Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson led a delegation to the Hewlett-Packard annual shareholders meeting on March 19, 2014, to bring attention to Silicon Valley’s poor record of including blacks and Latinos in hiring, board appointments and startup funding. Jackson’s strategy borrows from the traditional civil rights era playbook of shaming companies to prod them into transformation. Now, he is bringing it to the age of social media and a booming tech industry known for its disruptive innovation.
“We’re talking about a sector that responds to future trends,” says Ronald C. Parker, president and CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, a group of current and former African-American Fortune 500 executives who work to increase diversity at the top levels of American business. “He’s speaking at one organization. I’m sure the people at Hewlett-Packard have and will continue to put some focus on it. Whether it will accelerate is to be seen. But it’s a start.”
Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., president and CEO of Black Enterprise magazine, says Jackson is shining a light on the fact that technology companies don’t come close to hiring or spending what is commensurate with the demographics of their customers.
“Hopefully, what Rev. Jackson is doing will bring attention to the 800-pound gorilla in the room that nobody wants to talk about. It’s high time that gets addressed,” Graves says.
It’s widely recognized that the tech industry lacks diversity: About one in 14 tech workers is black or Latino both in Silicon Valley and nationally. Blacks and Hispanics make up 13.1 and 16.9 percent of the U.S. population, respectively, according to the most recent census data.
“Technology is supposed to be about inclusion, but sadly, patterns of exclusion remains the order of the day,” Jackson wrote in a letter released March 17 to Apple, Twitter, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, Google and others.
Jackson said March 18 that he isn’t singling HP out, he’s just using the company’s annual meeting to highlight the broader issue.
“This is not exclusive to Hewlett-Packard,” he said.
As recently as 2011, Allstate, in alliance with Jackson’s RainbowPUSH organization, recognized HP for its commitment to diversity.
“While we certainly agree that diversity is an important issue in corporate America, we’re puzzled by Rev. Jackson’s sudden interest in HP,” said HP executive vice president Henry Gomez in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. “Today, HP is the largest company in the world with both a female CEO and CFO and nearly half of our leadership team and Board of Directors are women and minorities. Additionally, nearly 50 years ago, HP established the first Minority Business Program in the United States.”
Gomez also points out that in 2013, HP spent nearly $1 billion with almost 500 minority business enterprises in the U.S. and an additional $500 million with businesses owned by women.
“We look forward to seeing Rev. Jackson at our shareholder meeting,” Gomez says.
Apple and Google declined to comment on Jackson’s grievances. Facebook and Twitter didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Of course, the technology industry isn’t without a handful of high-profile black executives. Microsoft named John Thompson, an African-American, as chairman of its board last month after he led a search that culminated in the appointment of Satya Nadella as the software maker’s new CEO. Thompson, the former CEO of security software maker Symantec, joined Microsoft’s board in 2012.
Another African-American, Denise Young-Smith, runs Apple’s human resources department, which oversees the personnel policies governing the iPhone maker’s nearly 85,000 employees and contractors. She reports directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook.
And Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond is an African-American who has been one of the company’s top executives for the past 12 years.
During a recent speech at Stanford University, Jackson cited the dearth of black and Latino leaders in the tech sector. This got sophomore computer science major Rotimi Opeke, a leader at the school’s Society of Black Scientists and Engineers, wondering about his own opportunities.
“I’ve been thinking that if I can code well and produce good products, I can be successful, but to rise up through the ranks is going to be a challenge,” he says. “There’s just not a lot of people of color in high levels of tech leadership which is where, eventually, I’d like to be. I’m hopeful that it’s not impossible to get there, but I do feel it would take an extraordinary level of leadership skills to navigate.”
Freada Kapor Klein started the Level Playing Field Institute 13 years ago to teach and mentor black and Latino students in science and math. Along with her husband Mitch Kapor, she also invests in startups with founders who are women and people of color from an underrepresented background through Kapor Capital, a venture capital firm.
The Kapors recently wooed Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, a leading civil rights group, to Kapor Capital to help boost their social impact investing.
Kapor Klein says she and her husband share Jackson’s goals and vision of what Silicon Valley should look like, but they choose to employ different tactics to get there.
“Jesse Jackson wouldn’t be heading to Hewlett-Packard or any of the other big tech companies if they had done their job and accomplished diversity,” she says. “He’s shining a spotlight on one aspect of the growing inequality of this country.”
In the past, Jackson’s critics have accused him of profiting from similar protest actions. These critics say that after Jackson targeted companies over diversity issues in the financial sector and other industries, some have ended up donating large sums to Jackson’s organizations. In other cases, the targeted companies gave contracts to minority-owned firms that paid Jackson for referrals.
Graves, of Black Enterprise, dismisses such concerns.
“That’s just the fear factor coming from when they see him,” Graves says, “because they know he’s not going to go away.”
AP Technology Writer Michael Liedtke contributed to this report. Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.