Apr 30th 2015

The Next Innovation in Tech PR Must Be Human-Focused

At last week’s Vator Splash startup conference in Oakland, California, one of the most interesting panels I attended was a session called “When Will Tech Look Like America?” Moderated by Fast Company’s Evie Nagy, the panel featured an impressive line-up of speakers, including the new Mayor of Oakland Libby Schaaf, Google’s Global Diversity and Talent Inclusion Manager Nilka Thomas, Kapor Center Co-Founder Freada Kapor Klein, Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, and Pandora’s Senior Diversity Manager Lisa Lee.

The lack of diversity in Silicon Valley is concerning – a workforce issue brought to the forefront last year when seven of the tech sector’s largest companies including Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn reported that Silicon Valley is largely male (70%) and white (55%) with the largest ethnic group (Asians) only  comprising 15 percent.  The Kapor Center for Social Impact reports similar numbers and points out that in terms of academic achievement our schools are failing us – only nine percent of all science and engineering degrees are awarded to African-American and Latina/o students (2009) and at the high school level, only 1.3 percent of all computer science AP test takers are African-American and Latina/o (2013).

Newly elected Oakland Mayor Libby Shaaf put it simply – “to create vibrant communities, we need to provide opportunities to people of color – the next tech innovation must be human-focused.”  When you consider that Millennials are quickly becoming the largest generation in the workplace, with nearly 40 percent representing at least one racial or ethnic group (African-American, Hispanic, Asian or Native American) and of which 20 percent are immigrants or children of immigrants, the face of America is quickly becoming one of the most racially and ethnically diverse populations. This is the next generation of workers and leaders that will fuel tech, business and government  — but are we prepared?

The PR industry, sadly, has fared no better.  The Guardian reported recently that according to the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), only eight percent of PR practitioners in the U.K. are from ethnic minority backgrounds.  Here in the U.S., the lack of diversity in a profession that is primarily white and male at the executive levels despite having a workforce that is predominantly female has been called “PRs dirty little secret.”

Fourteen years ago I remember sitting at a worldwide agency conference at a top ten agency listening to The Holmes Report Founder Paul Holmes urging the industry to increase its diversity hiring.  While certainly a lot of important and meaningful work has been conducted to address this issue at many of the top PR agencies, with a marked improvement in advancing women into executive leadership positions and increased hiring of staff from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, much more work is needed.  As Pandora’s Lisa Lee noted, “we have to get to the cultural and language level beyond just putting HR programs in place.  We have to understand at a a conscious level what we are doing as an organization to encourage our employees to go out into their communities, engage with a diverse group of people and understand different cultures.”  Pandora, for instance, does not provide a cafeteria at its Oakland headquarters and encourages staff to go out into the local neighborhood at lunchtime and support local eateries.

As the new head of Babel’s U.S. operations in San Francisco, I am fortunate in being able to work in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the world.  I am surrounded by cultural diversity and believe that companies should be culturally sensitive to the local communities in which they do business.  For starters, I am working with one of our Latina managers to develop an internship program targeting local schools in our area and I am forming a local PR industry meet-up comprised of diverse leaders that will get this discussion going – will you join me?

Our client makeup in tech is quickly changing and in a short order of time will become increasingly diverse.  I would edit Mayor Schaaf’s comment to end by saying the next innovation in tech PR must be human-focused.  Only then will we see a cultural renaissance that will result in truly amazing technological accomplishments fueled by human innovation.

I’d love to hear your comments, thoughts on improving diversity in tech PR.  Message me on Twitter @ckawa or reach out to me via LinkedIn.