Silicon Valley leaders talk at Morehouse med school, Spelman

Two of the most prominent names in the nation’s technology industry made separate visits on consecutive days this week to students from Atlanta’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Coincidence? Not entirely.

Silicon Valley, the home of the profitable tech industry, has been criticized for its lack of African-Americans and Latinos in leadership positions, programming and other areas. The meetings, HBCU leaders here say, are part of a mutual effort to build a pipeline that will bring more black students from Atlanta to the West Coast companies.

Just one in 10 employees of some of the largest and top-grossing tech companies are black or Latino, according to a February report by the Kapor Center for Social Impact, a California-based company working to improve racial diversity in the industry. Nearly 98 percent of venture-backed technology startup founders are white or Asian, the report found.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was officially at the Morehouse School of Medicine on Tuesday to discuss the future of technology innovation, and Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician and philanthropist who’s married to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, visited Spelman College Wednesday for a talk titled “Reimagining Philanthropy Through Technology.”

Many students, though, wanted to know what the leaders are doing to make their companies more diverse. That was the first question from the audience to Nadella from Spelman junior Jade Lockard.

Nadella said the multibillion-dollar company can do better.

“We are hard at work at it, but by no means are we perfect,” Nadella told an audience of about 300 students, staff and faculty from all four of the HBCUs.

Nadella added the company needs not only employees in computer labs, but young people with expertise in areas such as marketing.

“Come give us a shot,” Nadella implored the audience.

Lockard, 20, said she asked the question after visiting Apple and Microsoft in the summer and not seeing many black employees at either company. Lockard, an education major, echoed comments Nadella made to the audience that much of the work to increase racial diversity has to be done in middle school by exposing and engaging low-income and non-white students to technology.

Lockard said Nadella’s visit “shows that progress is being made, but I think more effort needs to be made toward inclusion.”

While Chan’s remarks focused on how her organization is working to use technology for social good, she said one challenge is finding talented workers, alluding to diversity.

“(Silicon Valley) is a very idiosyncratic culture and it makes it harder to attract the kinds of talent that we want, but we are working on it,” she said.

Clark Atlanta University President Ronald A. Johnson said he’s seen an increase in engagement from major technology companies. Boeing, for example, visited the campus last week and has offered mentoring and internships, Johnson said. Intel Foundation President Pia Wilson-Body is among those scheduled to visit Spelman next month for the college’s first Technology & Innovation Summit.

“I think they realize that greater visibility and hands-on interaction will be beneficial,” Johnson said of Microsoft.

Johnson said while it’s important for these companies to build that pipeline, it’s critical for colleges and universities to better understand the needs of the industry, which makes such visits useful. Clark Atlanta recently changed the name of its computer science department to cyberphysical systems because, Johnson said, it recognized industry developments — such as there’s now no difference between hardware and software — that made the prior department title obselete.

Morehouse College sophomore Jared Saffold, 19, who attended Nadella’s chat, called the discussion an “eye-opener.”

“We don’t get this a lot,” Saffold said.

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