When Eric Osborne took the mic at a recent tech conference, it was clear that he wasn’t going to deliver your average high-energy, cheerleading tech screed.
First thing he did was pull a chair into center stage and sit down.
“I want to make this, like, a nice cozy spot,” Osborne told the crowd at Tech Inclusion Seattle. “We’re gonna have a nice conversation.”
Osborne’s talk — titled “We didn’t know how good baseball could be until we let everyone play” — was an unusually personal plea to the crowd. He started with his own story of growing up near Florida’s West Palm Beach with a single mom, a dad in jail and a shortage of role models for African American boys like himself.
Sports and entertainment, Osborne said, seemed like the only paths up and out of his ‘hood in the 1980s and ‘90s. He did both, scoring a college basketball scholarship and becoming a TV producer. He eventually realized more options were available and made his way to the tech sector. He now works as an account director for Aquent, an international staffing agency, and is one of the four founders of HERE Seattle, a meetup group supporting diversity in the tech sector.
He’s also a father. And while Osborne sees an abundance of available tech opportunities targeting his 13-year-old daughter, who is currently enrolled in the girl-centered nonprofit Techbridge, he doesn’t see the same focused attention being paid to African American and Latino boys.
So Osborne is doing something about it. HERE Seattle is working to launch Tech Boys, an initiative to reach boys who are underrepresented in the tech field and underserved by other programs. Their hope is to start an afterschool program next summer. The founders are talking with local community centers and school districts to see what sort of partnerships are possible.
“If the tech industry can do more outreach for young African American and Latino males to open the door to those young kids, I think the needle will start moving and the kids will want to be part of the industry and affecting the pipeline [into employment],” Osborne said in a recent GeekWire interview. “The doors haven’t always been open.”
A lesson from sports
Last year, Microsoft reported that among its technical workers, 2.4 percent were black or African American and 4 percent were Hispanic or Latino. Tech giants including Google, Facebook and Twitter revealed similar — and even lower — numbers in their diversity reports, according to news stories. Nationally, African Americans represent 12 percent of the workforce, while Hispanic and Latino workers are nearly 17 percent of overall workers, according to federal data.
The tech workforce remains disproportionately white, yet research shows that increased diversity results in better products. We’ve known for decades that this is true in sports, as Osborne alluded to in the title of his talk. He took the line from a speech he attended by civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. It highlights how preposterous it is to tolerate a lack of diversity.
“Can you imagine a baseball team that is all white?” Osborne asked.
Experts and employers point to numerous causes of low racial diversity in technology. There are likely hurdles and missed opportunities starting in grade school and into college, as well as failures in employee recruiting and creating welcoming workplaces for black, Hispanic and Latino workers.
Women, too, are underrepresented in the sector, making up about 25 percent of tech workers. But programs targeting girls, Osborne said, are more prevalent.
“When it comes to the outreach for girls, in the past five years, there has been a lot of outreach and that is awesome and so needed,” Osborne said. “But when it comes to young African American males and Latino males, there isn’t a lot of outreach.”
That said, there are programs that target underrepresented kids in general. The Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) has a list that includes the Big-Brained Superheroes Club, Code.org, Computer Clubhouse of Tacoma, Key Tech Labs, STEM Paths Innovation Network (SPIN) and . But advocates seem room for improvement.
“I do agree with [Osborne] in terms of African American and Latino boys,” said Trish Millines Dziko, co-founder and executive director of TAF (Technology Access Foundation), a successful Puget Sound area effort to bring STEM education to under-served communities. “[They] don’t tend to be the target of any effort around STEM.”
But, Millines Dziko adds, the female-focused outreach favors white girls more than black and Latina students. “I think girls of color are left out too,” she said.
“The biggest ‘fires’ in tech are [the lack of] black and brown men and women. Where is that sense of urgency?” said Steven Matly, founder and CEO of SM Diversity, a Seattle-based staffing and recruiting agency. “What are we doing as individuals to contribute to that pipeline? We all have a responsibility.”
Building apps or shooting hoops
Effenus Henderson has promoted diversity issues for decades. He was the Chief Diversity Officer for Weyerhaeuser Co., a Seattle timber company for whom he worked for 40 years. More recently, he co-founded the Seattle nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Diversity and Inclusion. He supports outreach to the boys Osborne is concerned about, and has thoughts on how to create a successful program.
“The challenge is how do you create an interesting program that is one that would attract young African American and other minority kids,” Henderson said. “There has to be some sort of incentive early on.”
A tech program would compete with other interests, he said, including sports, which have a strong pull given the immediate gratification of praise and visibly belonging to a team. The payoff for technology is less obvious for many kids. And their parents also need to support their involvement, potentially providing transportation or paying fees.
“The real key for building the pipeline is a longer-range strategy that involves a collaborative effort with schools, employers and community-based organizations,” Henderson said. You need to build “the foundation to make it sustainable.”
Osborne said their hope is to get grants to bolster their program and provide scholarships. They plan to hold classes close to home for the kids they’d like reach.
In case there was any doubt that the African American and Latino boys are up to the task of working in tech, Osborne returned his sports theme. The skills that make these kids successful athletes — a strong work ethic, commitment to perfecting their craft, teamwork and responding well to coaching — will serve them at a keyboard just as well as it does on the field.
“Imagine the future if we did this outreach to this community,” Osborne said. “What if we had more kids practicing building apps than shooting hoops? What if they put a lot of effort into that because they saw the opportunity?”