OAKLAND, Calif. — There’s a lot of talk these days about improving diversity and gender representation at technology firms. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is on the march. USA TODAY and other media outlets are on the case. There’s something in air.
But you’ll forgive Mitch and Freada Kapor if they arch their eyebrows. Been there. Still doing that.
“We’ve been working on corporate culture and diversity issues for many decades,” says Freada Kapor (pronounced Free-da Kay-por), 62. “That said, this is an unprecedented moment when it comes to tech.”
From their experienced vantage point, the Kapors feel 2015 could be an inflection point in the push to get tech companies to look more like their customers.
“One of the factors creating this perfect storm is the amassed evidence on hidden bias,” says tech pioneer Mitch Kapor, 64, who doesn’t think blatant racism is a big factor in Silicon Valley hiring discrimination. “Everyone has a subconscious and automatic preference of this over that. Once you’re aware of that, you can take steps to change.”
What the Kapors think matters. They are a tech-community power couple, especially for those who are powerless.
Mitch made his name and fortune founding the spreadsheet pioneer Lotus Development. Eager to make that Massachusetts-based company “a place where people who felt out of place, like me, would want to work,” he hired Freada Klein in the ’80s with the mandate to make it a welcoming work environment. It reached out to gays and lesbians, and addressed sexual harassment issues well before there was a movement to do so.
Their personal relationship blossomed a decade after Freada was hired, and she went on in 2001 to found the Level Playing Field Institute, which focuses in part on promoting math and science careers for people of color.
In 1990, Mitch helped co-found the digital rights non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation. And in addition to investment firm Kapor Capital, he and Freada also run the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which leverages tech to generate social change.
The center’s offices, which are in the heart of this historically racially diverse city, buzz with employees of various ethnicities. The walls are dotted with art, especially well-known photographs. Over here, Gandhi sits cross-legged by a spinning wheel. Over there, a multi-racial gathering of kids in 1950 plays stickball in the streets of Mitch’s native New York.
Seated in a conference room with their rescue dog Dudley snoring under the table, the Kapors aren’t fire-breathing rock throwers. They exude kindness toward each other, and are reasoned about the issue that consumes their financial and emotional resources.
“If you look at the history of other movements, whether Civil Rights or environmental rights, these are all decades-long undertakings,” says Mitch.
“That said, next year I will be looking at a minimum for signs of progress. Even small things. How companies interview candidates, how they invest in their communities, how they’re learning from each other. That would count for a lot,” he says.
Kapor says his wife’s corporate consulting calendar has never been busier, a sign that leaders of some of the world’s most recognizable tech companies — Google, Twitter, Facebook and others — are serious about finding best practices to improve the ranks of women and minorities in their world-changing companies.
She always arrives armed with statistics and tips, sometimes as simple as blacking out the names and schools from candidate resumes.
At Twitter, one of the company’s sales teams has started to implement some of Kapor’s suggestions, specifically with regard to looking beyond employee referrals for new hires and considering graduates of schools that might not have the pedigree of a Stanford or Harvard, says Janet Van Huysse, Twitter’s vice president of diversity and inclusion.
“What’s great about Freada is she doesn’t just talk from the heart, but she brings a lot of research to the table on how bias can manifest itself in ways you might not think about,” says Van Huysse.
At the root of Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity is that many companies are started by white male entrepreneurs who tend to hire people they know, says Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP who is a partner with the Kapors.
“Social networks are both the strength and weakness of Silicon Valley,” says Jealous. “If a company is hiring from the same seven schools (that many of its employees hail from), that’s a pattern of exclusivity that flies in the face of a meritocracy and contributes to social exclusion.”
But, says Jealous, “there is a moment going on right now, and Mitch and Freada, whose work in this area goes back decades, arguably started this moment. As I said recently, if you’re looking for an O.G. (original gangster) in this area, it’s Freada.”
For her part, Kapor feels that tech companies shouldn’t be daunted by the prospect of radically changing their make-up. Rather, small but significant steps can lead to a natural evolution.
One often unspoken hurdle is simply explained: Why should tech companies change their make-up if they’re doing so well as is? As Freada says with a sigh, “Google and Twitter and Facebook have proved you can be stunningly profitable and stunningly un-diverse.”
Mitch throws down the gauntlet. “Look, in 2015 there will be a moment where (tech) CEOs will have to decide, ‘Are we serious about this issue or are we not?'” he says. “It’s possible people will turn away and nothing much will happen. That would be disappointing. But it’s on them.”