Lola Banjo is a corporate strategist, a longtime STEM education advocate, and a Young Executive Board member of Code/Interactive, an organization committed to developing the next generation of diverse technology leaders.
Lola is also one of the organizers behind this year’s inaugural “Diversity in Tech Awards” which will take place in New York during Social Media Week. The #DiversityInTech Awards celebrate individuals and organizations championing the nationwide movement to increase diversity in STEM education, and will bring together leaders from tech, government, non-profit and education for the biggest celebration of its kind.
Diversity in the workplace
Earlier this month, Intel made its annual diversity data public and challenged other tech companies to do the same. The company also made a public commitment to addressing its diversity challenge by sharing its plans, which includes a goal for 40% of new employees to be women or underrepresented minorities (black, Latino, Native American) and to reach full representation by 2020. Other notable tech companies have however disagreed with Intel’s approach of setting and/or publicizing metrics driven diversity goals. Whether we agree or disagree with Intel’s approach, the announcement has added to the ongoing conversation about diversity, or the lack thereof, in technology, and has led some to ask the question: why does #DiversityInTech matter anyway and why should we care?
A recent survey by Fortune of nine of the top tech companies in Silicon Valley found that only about a third of the overall workforce is female, while underrepresented minorities (black, Latino, Native American) make up just 10% combined. These numbers shrink even further at the executive ranks. In simple terms, today’s tech companies are predominantly white, Asian, and male. Considering the fact that women make up half the population and underrepresented minorities make up about a third of it, this is a significant gap.
Several factors have been highlighted as the cause for this disparity. Many believe it is a pipeline problem, i.e. not enough women and minorities are studying STEM fields. Others have blamed it on subconscious prejudices of hiring managers who on average, as most humans do, naturally gravitate towards candidates with whom they share commonalities. Lastly, others have opined that an unwelcoming culture in the tech world is what forces diverse talent to exit before making it to leadership.
All of the above should be recognized in order to pave the pathway for solutions. Therefore, increasing diversity in tech requires a three-pronged approach: addressing the pipeline (STEM education), recruitment (hiring practices, metrics), and retention (support mechanisms, employee benefits, company culture).
Why it matters
With rapid advances in technology, the proliferation of social media and an increasingly demanding consumer base, the paradigm of global enterprise has shifted. Change is the norm, and it behooves companies to embrace it. From a business standpoint, diversity is no longer just a social responsibility, it has been shown to lead to tangible benefits such as increased innovation, better employee engagement and an ability to reach a wider array of customers, hereby leading to increased sales. In addition, in today’s information age with consumers making more conscious choices when it comes to companies to patronize, the possible risk of being known as a company that does not embrace diversity carries a heavy cost that most companies are not willing to bear.
Today, companies are embracing diversity in more strategic ways that reach beyond increasing the number of diverse new recruits. For example, Mattel’s recent rebranding of the iconic Barbie doll introduced 33 new dolls that more accurately reflect what women all over the world actually look like. The reaction was swift and positive — Barbie was a trending topic all week with a majority of commenters praising the move. Suffice it to say, a well-received product launch will inevitably generate more sales: a win-win for Mattel.
But beyond the business and the numbers, there is a less directly measurable but all the more impactful reason why #DiversityInTech and #STEM education matters. Representation. From a social cognitive perspective, representation matters because it ignites motivation, it sparks creativity and it inspires actualization.
Without a doubt, there is an amazing amount of power that lies in seeing someone in the same social group you belong to achieve success. I, for example, along with plenty of black girls, grew up feeling like becoming a billionaire is within reach because Oprah is a self-made one. Humans are social beings who form connections based on the ability to relate. To relate is to feel that you belong and the late great psychologist Abraham Maslow said it best: “the need to belong is a major source of human motivation”. After-all, why would anyone aspire to be anywhere where they do not feel they belong?
This feeling of belonging, or lack of, has been cited as one of the root causes for the diversity challenge. It is pervasive from the pipeline all the way to the executive ranks. Even when diverse talent are successfully recruited into tech companies, many have cited not feeling like they belong (which comes out in exit interviews often as lack of support, appreciation, etc.) as reasons why they exit. Some have said the culture of some tech companies is not welcoming for anyone who isn’t white, Asian and male, typically due to subconscious bias. Therefore, while companies are taking steps to increase the number of diverse recruits, they must also work to ensure that the work environments are conducive for all talent to thrive. To retain diverse talent, proper mechanisms to train, nurture and support recruits throughout their careers must be put in place.
My personal journey
STEM has always been a part of my life thanks to my father who started teaching me calculus, astronomy and programming when I was only 6 years old. By the time I was 10, I could solve complex partial differential equations and perform numerical analysis with ease. My Dad, an engineer himself, greatly believed that scientists, mathematicians and engineers made the world go and that the pursuit of STEM education is an indisputable avenue for achieving economic prosperity. Learning about science was a norm in our household. I spoke Newton before I could barely speak English. My Dad would make my brother and I read physics textbooks from cover to cover in a day then quiz us on topics when he got back from work. At first it felt like punishment, but by the time I was in my mid-teens, I was so fascinated by math, science and engineering that I wanted nothing more than to pursue it academically and eventually professionally.
My love for STEM did not always earn me praises, however. As a young girl, I was “different” from most of the other girls my age. I was constantly teased and called a nerd that at many points, I considered abandoning STEM for other fields I was being told both overtly and subtly were more acceptable for a woman to pursue.
Despite the social pressures, I went on to study Engineering in university. I was one of the only ethnic minorities in my classes, and also one of the few women — a double minority. By early in my professional career, I had become so accustomed to this imbalance that it became business as usual. But deep down, it felt lonely. So I started exploring ways I could help with changing the landscape. In addition, once I became familiar with the economic benefits a STEM education could provide, I started to see it as a possible pathway to addressing some of the socioeconomic challenges in our communities. I’d talk to anyone I could within my social networks about engaging more girls and minorities in STEM. I also began volunteering to mentor high schoolers in underserved communities so I could lend some personal anecdotes and get them more excited about STEM as an academic and career option, as well as represent someone who they can relate to.
I am aware of how fortunate I am to have had a strong foundation that encouraged my love for STEM. It is not lost on me that without my father’s not so gentle push (I mean really, how many kids get calculus textbooks for their birthday?), I would likely never have known how much I loved STEM and my life today might have never been exposed to the myriad of opportunities that being a STEM graduate has afforded me.
This is not the norm for many of the youth in our communities. Yet, I am encouraged knowing that support can come in various forms. As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child”. Non-family members can play just as large a part in providing a support system for our youth. This was the case for me during my university education, a time when a number of personal challenges almost derailed my academic pursuit. During this challenging time in my life, it was the support of my school’s Associate Dean of Student Development, a strong advocate of minority engineers, which kept me going. His genuine and personalized approach to taking an interest in his students’ success was a breath of fresh air. He was aware of the personal challenges I was facing, which were making an already tough Engineering curriculum seem impossible to complete, and he took a role as a key member of my support system. He was a sounding board every time I pondered abandoning ship and switching to an “easier” area of study. He would help re-center me with words of encouragement and reminders of how far I had come. Thanks to his support, I completed my Engineering education (with minors in Mathematics, Economics and Computer Science) and went on to graduate study.
A call to action
The foundational analytical skills my STEM education provided me have expanded my career options beyond what I once thought was possible. I wish for all youth in our communities to have this kind of opportunity. Yet, many of those in underserved demographics aren’t exposed to STEM. Today, when I find myself as the only woman or underrepresented minority in the room, I can’t help but think of how many others have missed or are missing out on the opportunity because of a lack of awareness of their ability to explore it. This lack of awareness, in addition to the absence of an ongoing support system that encourages the pursuit of STEM, may have led many to exclude themselves from the playing field. Statements like “I am just not good with numbers” become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In addition, societal pressures to be “cool” may be causing many of our youth to shy away from the stigma that being a “nerd” carries.
When actress Viola Davis won her Emmy for best actress in a drama series, she stated that the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. This can be applicable to almost every professional environment. In order to compete, you have to first know there is a game going on. This is why I believe the most pivotal step in addressing the pipeline challenge is creating awareness of STEM in constructive and efficient ways. It is important to fund programs that encourage STEM education for the youth already interested in it, but we must not forget about exposing that opportunity to those who aren’t currently considering it. Organizations like Code/Interactive (C/I) have achieved success with doing just that. By working with high schoolers in their natural environments, C/I is introducing tech to our youth in fun, engaging and constructive ways and completely changing their purview of what their career options are.
According to the 2014 New York State’s comptroller report, the booming city tech sector is adding jobs three times faster than the city overall and pumping billions into the economy. The average tech salary in the city was $118,600 in 2012, almost 50% higher than the $79,500 average salary citywide. The nationwide increase in demand for tech-skilled professionals represents a $500B opportunity in the next 10 years, yet students of underserved backgrounds are largely left out of the conversation. Currently, access to Tech-Ed is virtually non-existent for students from low income households.
C/I’s programming includes 3 programs aimed at helping underserved students overcome the opportunity gap by equipping them with the skills needed to succeed. By providing hands-on training in today’s most relevant technology subject areas, the program serves as a building block for long-term career paths in tech. Graduates of the program are able to attain tangible skills (coding), sharpen their career acumen, develop lifelong connections and friendships and are sometimes placed in internships with leading tech companies in the city. They are five times as likely as their peers to go to college and are able to earn wages that can double their household income. To date, 600+ students have successfully completed the program.
While there is still a lot of work to do to close the gap, there has been some progress. C/I’s inaugural #DiversityInTech < DIV > awards ceremony will recognize the individuals and organizations championing this movement. The awards aims to raise $45,000 which will make providing computer science scholarships to 100 additional NYC students a possibility. If in the NYC area, please consider attending the event on Thursday, February 25th, or donating if you are unable to. Volunteer opportunities are also available throughout the year.
In conclusion, improving diversity in tech and STEM education is not an easy challenge, but it is one that can be overcome. We can all play a part. Whether it is through mentoring, volunteering, financial support or just taking an interest in the conversation, we can help promote and effect the change we’d like to see and help create a world where every child, regardless of race or economic background, is able to explore the opportunities available to him or her, whether in STEM or otherwise, and unlocks the ability to reach his or her full potential in life.
Lola Banjo is a corporate strategist and longtime STEM education advocate. She serves as a Young Executive Board member of Code/Interactive, an organization committed to developing the next generation of diverse technology leaders. A product of a STEM education herself, Lola believes in the importance of technology and the role it can play in the socioeconomic enhancement of lives. She holds a B.S. in Engineering from Rutgers University — School of Engineering, a M.S. in Financial Engineering from NYU — School of Engineering, and a MBA in Strategy, Finance and Decision Sciences from Emory University — Goizueta Business School.