A tree shaker and a jelly maker try to fix tech

Kapor Center

Two civil rights leaders — one old-school, the other half his age — are attempting to tackle Silicon Valley’s diversity problem with different tactics.

Former NAACP head Ben Jealous, 41, wants to change the industry from the inside, embedding himself as a venture capitalist with Oakland’s Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact. He serves on boards, networks with founders, and funds companies in a bid to steer more people of color into the tech world.

Meanwhile the Rev. Jesse Jackson, 73, is using his trademark bullhorn activism to attack an industry that is two-thirds male and overwhelmingly white and Asian. He uses his media savvy to publicly shame companies, and he hints at calling for a boycott of the products that have made Silicon Valley one of the wealthiest regions of the country.

Their approaches match a metaphor Jackson has previously used to describe vital players in any social movement. Jackson is the “tree shaker,” who agitates an entrenched institution. Jealous is the “jelly maker,” who picks up the fallen fruit and transforms it into something a wider audience can enjoy.

“I have chosen to cross the threshold from being tree shaker to jelly maker,” Jealous said. “But I also understand that tree shaking is important to the jelly-making process. And Rev. Jesse Jackson has done an effective job of adding volume to lots of other people’s ongoing, long-standing complaints at just the right moment.”

Keynote speaker

On Thursday at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, Jealous was the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for a Kapor Center for Social Impact program aimed at helping youths of color get involved in tech.

The event was co-sponsored by Google and other tech firms, which have been criticized for poor records of hiring people of color and women. But Jealous didn’t try to shame the executives from Google, Twitter or Yahoo in the audience. Instead, he appealed to their business sense, saying America will not remain competitive if its workforce does not include ideas from people of all backgrounds.

“Let us stay uncomfortable with how the demographics of our great industry in this great valley would seem to Martin Luther King if he walked through the offices right now,” Jealous said.

“Hell, yes!” somebody yelled from the back of the room.

Exemplifying Jealous’ insider approach is the way he has used his position on the board of PayNearMe, a Sunnyvale startup that wants to help people without credit cards shop online.

PayNearMe was struggling to navigate the regulatory thicket of financial services, said Freada Kapor Klein, a partner of Kapor Capital, which has invested in the company. Jealous tapped an African American NAACP colleague, Jotaka Eaddy, to lead PayNearMe’s government relations team.

“On multiple levels here we have transformed the ecosystem,” Kapor Klein said. “We’re introducing diversity in tech through the board level, through the senior management level, and Jotaka is learning about how important these kinds of services are for people from her community.”

Kapor Klein said it’s an example of how “Ben is working the inside game for a company whose very purpose is to help the disenfranchised.”

Jackson and Jealous professed great admiration for each other — Jealous worked on Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign — but they aren’t coordinating.

“I am not looking to join the boards of those companies,” Jackson said.

Looking for ‘leaks’

Jealous, who left the NAACP last year after turning around the flagging civil rights organization, doesn’t believe Silicon Valley lives up to its aspirations of meritocracy. He wants to see the tech world consider applicants who didn’t go to top schools like Stanford. Early next year, the Kapor Center for Social Impact will release interactive graphics showing the “leaks” in the science and technology education pipeline — where low-income and minority candidates fall off the path to tech. The reports also aims to highlight which educational approaches work and which don’t.

In a way, Jackson is also focusing on data — or the lack of it. His camp sends press releases almost weekly calling out a tech firm for its demographics, from the board of directors down to the engineers. His group also calls out tech firms for not releasing detailed breakdowns of their workforces.

Jackson’s operatives buy shares of stock in the offending companies so they can gain access to stockholder meetings and blast the companies publicly for their lack of diversity.

These activist tactics may be decades old, but the media attention they’ve helped to stir over the past year has jarred loose information from valley firms that had not been previously released.

Jackson to speak

Jackson will step inside the valley’s gates Wednesday to lead a discussion at Intel’s Santa Clara headquarters where 20 tech companies will explain their plans to hire more people of color and women.

Some tech leaders are listening to their message. At the fundraiser Jealous spoke at Thursday at Twitter, Janet Van Huysse, the company’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, said, “Tech companies, as everyone in this room knows, have really struggled to build a truly diverse workforce. And Twitter is no exception.”

Jealous’ new employer is building a relationship with Twitter. Kapor Klein has visited Twitter several times and offered suggestions on how to diversify the firm’s recruiting and promotion process.

Last fall, Twitter conducted several experiments in which it masked the names and gender pronouns of applicants seeking in-house promotions. Though the sample size of the results were small, Van Huysse said they were encouraging enough to try elsewhere in the company.

Van Huysse and several other Twitter employees will also attend Jackson’s summit Wednesday in Santa Clara, hoping to learn more.

“This is such a multifaceted problem for us to solve,” Van Huysse said, “that both play a role.”