U.S. Markets closed

The 'Hidden Geniuses' of Silicon Valley

One by one last year, major tech companies came out of the diversity closet. From behemoths like Google, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook and eBay to relatively pint-sized startups like Pinterest and Indiegogo, each published for the first time candid reports on the glaring gender and race imbalances among their employees.

These reports were typically followed with vows by company leaders to make sure their staff better reflected the populations they served — to somehow fix the broken pipeline that has shut out otherwise qualified minorities and women from careers in the booming tech field. It’s a job easier blogged than done. Black and Hispanic students made up 4% and 7.7% of all college tech majors in 2014, respectively. At many of the companies that have released diversity reports, they hold an even smaller share of tech jobs. For example, at Facebook, black workers make up 1% of tech staff and Hispanics make up 3%. At Google, black workers hold 1% of tech jobs and Hispanics 2%.

Improving diversity isn’t simply a matter of setting up more booths at jobs fairs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) or funding excellent educational initiatives like Girls Who Code or Black Girls Code.

When it comes to recruitment, companies have to be willing to throw out all the rules, says Karla Monterroso, vice president of programs at CODE2040.The San Francisco-based nonprofit works to place talented tech workers of color at paid internships with historically non-diverse companies that struggle to recruit them. Some of their partners so far include Intel, Pandora, Airbnb, Lyft and Apple.

“We’ve got a very short time frame in which we can right the ship,” says Monterroso, who points to the rapidly diversifying workforce. By 2043, the American population will be majority black and Latino for the first time ever. “Managers are going to have to understand diversity and [right now] it’s a skill we don’t teach people.”

Even something as simple as a job listing can deter diverse candidates. In a recent report by workplace diversity consulting group Paradigm, the group says using extreme masculine words like “ninja”, “rockstar,” or “hunter” can turn off women. Similarly, vague requirements like “top university” or “expert skills” can make some job seekers feel like they don’t belong.

“People within the startup space at rapidly growing companies like keeping job descriptions very loose because they know the job is going to change over time,” Monterroso says. “They may be willing to compromise on a couple of skills but that’s not necessarily apparent to the candidate,”

The vast majority of recruiters still rely heavily on referrals. When the majority of the people making those referrals are white or Asian-American men who went to Ivy League schools, the list of referrals tends to reflect that. The key is to figure out how companies in which minorities make up a sliver of personnel find their way to talented potential recruits. Many have recruitment programs linked directly to schools that serve underrepresented workers, like HBCUs.

But by focusing solely on HBCUs, which are located primarily in the Southeast, recruiters on the West Coast often overlook talent that’s right under their own noses, says Brandon Nicholson, executive director of the Hidden Genius Project. The Oakland, Calif.-based organization trains and mentors black male middle and high school students to become tech entrepreneurs.

“We took a group of kids to Apple, for example, and we met with eight to nine black technologists,” Nicholson says. “Almost to a person, no one came from somewhere east of the Mississippi. No one had come from Oakland and the East Bay [where our kids are from].” In Oakland, about an hour’s drive from the heart of San Francisco, more than half the population is black and Hispanic. San Francisco’s population is only slightly more diverse than many of the billion-dollar tech companies that set up shop there and in surrounding areas —  the city’s ethnic makeup is majority white and Asian-American, with 5% black and 15% Hispanic residents.

“None of my friends had ever really talked about focusing on the tech field,” says Desmond Pare, a 14-year-old high school freshman who joined the Hidden Genius Project last summer. “But when I go to the Hidden Genius Project everyday everyone [teachers and students] looks like me.”

Fixing the pipeline at both ends

The Hidden Genius Project is one of a growing number of programs training minorities and young women in STEM fields, the majority of which focus on coding. Training alone is not enough to ensure the success of the black and Hispanic kids who excel in these programs, both Nicholson and Monterosso agree. The key is making sure companies can find them and that when they do, they don’t let their own personal biases get in the way of hiring them.

“Often, top-tier computer programs are a substitute for an actual set of job requirements,” says Monterosso. “They say ‘I want a Stanford graduate’ because they know they’re going to get the skills they want out of that person … but it means really talented people are not being selected.”

Convincing major companies to recruit off the beaten path is a challenge.

“Community colleges and state colleges have become a site for a great deal of talent but some people have antiquated ideas of what a state school of community college is,” Nicholson says. Those students may never see recruiters from top tier tech companies.

In the meantime, the people behind initiatives like Hidden Genius Project aim to ensure that when recruiters do finally catch up, the kids they are training today will be ready.

A year ago, the distance between a developer’s chair and 17-year-old Alfred Mejilla might as well have been measured in lightyears. Mejilla had just been expelled from his Laurel, Va., high school, his history of poor attendance finally catching up to him. He took odd jobs as a construction worker, busboy and eventually a line cook at Chipotle. But he pivoted sharply last spring, enrolling in a free five-month-long STEM training program through the National Guard Youth Foundation, an organization that helps high school dropouts earn their diplomas or GEDs. Out of 600 participants, more than half were minorities, and one-quarter were young women, according to the foundation.

This December, a year after he was expelled from school, Mejilla will graduate from the program with a GED. He plans to apply to Morgan State University in Baltimore to study mechanical engineering.

“It was rough at the beginning. I didn’t get the work but my teacher spent time with me until I got it,” says Mejilla, who studied subjects like coding and cryptography for the first time. “It opened my eyes to new opportunities.”

Mandi Woodruff is a reporter for Yahoo Finance and host of Brown Ambition, a new podcast about career and finance. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook

Read more:

Secret perks: Why department store workers are so pushy about credit cards

NFL's first female coach has a special message for men

Paying off student debt will get easier for 5 million borrowers