The Rev. Jesse Jackson uses an old-fashioned cell phone and readily acknowledges that he isn’t a technology expert. But he believes, based on his decades of experience, that greater diversity would boost the tech industry in much the same way that the civil rights movement transformed other areas of life.
“We did not realize how good baseball could be until everybody could play,” he said in an interview with GeekWire this afternoon. “We won’t realize how good tech can be until everybody can play.”
That’s the message for the tech industry from the civil rights activist, Rainbow PUSH Coalition founder and former Democratic Presidential candidate during his visit to Seattle this week, following his successful efforts to get major tech companies to disclose their diversity numbers.
Jackson spoke with GeekWire at the Seattle campus of Northeastern University, after meeting with a group of technology executives from the region. The interview took place across the street from Amazon’s headquarters, but as of this afternoon, Rev. Jackson told us that he hadn’t yet been able to get a meeting with Jeff Bezos or any other top Amazon executives.
He has met with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and plans to attend the Redmond company’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday morning. One of the issues Jackson is advocating: getting tech companies to bring their offshore capital back to the U.S. to invest in minority-led startups.
Jackson is also speaking Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Washington.
Continue reading for edited excerpts from the interview.
What is your message to the tech community here this week? What do you hope to get across?
Rev. Jackson: First of all, that there will be value added when we expand the base of participation. Inclusion leads to growth. The areas that have been ignored, not recruited in, not developed. represent market, money, talent, location, which equals growth. There is no shortage of Blacks and Latinos who can serve on boards, who can serve in c-suites, who certainly can serve in employment. There’s nothing that you need that Black or brown people cannot provide, if equipped to do the position. Nothing.
Black colleges. Say you need 100 engineers a year over the next five years. There are 10 schools that should be inspected for what they’re producing and not producing. Invest in those schools, and if necessary have a monitor from the industry. You will get 100 a year for the next five years. If you want apple trees, plant apples.
You’re sitting across the street from Amazon. Have you had any luck getting a meeting with them?
Rev. Jackson: No. We haven’t been able to schedule a meeting with them. Amazon is a case of 10 board members — eight white men, two white women. Almost nobody in the C-suites. We want to meet with them. We come, really, to bring a message of growth.
What would you say to Jeff Bezos?
Rev. Jackson: Look at your board, and your c-suites, and your market that you serve, and your employment, and your lending. I want these companies to set up some investment pools of capital, to fund startup companies’ ideas (focusing on minority-led startups). Whether they do it collectively, or have their own investment firm. But take that seriously. That will result in a more just relationship and better relationships, and more productivity.
What are you telling the tech executives you’re meeting with this week?
The people they say they can’t find exist. You might not find them here. But there are executive search firms that can find them. They say, “We need more people in computer science.” The schools that teach most Blacks in computer science are not here, but we know where they are. Recruit and, if necessary, raise their standards. You want STEM. We know people who teach that. Half of all African-Americans still live south of the Mason-Dixon line. You’re looking for engineers? We can help find them.
What would be the end result for the tech industry if it can become diverse?
Rev. Jackson: It can expand their base, their market. When we began working in the South in the 60s, and the walls were there, Blacks were locked down. The capital was locked out. So, for example, today you have the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons. They couldn’t have been behind the Cotton Curtain. It would have been illegal to sit together, go to school together, become pro together. You couldn’t have had the Olympics in Atlanta. Not only did the walls come down, it also meant that people like Jimmy Carter from Plains, Ga., and Clinton from Hope, Ark., and Gore from Carthage, Tenn., and Bush from Texas — once the walls came down and the ceiling came off, leaders could grow, too. …
So that’s a classic case. Now, the irony is that the biggest beneficiaries are now fighting the source of their growth. That’s an interesting kind of serendipity.
Does Microsoft have a better record on this than Amazon, in your view?
Rev. Jackson: By far. We’re going to their shareholders meeting, and we’re (asking) what can we do to help them, and help each other. We want to have a more formidable relationship with them to help them fill in some of those gaps. We’ve invited (Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella) to speak at our Rainbow Wall Street Summit conference in New York. We met with him yesterday, and Brad (Smith, Microsoft general counsel) and his other key staff people. Some areas that are significant to our community, incidental to them, could be addressed.