At a Wednesday luncheon keynote that I moderated for the nonprofit Girlstart, Pinterest's head of diversity, Candice Morgan, talked about why an inclusive workforce is so important for the San Francisco-based company. She told the room of about 650 why companies that take diversity seriously — not just checking a box or filling quotas, but making it a core company value from the top down — create for themselves a quantifiable advantage.
Downstairs from the JW Marriott Grand Ballroom, on the same day and at the same time, the Society for Human Resource Management was holding multiple concurrent sessions as part of a three-day Austin event, Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition. Sessions including, "Unconscious Bias & HR," "An Open Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Close" and "Cross-Cultural Communication With Diverse Stakeholders" explored the myriad implications of striving for representative workplaces. It didn't lack for star power: one of the keynote speakers at the SHRM conference was trailblazing performer Rita Moreno.
The weekend before that, Women Who Code Austin,held its second-annual Diversity Hackathon, a two-day event held at Capital Factory.
A week and a half before that, on National Coming Out Day, a panel called "Transgender in Tech" explored issues specific to that community that are faced when working at tech companies.
These are only a handful of the many events and discussions related to diversity, which along with transportation and politics, has dominated tech-industry discussions in Austin this year.
But if you look at diversity reports from leading tech companies that cast a long shadow locally such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, it appears that despite ramped-up efforts, the industry still has a ways to go in terms of its makeup and how it hires women, people of color, the differently-abled, LGBT employees and older workers.
In relation to the overall private industry, high-tech firms employ more whites, Asian-Americans and men and fewer African-Americans, Hispanics and women, according to data collected in 2014 by the Equial Employment Opportunity Commission.
The only different voice in the room
Elizabeth Quintanilla remembers what it felt like to be one of only about 10 women in a team of 100 engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the early 2000s. Often, she'd be the only Latina and the only woman in a meeting struggling to get her different point of view across.
"I thought, 'I am the only woman in the room and that is my role,' " she says now. "It was like guys bullying the girl on the playground."
And yes, she was asked to fetch coffee in the workplace. "I said, 'I'm not your daughter and I'm not making the coffee. I'm an engineer too,' " she says with a laugh.
When Quintanilla left JPL in 2006 before returning to Austin to get her MBA while working at IBM, she saw that things were starting to change. Professional networking groups meant to support people of color and women in the tech industry were starting to form and would become a larger force for change by 2008-2009, she said.
What she learned through her years as a woman in tech and through her current career in marketing and consulting at her own company, EQ Consultants Group, is that the healthier and more successful work environments are the ones that can break away from group-think.
"If you're all the same, you're all solving the same problems. You don't have cross-functional ideas coming in," Quintanilla said.
It's a conclusion that Ruben Cantú has come to as well. The founder of Core Media Strategies, who also works in the tech for social good space, says he's been shut down at times pushing for more diversity in Austin's tech scene.
"We live in a world where people are easily offended and people say, 'Why do you have to make it about race?' I'm not an angry brown guy, but we have a real issue we have to face," Cantú said
Cantú says he's tried to promote talent particularly out of East Austin, an area he says has traditionally not been the focus of enough recruitment or entrepreneurship. "When I started (as an entrepreneur around 2009), it was not even a handful of people I could think of from my community or background in the tech space," he said
What he's seen in his years working in tech, media and philanthropy, has been a tendency for middle management at tech companies refusing to change quickly enough to cast a wide net for diverse hires.
That, he says, could mean trouble for startups as well as more established large tech companies. "If your entire culture is homogeneous, if you look, dress, act and think the same way, then you are in a very vulnerable position," Cantú said. "You have to be able to have a 360-degree view. Not only toward the people you sell to, but from the people who are creating your product. If your workforce can't do that, they're not going to be competitive.
"You're gonna have someone like me come in. I'm gonna disrupt you before you can do anything about it," Cantú said.
The argument that diversity isn't just good for a company's optics but that it has been quantitatively proven to bear out in the bottom line is one reason why the tech industry is taking the issue more seriously in recent years.
Research last year from McKinsey & Company suggested that workplaces with more gender and ethnic diversity are more likely to outperform national industry medians. Companies in the top quarter in terms of racial and ethnic diversity that McKinsey & Company studied were 35 percent more likely to have returns about industry medians, for instance.
It's findings like this that have caused some of the movement in the tech industry to make diversity more than just a talking point.
But actually putting it into practice can be challenging and requires commitment from the top down, said Caroline Valentine, an Austin human resources consultant who says the issue comes up "All the time."
"It takes time because you've got to change not just the ideas and thoughts of executives in the C-suite, but give everyone else in the organization a chance to understand this," Valentine said. "This isn't discrimination or harassment training. You have to change the whole concept about bringing in people who don't think the way we do."
Convincing tech leaders that diversity will help a company grow and become more creative is not hard, Valentine says. Putting processes in place to address diversity and getting people past the comfort-zone tendency to hire people they know, are connected to, or can have an easy shorthand with, is much harder.
I can be seen as risky at companies growing from a handful of people to 7-15 employees, she said. "What's when all of a sudden, they're like, 'Oh, our network has been tapped out. We need to start hiring people we don't know,' " Valentine said. "Every position is incredibly important when you're a startup."
David Hughen, a principal and managing partner at Austin HR, which handles human resources services for many companies, says he frames the issue for company leaders a matter of strategic advantage.
"Companies trying to differentiate themselves in the marketplace through their technology, products and services, they have to set themselves apart in meaningful ways," Hughen said. "It's not a 'Nice to do' or checking a box for diversity. You're leveraging ideas you never would have if everyone looked and acted the same way. This is critical for a company."
But seeking out that talent, Hughen says, "That takes more work."
He does see change happening, particularly in the ways that tech companies are reaching out to organizations that promote people of color, woman and non-traditional tech workers (some of whom may be older or have experience outside of tech).
"It does help to have these groups with a shared interest and a common interest in a common field," Hughen said. "They want to be found."