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What Happened When Mark Zuckerberg Spoke at HBCU North Carolina A&T About Diversity

By Jared Karol

Watching Mark Zuckerberg speak to a room full of Black students at the historically Black college North Carolina A&T last week, I couldn’t help but feel that something awkward was bound to happen. He made it through the first 15 minutes relatively unscathed — covering topics such as the importance of community, fake news, and the future of Facebook.

But then at the 16:40 mark, a PhD student in the audience asked him this question: “It’s no secret that some of the wealthiest entrepreneurial circles lack diversity. So what do you intend to do about that? And what advice would you give to us as minorities to strategically navigate the entrepreneurial world so that we can be included?”

His response showed that while intellectually he may understand the issues around diversity in the entrepreneurial world, he has a lot to learn when speaking about diversity and inclusion and how Facebook is working to solve their problem. In his long rambling answer there was a decided lack of cultural fluency — evidence of someone who doesn’t fully understand the nuances of the topic he’s speaking about, or fully appreciate the perspectives from groups of people who are not included in the decision making processes.

He started off by saying that solving the diversity issue in the tech industry is our problem to figure out, that the responsibility rests on us — ”to make sure that we get to that,” as if it were another task to be checked off on a to-do list. He went on to talk about research showing that diverse teams do better work, and how it’s the right thing to do, and the need for training hiring managers, and serving our communities — and other templated platitudes.

Looking around the audience as he spoke, you see smirks of disbelief mixed in with attentive stares waiting for him to say something substantive and meaningful. The unspoken question in many minds had to be, “How does any of this answer the question, and how does it give me hope as a young Black college student soon to enter into the tech world?”

Four minutes into his answer, Zuckerberg said, “It’s often the people who think they’re doing the best who are doing the worst.” And how does he propose we solve this problem? Unconscious bias training — failing to mention that many of the biases in question are not necessarily unconscious. He went on to say that this is a tech industry issue, that it’s holding us back, and that we have to solve this. “I appreciate the question, but this one’s on us,” he concludes, attempting to pacify but effectively dismissing the concern of the student.

Finally, like a coda, he got to her original question: “What can you do? Do the best work that you can in training yourself to be a good engineer and you will have a good future. If you just really focus on doing the best you can, then there’s a lot of opportunity out there.” If I were in the audience hearing this generalization, and I knew that Facebook had a less than 1% Black workforce, and that most tech companies were only slightly better, I would not feel inspired or motivated by his words.

So, what can be done? To start, we can remember, as Leslie Miley says, that “this is not that difficult! This is not a hard problem to solve. Tech is making it hard. And I really don’t know why.” Mekka Okereke, a Senior Manager and Software Engineer at Google, agrees that there are easy solutions to put in place that will create a more diverse and inclusive tech industry.

The primary one is to focus on retention over recruiting. Commenting on a thread from a post about the Zucerkberg talk, Mekka said, “keep the Black engineers that you do have, rather than try to get fresh bodies to replace the ones you are losing.” To retain people, companies need to understand why they lose people, and they have to work hard to correct that. If people don’t feel included and safe and they are not fairly compensated or recognized for their contributions, they will leave. Conversely, Mekka says, “If people see that you have a team where people of all backgrounds can succeed and be happy, referrals will roll in.”

Unconscious bias training can help, as Zuckerberg said, but it’s not the one-and-done answer. How unconscious bias training actually helps create a company culture that is inclusive should be the goal. For example, being aware that unconscious bias exists helps managers and teams create performance reviews and formal development plans that have objective criteria.

Commenting on the same post thread, Michael Ellison, COO of CodePath, says that “there is also a huge opportunity in recruiting. Tech companies are not always hiring the best technical talent, and the false negatives in traditional recruiting funnels disproportionately hurt members of underrepresented groups.” One way to solve that is using a blind selection process. CodePath, an 8-week iOS/Android development class for professional engineers and designers, has seen the success of this approach, with one course getting 50% female and 7% Black engineers.

While it’s easy to criticize Mark Zuckerberg for his lack of cultural fluency, it is admirable that he is going out to diverse communities and attempting to have conversations about some of these difficult topics. Let’s hope that he doesn’t try to do it alone though. Facebook’s PR and diversity team should work more closely with Mark Zuckerberg to better prepare him to answer these tough questions. Then, we can start to move the needle and actually begin to create the change that he says we so desperately need.

And, as always, If Zuckerberg and Facebook need help, Change Catalyst is here.

About Change Catalyst:

Change Catalyst empowers diverse, inclusive and sustainable tech innovation — through events, consulting, research and training.

Our Tech Inclusion programs explore and develop innovative solutions to tech diversity and inclusion.

Our Startup Ecosystem programs help underrepresented entrepreneurs and investors to start, scale and fund worldchanging businesses.

Change Catalyst is a Certified B Corp, winning the “Best for the World” award for community impact in 2014 and “Best in the World” overall in 2015.

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The Change Catalyst Team
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