Making the Case for HBCU Technologists in Silicon Valley

Making the Case for HBCU Technologists in Silicon Valley

Check out our article about this program from Forbes!

When I began my MBA at Stanford in 2016, I was struck by the stark differences between my time at Clark Atlanta University (CAU), a well-respected historically black university I attended for my undergrad, and the renowned tech breeding ground.

One of the most striking differences was around recruiting. Recruiters showed up in droves eager to recruit the Stanford “elite” for both internships and full-time roles. Booths sprung up for various events, coffee meetings were booked, and elaborate dinners were hosted to woo potential candidates. As a new student at Stanford GSB, the circumstances felt uncomfortably empowering.

This new feeling was quite strange. In undergrad, I had no idea I even needed an internship— an occurrence stemming from a mix of being a social science major, cultural contexts from my home state of Alabama, and a severe case of under-recruiting at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). While some departments had great resources for recruiting, generally, outreach was scarce. It was up to determined CAU students to actively seek out opportunities, figure out how to get in contact with these companies, and convince recruiters to give them a chance. Read: Many under-resourced HBCU students have to work twice as hard to get even half of the internship opportunities that are readily available to others.

Let me be clear: The difference in opportunity in no way reflects a lack of talent, worthiness, or drive at CAU. It’s a matter of recruiters not actively searching for HBCU students with the same vigor and intention with which they seek out Stanford students, plain and simple. And while it’s not within the scope of this blog to make assumptions or dig into why I think this is the case, please know there is a deeper cultural and economic story here. Either way, as an alumna of both schools, I can tell you the talent at both universities is of the highest caliber and should be recognized equally. Yet, students at CAU and many other HBCUs are not exposed to the same opportunities.

This practice is a huge disservice on the part of recruiters and technology companies alike— a miss that contributes to the systematic diversity issue in Silicon Valley. And as more market leaders come to the realization that diversity is, in fact, pro-business, this misstep threatens the innovation on which Silicon Valley has built its very existence.

The Genesis of the Unusual Interns Program

From day one, Unusual Ventures co-founders John Vrionis and Jyoti Bansal have been committed to building a venture firm with diversity and inclusion at its core. Unusual’s focus even extends to our Limited Partners (LPs). By design, we work with LPs traditionally excluded from access to venture capital as an asset class, including HBCUs, such as Howard University, Spelman College, and Hampton University. John and Jyoti want to drive wealth creation back into the community to help create change for the greater good.

With Silicon Valley’s diversity issue looming in our backyard and our LPs brimming with a wealth of high-quality tech talent, we had an idea. Why not facilitate the connection between Silicon Valley and the large, untapped supply of talented black software engineers at these HBCUs? And so began the formation of the Unusual Intern Program.

We immediately dove in and researched how to include not only HBCUs in our LP base, but also HBCUs best known for having highly-revered computer science programs—like Alabama A&M University and North Carolina A&T State University. We reached out to department chairs, professors, and career service centers to find out how we could partner to bring this program to life. On the flip side, we connected with high growth startups, such as DataStax, Harness, Zscaler, and Zola, that were chomping at the bit to bring in more diverse candidates. We felt students would have greater opportunities for growth and impact at these high growth startups.

Driving Change

We determined three main goals for the program: First, we want to bring more diverse candidates into high-growth technology companies in Silicon Valley. Hard stop. Fewer than 5% of the workforce at tech companies is African American, according to the State of Black America 2018 Report. Yes, you read that correctly— 5%. That’s absolutely unacceptable, especially considering this percentage is not even half of America’s current black population (13.4%).

Our second goal is increasing the number of black employees in technical roles. As if the percentage of black employees in tech isn’t troubling enough, it’s even rarer to find adequate representation in technical roles. The 5% number is heavily skewed toward operating roles, such as marketing and finance.

Finally, our third goal focuses on retention. When people of color get an opportunity at a tech company, they often experience culture shock, struggle in the new environment, and unfortunately miss out on the “inclusion” piece of D&I.  Because they don’t see others who look like them or have similar life and work experiences as others, they end up leaving the company at an incredibly high rate. This type of turnover is not only counterproductive in terms of changing Silicon Valley’s diversity issue, but also costs tech companies billions of dollars.

We want to make sure interns in the program are armed with the knowledge they need to overcome some of these struggles and in turn, increase retention. To bolster their effectiveness throughout their internship, we’ve partnered with the Lambda School to offer a six-week spring bootcamp with a multi-faceted curriculum. The Unusual team will also offer students both professional and personal development on a bi-weekly basis to ensure students have access to experts in their field, consistent professional support, and insight into future opportunities.

Looking Forward

We are incredibly excited and proud to launch this program. That said, as an expecting mother, I hope that we don’t need a program like this by the time my child needs an internship. I don’t want future black students to think they have to overcompensate or that their work isn’t valued the same as others. If we can funnel more black students into Silicon Valley, we can normalize the behavior of becoming technologists and it won’t be so audacious to see someone like me make it in the VC world. Bottom line, if you work hard, you should be able to go far, no matter your skin tone

To those in tech reading this, I urge you to think about what you can do to make a difference— something easy for you that may be painstakingly difficult for someone else. You have no idea how much something seemingly so small to you can make such a huge impact for others. To the HBCU students reading this, put yourself out there and do whatever work you need to in order to be recognized. Keep elbowing your way to get a seat at the table and don’t give up along the way. Finally, to John and Jyoti, thank you for recognizing Silicon Valley has a problem and for using your influence and passion to bring the change the tech industry needs.