diversity in startups


Now that it’s cool to celebrate failure, it’s time we talk about how that reinforces inequality and structures of power.

If we’re going to learn from our mistakes let’s really learn from our mistakes.

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Around the world, about 1.4 billion people use Facebook to keep up with news and information about friends and family – but that diversity isn’t reflected in the people that work there. According to Facebook’s own figures, nearly 70 percent of the company’s workers are men and more than 90 percent are white or Asian.

How do we know that? One big reason is Tracy Chou. She is an engineer at the wildly popular visual bookmarking site Pinterest and she is one of the people who pushed Silicon Valley’s tech leaders to release previously closely-held demographic data.

Chou is one of the people NPR decided to feature on our #RaceOnTech series. All this week, NPR’s All Tech Considered is connecting with diverse innovators in technology and science on air and through real-time storytelling on Twitter. We’ll be featuring a few of these finalists here on Tumblr ahead of a four-day-long Twitter conversation with 12 of the innovators. Follow #RaceOnTech to be a part of the conversation.

NPR: Share your personal journey to engineering.

Tracy Chou: I grew up in Silicon Valley, the daughter of two software engineers, so I was exposed to engineering early—but I took a bit of a meandering path to my own career in software engineering. Engineering was a natural choice for me in college since I’ve always been inclined towards math and science in school, but I was intimidated by my early computer science courses and decided against majoring in it. I thought I might pursue something more business-oriented instead. More on a challenge from a close friend than anything else, I eventually got a master’s degree in computer science. Even after that I still wasn’t sure if software engineering was the path for me, but with deferred Ph.D. admission in my back pocket, I joined a four-person startup to try it out. Though I’d been living in Silicon Valley all along, it wasn’t until then that I discovered I loved both the frenetic startup environment and the excitement of building software, exactly those things that Silicon Valley is known for. I’ve been doing software engineering ever since.

What impact do you hope to have on the tech industry?

I kickstarted the recent tech company diversity data disclosures when I set up an online repository to crowdsource numbers on women in engineering; the effect of that industry-wide data transparency was to catapult the conversation around tech diversity into prominence nationally and urgency locally. Even President Obama has seen Google’s numbers, for example, and pressed the White House to do something to address the lack of diversity in tech. Meanwhile, tech companies themselves are scrambling to move the numbers now that the spotlight has caught them in such an unflattering way.
Beyond the advocacy and activism and what I do, the mere fact of what I am—a software engineer, successful at my job, and female—has been surprisingly significant. It turns out that the industry doesn’t have a lot of role models of women in engineering, and so as much as I can, I try to be present in the community; both for the girls and women considering or already in the field, and for the men to understand that women can be engineers too.

What’s missing in the diversity-in-tech conversation?

Companies need to start setting diversity goals, ambitious ones; ambitious enough that they’re forced to explore radically different tactics and strategies to improve diversity. It’s not that companies haven’t had people working on these issues in the past, but diversity efforts have largely been ghettoized within HR and segregated minority groups, which lack the leverage to effect structural change. The dismal numbers today show that existing initiatives are ineffective. Diversity needs to be everyone’s responsibility. In an industry whose whole raison d’être is innovation and solving hard problems to build the future, companies will find ways to achieve diversity goals, if only they are willing to set them and commit to them. It will take creativity and conviction and a willingness to toss out established processes and experiment with new ones, some of which will work and some of which won’t, but it’s time to get started.

Chou will also be tweeting from @triketora on Monday, July 13th as part of the #RaceOnTech conversation on Twitter.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Pinterest