Civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson has always pushed for greater diversity in the technology industry workforce. On Wednesday, he brought his message closer to home at a Silicon Valley summit whose attendants include representatives from the likes of Apple, Google and Microsoft.
Rev. Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition partnered with Intel to host the event, where the minister pushed for the inclusion of blacks, Hispanics and women in an industry that is greatly dominated by white and Asian young men.
In an impassioned half-hour speech that emphasized the importance of education and opportunity as key to providing minorities an open door into the industry, Rev. Jackson said Silicon Valley can open up to bigger ideas and better products by including more diverse talent into the fold instead of leaving "too much genius on the table." He said there is a "surplus of talent" in technology, but companies need to step up their efforts to provide the opportunity for real talent to bloom.
The summit comes hot on the heels of tech diversity reports which demonstrate the overwhelming dominance of white men in the biggest technology companies. Google, Facebook and Apple, for instance, have reported a workforce composed of 70 percent males and 30 percent females. Microsoft may have an American-Indian CEO, an African-American chairman and a female chief financial officer, but the overall diversity still follows the bigger industry trend, with more males than females.
"There have been patterns of exclusion of blacks and Latinos," Rev. Jackson said. "It limits growth. Inclusion leads to growth."
The biggest obstacle, says Microsoft general manager of global diversity Gwen Houston, are the inflexibility of institutions and the lack of accountability to company leaders.
"There is no urgency to change things," Houston said.
Earlier this year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella came under fire for comments made during the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Asked what women in the industry should do to get a pay raise, Nadella said they should wait for "karma" to do its magic instead of assertively asking for a salary increase. Nadella has since then apologized for his remark and vowed a more concentrated push for diversity.
Prior to the summit, Nadella met with Rev. Jackson, who urged the Microsoft chief to release the company's EEO-1, a document which provides more details about workforce data as regards gender, race and job classification. Rev. Jackson said he was pleased the Microsoft was considering interviewing minority candidates for open board seats that would provide Microsoft advice from a wide range of perspectives.
He said Nadella's eagerness to change "signals to the rest of the industry that there is no reason to be afraid of our challenge to them to grow."
The civil rights leader also met with Apple CEO Tim Cook, and although both parties declined to reveal details of their meeting, both said it was "positive and productive."
"I am impressed with him and the conversation," said Rev. Jackson of Cook. "He has a real vision for Apple and he sees the value in inclusiveness."
Earlier this year, Cook publicly acknowledged his sexuality and said that by officially coming out as gay, the Apple chief hoped to encourage others to insist on equality.