Wealth inequality continues to plague the Bay Area and the tech industry is at the heart of it.
On May 25, at our 23rd Economic Summit, the Greenlining Institute brought together a panel of thought leaders and social entrepreneurs in tech to discuss the role of equity in the digital economy. For an hour and a half, the panel took part in honest reflection and conversation about the racial wealth and opportunity gap that the tech sector has left in its wake. And for an hour and a half, the panel put a whoopin’ to the backside of the gig economy for failing to contribute to a vision of shared prosperity. Tech companies who often pay lip service to racial equity could have learned a thing or two from this panel. So for their convenience, I’ve jotted down two major lessons that they should take to heart:
1. Equity means creating a rising tide that truly lifts all boats.
When board members and shareholders expect a 10-to-1 payout on their investment, belts tighten and empathy for the rest of humanity seem to fall by the wayside. We see this in the treatment of service workers who support the growth of burgeoning tech companies. In the current state of the Silicon Valley economy, companies have driven a wedge between “high value” workers, like coders and engineers, and “auxiliary” or service workers, like food service and janitorial personnel. Service economy workers contribute their toil and sweat to the growth of the modern day tech company but do not share in the bounty of that company’s success. In turn, the company’s success drives up the cost of living in the Bay Area and perpetuates the scourge of economic inequity. Tech companies should acknowledge that racial equity begins with their own empathy for all of their human resources. A good start would be providing a fair, sustainable wage to service workers, many of whom are folks of color from low income communities.
2. A change in culture is overdue—companies must overcome their false sense of scarcity.
According to Qeyno Labs CEO, Kalimah Priforce, Silicon Valley has joined Wall Street, Washington, D.C., and Hollywood as the newest “center of power” in the United States, and as result, a whole lot of people now feel entitled to yachts and mansions. “Silicon Valley wants to hack and disrupt every industry, but Silicon Valley doesn’t want to get hacked and disrupted,” said Priforce. As wealth accumulates in the Silicon Valley, systemic barriers that withhold resources from disadvantaged communities arise. From the unwillingness of venture capitalists to invest in start-ups outside the Valley or in low-income communities of the East Bay and the L.A. Basin, to the embarrassingly low share of financial support that minority-run programs receive from philanthropists, the redlining of tech industry resources from communities of color is real and palpable. Communities of color have much potential to drive growth in the digital economy, but
the lack of what Priforce calls “empathy spillover” from Silicon Valley keeps that potential from being realized. To address this, companies should heed the advice of Adriana Martinez, Director of External Affairs for AT&T, and empower more leaders within their company who hail from communities of color and are willing to steer the company towards investment in diverse, low-opportunity communities.
Addressing these two points represents just a start. Silicon Valley’s racial inequity problem has roiled for years, and has outpaced the Valley’s impetus towards action. Redlining in the tech sector causes measurable harm to communities of color, and these inequities must be addressed sooner rather than later. Equivocation and foot-dragging on this issue are unacceptable; rest assured, Greenlining and our allies will continue the public spankings until Silicon Valley’s behavior improves.