodology, which ensures that the same questions are presented to all candidates regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, says CIO Tracy Huitika. The company also uses a skills assessment tool called Plum, and the interview process includes a minimum of four people who interview candidates, she says.

Tracy Huitika, CIO, Beanworks Beanworks

Tracy Huitika, CIO, Beanworks

“Diversity and inclusion aren’t just a figure or percentage at a company, they are a mindset,” Huitika says. She calls her IT team “culturally, one of the most diverse teams that I’ve worked with.”

Like Tech Impact’s Callihan, Huitika believes “the landscape is changing” but that there’s a lot more that can be done. “Companies need to adopt active strategies — they need to walk the walk rather than just talk the talk,” she says.

When Beanworks officials evaluate employee performance, they use a Job Family Matrix, which lists detailed information about expected skills and behaviors in every position.

“We then match their level of contribution with industry salary data in order to ensure we are paying them fairly for their level of performance and contribution,’’ Huitika says. “At Beanworks, we understand the value that diversity brings to the team, and we live it. I’ve worked in high tech for more than 20 years, and I’ve never seen a more fair approach to hiring, recognition, and promotion.”

Helping to solve today’s systemic problems

Organizations often don’t have a sense of what’s happening in their culture, says tEQuitable’s Gelobter. The company’s platform provides them with data insights and actionable steps both employees and employers can take.

So far, tEQuitable has about 50 customers since its launch in 2018. “We really try to partner with progressive thought leaders,’’ she says. “Truthfully, we interview customers as much they interview us.”

Once the platform is in an organization, more than 20% of employees use it, Gelobter says. Some of the feedback she has gotten is that people aren’t sure whether something that was said to them crosses a line, or that they want to use the learning modules “to make sure I don’t say anything” inappropriate.

Gelobter has also heard that tEQitable is the “first vendor I’ve spoken with that’s solving a problem I’m having today. 2021 is moment in time, people are very conscious of this now and they want to make change,’’ she says. “Many folks have been working on systemic injustice, but 2021 feels like there’s a huge appetite for it.”