Diversity in tech: 3 stories of perseverance and success

IT organizations need to create cultures of inclusion and break through the unconscious bias found in traditional hiring and management practices.

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It is easy to fall into comfortable patterns. We train for sports by developing muscle memory using repetition to engrain patterns in our brains. It takes an average of 66 days for a behavior to become a habit, and it can require 10 times the effort. Simply stated, hard work and dedication are the foundations for learning, whether learning a new language, improving your golf swing, or rethinking workforce demographics.

Organizations are especially resistant to change, requiring cross-organizational commitment and a compelling business imperative. An uncompromising focus on change must cascade throughout an organization and be measured, managed, and reinforced.

This resistance to change may explain, at least in part, why the underrepresentation of people of color in technology companies has shown little improvement since 2014. Ideally, the representation of Black people in technology should reflect the overall population, but it does not. According to the Census Bureau, Black people make up 13.4% of the U.S. population but account for only 5% of the workforce at technology companies, with women of color representing even less at 1%. The numbers get worse in executive positions, where African-Americans occupy under 1% of positions. Of the five Black Fortune 500 CEOs, zero are in the tech space.

There are four additional factors commonly cited for contributing to the racial imbalance seen across the tech industry:  

  1. Lack of visibility: What gets measured gets managed. Many companies do not report workplace demographics, which is an indication of management’s priorities.
  2. Growth in the workforce: Technology companies are continuing to grow but the number of women and minorities in them is not growing at the same rate.
  3. Availability of qualified candidates: While an increasing number of students are getting college degrees, the applicant pool for careers in technology is skewed. With 20% of all degrees in STEM fields, Black people account for 13% of those graduates (the majority of graduates are Asians (35%)).
  4. Retention: Turnover in technology companies is high, and Black employees show higher than average attrition rates.

The bottom line is that companies need to do better at creating a culture of inclusion by fostering open and honest conversations with people who are different from us. By sharing our experiences, we begin to appreciate the challenges others face and can find solutions. I gained perspective by interviewing Black leaders across the technology sector. Let me share their narratives and suggestions for increasing diversity in technology. 

Chris Nchopa-Ayafor 

Chris Nchopa-Ayafor has been the CIO of Tarrant County, Texas, since 2014. Growing up, Chris considered becoming a doctor or a pilot, but ended up in technology. Chris was educated in Cameroon, Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. He worked in the private sector and academia as an information technology engineer, consultant, researcher, and a college faculty member.

In 2012, Chris received “The Ones to Watch” award by the CIO Executive Council and CIO Magazine and in 2019 was recognized as Dallas CIO of the Year (ORBIE Awards) in the non-profit/public sector category. He is the vice-chair of the National Standing Committee on Information Technology of the National Association of Counties (NACo), which represents 3066 counties in the United States. 

Chris considers himself the most blessed man on the planet, working at a job he loves and leading technology forward. Chris brings a different perspective to the diversity issue, having been raised in Africa, a society where he was in the majority. When he came to the US as a young adult, Chris says he was unaware of racism. He was surprised when, as a young network field engineer, he visited a client and was initially denied entry. Much later, he recognized he apparently did not fit the profile of an engineer the customer was expecting.

Over his career, he has experienced less blatant types of discrimination, which he believes stems from people’s unconscious bias. Chris believes this is more prevalent and problematic to the advancement of people of color than intentional discrimination.  He urges change to begin at the top and cascade consciously through the organization by influencing policy, decision making, and hiring practices. 

Today, Tarrant County’s Information Technology Department (ITD), which Chris oversees, reflects the diversity of the community. But it was not always like that. When Chris started, there was little minority representation in ITD’s senior ranks. After observing the diversity at another nearby organization, he began questioning what was structurally wrong with his department. Chris created a three-step process to help remove unconscious bias and identify the best, brightest talent:

  1. Replaced one-on-one interviews with diverse panels for vetting candidates, holding managers responsible for maintaining a consistent process and using the same interview questions for all candidates vying for a given position.
  2. Introduced entry-level positions and internships to grow talent, supported by coaching and mentorship. This shifted the focus of the hiring process on where you are going and underscored a clear connection between working hard and career advancement. 
  3. Created a unified database to collect candidate information, creating a level playing field for all applicants. By fostering a competitive environment for all, Chris ensures that the most qualified candidates will be selected. For younger Black professionals, Chris advocates being the best in your craft, finding the right opportunity, and being comfortable with who you are.

The magic for advancement is finding diverse talent and including them in the conversation.

Nyerere Chisholm-Jones

Nyerere Chisholm-Jones works as a Business Systems Professional for WSP and serves on the Advisory Board of the TriState-Diversity Council, an advocate for inclusion. (Disclosure: I also sit on this Advisory Board.) Nye grew up in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where she was taught the importance of education and felt the brunt of racism. She recalls her disappointment when the stopwatch missed her winning time at a swim meet due to intentional human error, but graciously accepting second place. When she was denied the recognition for earning top scores in school, she never lost focus. “I was raised in a different generation,” she says.

Nye was inspired to get a job in corporate America by her mother, an entrepreneur turned schoolteacher, and her father, a hardworking mason. She studied IT in college and moved to New Jersey for a job in technology. Being a Black woman in tech, she says she was passed up for promotional opportunities. Later, as a consultant, her credibility was repeatedly questioned. Nye offered suggestions for improving the participation of Black people in tech.

  • Create opportunities: Identify high-potential Black technologists and support them to succeed. If companies want to change, other groups need opportunities. Nye suggests offering Black people sponsorships, including them in succession plans, helping them expand their internal networks, and investing time to groom them into future leaders.
  • Check your bias: Avoid stereotyping or generalizing about an entire group because of limited exposure. Understand your implicit bias and control how it influences your behavior. Be conscious to build diversity into teams.
  • Rethink your hiring practices: Recruit based on talent, not relationship. Don’t limit recruitment to colleges like Harvard or Yale, because the best talent might be in community colleges. Set hiring goals for attracting and retaining people of color. Companies can develop talent by identifying applicants with 60% of the qualifications and offering them entry-level positions where they can obtain the remaining competencies. Create a culture of inclusion by pre-screening applicants for empathy as well as aptitude.

Nye reminds us that we are born the same and learn bias from exposure to parents, teachers, social media, and news – we can overcome this and come out stronger.

Carlton Oneal

Carlton Oneal and his wife Brenda founded LightSpeedEdu, a boutique education technology company that creates an environment where diversity is valued. Carlton was raised in New York City, graduated from The Bronx High School of Science. Carlton describes himself as a recovering perfectionist, continually overdelivering. This quality gave him the resilience to graduate Magna Cum Laude from North Carolina Central University. In graduate school, he completed seemingly impossible research with such rigor that his results were questioned, and he was asked to repeat the work. 

Carlton insists on being defined by his accomplishments instead of being singled out because he is Black. His exceptional performance allowed him to rapidly move up the corporate ladder – until he was denied a senior-level position because the hiring executive indicated he “felt more comfortable” with another candidate.  

Carlton and Brenda offer suggestions for technology companies to become more inclusive:

  • Contract with minority businesses: Use diverse suppliers to infuse diversity of thought into your supply chain and create economic opportunities. They urge companies to include diverse suppliers in all bids. 
  • Leadership matters: Inclusive companies need diversity at all levels, including the boardroom. This gives junior employees role models because they can see “people who look like them” in leadership positions. Leaders need to purposely hire employees who are not in their image. Hiring decisions should be based on skills and performance.

Carlton and Brenda remind us of the business benefits of diversity – people who don’t look or act like you provide different perspectives, which increases innovation and profitability. 

These leaders in technology share several qualities: drive, vision, and execution. They transformed their work environments to value diversity and create inclusion. As leaders in technology, they are champions of change. Each of them knows that creating an inclusive corporate culture includes removing any barriers to entry, just as Reddit Inc. co-founder Alexis Ohanian did by stepping down from the board to make room for a Black candidate.

Companies who act purposefully and show top-down commitment can change workplace demographics. For example, JPMorgan Chase launched a corporate initiative, Advancing Black Leaders, assigning accountability and measuring progress. Since its inception in 2016, the number of Black managing directors by increased by 41% and Black executive directors by 53%. 

Technology companies extol the virtues of inclusion, saying all the right words – but talk is cheap. Even though they understand the business imperative, how diversity of thought sparks creativity, reduces risk, and supports profitability, companies have been slow to act. We know that changing workplace demographics is possible, but success requires top-down leadership commitment and consistent processes to remove bias. The rules of engagement must change. As a society we need to support others, share our stories, and become comfortable surrounded by different views and perspectives. We need to do more than believe in inclusion – we need to embrace it.

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