Michelle Rial / BuzzFeed News
Leslie Tita's tone grows oddly anxious as he curls into the back of a Lyft, and speeds away from Howard University. Tita is a successful entrepreneur who owns a co-working space for entrepreneurs from Africa. He's strikingly tall and sturdily built, with long fine dreadlocks and an infectious grin, and doesn't seem the type to be worried about anything. But ask him about the “pipeline problem” in tech — the notion that tech companies don't hire enough people of color because there is not enough available talent — and you'll see his brow furrow.
“Lately there's been a lot of talk about race in general and that’s translated to tech, but what worries me is that it feels very trendy,” he says. “I have mixed feelings on how the big companies are trying to address it without working together, and I feel this fear that in a couple of months it's going to die down.”
Tita has reason for this trepidation: Despite tech’s insistence that the talent pool for engineering students of color is insufficient, that it is a so-called pipeline problem, data suggests that’s not exactly true. A study in USA Today last year suggested that universities are graduating black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate that technology companies are hiring them.
Perhaps its because they're looking in the wrong places. The feeder universities for the big tech companies, like MIT and Stanford, have their own diversity issues. (At Stanford, African-Americans represent a paltry 7.8% of undergraduates. At MIT it's 10%.) In short, tech firms are building pipelines from places without any black people to begin with.
Which explains why Tita is volunteering his weekend as a mentor for an event called HBCU Hacks — a series of two-day hackathons held at historically black colleges and universities, organized by the nonprofit organization Black Founders. At these events, computer science and engineering students of color spend their weekends to conceive of, code, and hopefully finish some variety of app, game, or technical product. In short, they're trying to re-route the pipes.
That is, if they can get the internet working. A few minutes before we bailed in the Lyft, Tita was moving across the floor inside the wood-paneled reading room in Downing Hall, a linoleum-floored engineering building on the edge of the Howard University campus. Fifteen or so students were also milling about quietly, idly tapping their phones or staring at the ground, backpacks on their shoulders. Tables strewn with ethernet cables sat empty, and a table with breakfast food and cold cardboard jugs of Starbucks coffee had been picked apart by bored and hungry students. One student wearing a hooded sweatshirt with Google's logo across the back tended to a sagging sign that read “HBCU Hacks.” It should be an exhausting, nonstop event, but the students and mentors were idle, due to a particularly vexing hurdle: a campus-wide internet outage.
“There's really only two things you need for a hackathon, and that's a computer and internet and, of course, we're missing one of them,” said Tita, before letting out a strained laugh.
The Howard hackathon comes at a time when tech companies are under increasing scrutiny for their lack of diversity. Yet as the likes of Apple, Google, and Facebook increasingly roll out diversity reports and announce new efforts to fix the pipeline problem, the obvious fact remains that it's especially hard for people of color to gain employment at the elite companies of Silicon Valley. Diversity is frequently discussed among big tech companies now but it remains underserved in terms of actual hiring.
“We are working to increase diversity in the talent pipeline and make Yahoo a great place to work for a diverse employee base,” Yahoo’s 2015 report read after disclosing that African-Americans made up just 2% of its workers. Facebook, whose 2014 report revealed the 5,500 person company had only 81 black employees, stressed that it was “trying desperately to have a more diverse workforce and deal with the constraints on the pipeline.” And yet to some extent, the problem may be that tech companies view the problem as, well, a pipeline.
Despite hopeful and sometimes even grand gestures from companies like Apple, which last year gave a massive grant to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, much of the difficult work of building companies that genuinely reflect the ethnic makeup of their users will ultimately fall to the students of color and their institutions. The majority of that work — as many black entrepreneurs see it right now — won't take place onstage or at a press conference, but under the fluorescent lights of co-working spaces and engineering halls, where engineers, coders, and designers of color strive to build the workforce that can bridge Silicon Valley's diversity gap.
It’s this sense of self-reliance that has led people like Monique Woodard, the executive director of the diversity-in-tech nonprofit Black Founders, to partner with historically black colleges and universities across the country for this series of hackathons. Black Founders hopes to create the foundation necessary to build a culture of innovation in the tech space that, pipeline or not, Silicon Valley won’t be able to ignore.
“You see a lot of companies paying lip service about diversity, but when you talk about HBCUs there’s some pushback. That’s not where they’re recruiting,” Woodard told BuzzFeed News. “They are still looking for a Stanford student, a Harvard student, an MIT student — they just want that person to be black now. That’s not always realistic. Why not work with the engineering and business schools at HBCUs as well?”
Of course, no matter where they come from, they need internet to get there. And currently, the Howard hackathon is all out of that. But resourcefulness is the rule of the day. So Tita hatched a new plan and offered to host the students at his office, I/O Spaces, a few miles up the road in Silver Spring, Maryland. “Everybody call an Uber or Lyft,” one of the hackathon organizers told the group. “Grab a buddy and let's just get out of here.”
On the ride over, Tita was upbeat and focused on getting the students up and hacking. “I think it's so important to give young engineers at these HBCUs the chance to see what it's like to build something and maybe even get the chance to get funding,” he explained. “But really, it's a chance to say to them, 'Hey, this is real — this tech stuff is not just like a specific niche of people. You can build a startup.'”
As the Lyft driver pulls up to the co-working space Tita says that part of his urgency comes from the realization that although the world appears to be paying closer attention to racial inequality across the country, he’s worries it’s a momentary cycle, and is aware that window might close.
But his wariness passes quickly. “The good thing is that even though it's a trend, people can make good money off of trends,” he says, flashing a smile before entering the co-working space. “The question is, how can we, as black entrepreneurs, make the best of this moment in time?”
Hackathons aren’t much as far as spectator sports go. Save for trips to the bathroom and scuttling back and forth to a modest table stacked with pre-made sandwich wraps and soda, the students rarely move from their respective seats. Allee Clark, a senior computer science student at Howard, is working at a table with three other students on an app called Nemesis, which will employ a Tinder-like swipe interface to allow friends to find worthy partners to debate on any number of issues. “Arguing with people is pretty much the oldest and best part of the internet,” he laughs, before explaining that the group will try to develop “a behavioral API of sorts to show what kind of person you are.” The project is light-hearted and Clark and his team are using the weekend as valuable practice. They are less focused on the outcome than the experience. “If I weren’t here, I’d probably be be back in my room trying to build something else, but here there’s at least some free food,” Clark says.
That lackadaisical mood is a bit disheartening to Aaron Saunders, a local entrepreneur and adjunct faculty member teaching computer science at Howard. Saunders worries that Howard and other HBCUs have fallen behind in providing a curriculum advanced enough to graduate top-tier engineering talent.
“When I finally got in to teach, I told myself I was going to focus on getting students to build, and it was a struggle because I was asking them to make something and they’re only being taught theory, not real-world application,” he explained. “They're prepping kids to go off to Lockheed Martin and IBM and those kinds of jobs and that’s all fine and good but they’re not doing what Stanford and the best universities are doing — preparing kids to create things — to create their own company.”
Worse, Saunders worries that curriculums at many HBCUs can be too slow to evolve to match what’s happening in the private sector, putting graduates at an even further disadvantage when they try to score jobs at big, fast-moving tech firms. “My personal opinion is that I don't think a lot of these kids are, on the whole, ready to work at Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter. And that's the harsh reality,” he said. “If you’re not turning out a product these tech companies want, then you’re setting people up for failure.”
While Saunders admitted tech curriculums lag at many public institutions across the country, he argues the effects are amplified at HBCUs like Howard. “If you go to some other state schools and say, 'Hey, raise your hand if you know somebody in software development,' there's a likelihood that in that network they know somebody. That doesn’t exist at HBCUs. The difference is other communities have a strong network. Most here don’t.”
The students suggest a more nuanced perspective: Access to bigger tech companies is available, but only on the companies’ terms. “Google is always around; they have Googlers that come to stay and teach at Howard’s campus, so Google is literally, like, downstairs,” one junior engineering student said, speaking of Howard’s Googler in Residence program. (Google declined to make its Googlers in Residence available for comment, but Yolanda Mangolini, Google's director of diversity and inclusion, told BuzzFeed News via a prepared statement that “Historically Black Colleges and Universities are and have always been an important pillar in the black community, and embedding our Googler engineers as instructors has helped bring practitioners to the classroom.”)
Indeed, the Googler in Residence program has its engineers embed and teach not just at Howard, but also at Hampton University, Fisk University, and Spelman and Morehouse colleges. The mere fact of that presence can make a difference, say students. “Google makes it a lot easier to get an internship, not because they’re biased toward us but because they are here. Microsoft and Facebook are around maybe twice a year at most, but when I apply to Microsoft using their site I get nothing; no response, no confirmation email. Never. It's like it's going into a black hole,” another junior mechanical engineering student said.
For Alanna Walton, a Howard sophomore in computer engineering, Big Tech’s real presence at the university has helped shape the trajectory of her still-young academic career. After taking a class with the Googler in Residence, Walton secured an internship at the search giant over the summer. By the time she made it back to campus this fall, she’d already begun laying the groundwork for her startup idea with three other Howard students, a customizable haircare business called GottaBeYour. Walton is soft-spoken and wears a high school shirt that reads “Powderpuff Seniors” but speaks about her business with the concern of a seasoned entrepreneur, already trained in speaking about scalability and unreliable vendors.
At the hackathon, Walton sits cross-legged on the ground, balancing her laptop on her knees, deep in focus. Amid haggling with shampoo vendors for GottaBeYour and bootstrapping the project with the money she made at Google, she’s using the weekend to build something different. “Bringing something that you already started into a hackathon, that feels weird or kind of like cheating,” she said. “Plus, I can try something different and maybe learn another thing or two — I’m really into wireless beacons right now.”
And so she and her partner Lucretia Williams are working on Food EZ, an app that allows people to set up drive-thru orders ahead of time but that aren’t sent to the kitchen until you reach the beacon’s connectivity radius. “Maybe it won’t work, but the technology is really interesting and there’s a lot to figure out.”
To talk to the hackathon mentors this ability to embrace and be comfortable with failure is just one of many cultural barriers complicating diversity programs — and learning to embrace it is critical. “We talk about culture fit all the time and accepting failure is just completely outside of our culture. We don't have the luxury to fail,” Howard graduate and mentor Beverly Turner, who runs her own private technology exposure programs, said.
That willingness to try something new — and maybe fail at it — is prized worldview in Silicon Valley. Failure, breaking things, the perennially available exciting and potentially lucrative opportunities on the horizon for every failed startup founder: This is the standard template for success in the tech industry. But as even the most successful entrepreneurs of color have found, the luxury of failure is a foreign concept.