Tech industry needs to build a diversity pipeline

*This story appeared first on San Francisco Chronicle

Kids from Girls Inc. of Alameda County, an Oakland nonprofit that prepares girls from neglected neighborhoods to break through gender, economic and racial barriers, recently visited a place where not many black and brown women are seen: a tech company.

A group of 28 middle-school girls toured the San Francisco office of Airbnb, the vacation-rental company, two weeks ago. There, the girls made their own version of Airbnb’s guidebooks for cities they called “Oakland Experiences.”

Very cool.

Even cooler: This trip happened because Jonard La Rosa, who works on Airbnb’s design team, thought introducing the girls to the inside of a multibillion-dollar tech giant would enrich the Girls Inc. summer program.

It’s because La Rosa, a first-generation American of Filipino descent, understands that seeing someone who looks like you working at a tech company goes a long way toward helping you see yourself working there.

“I wanted to use my privilege as an Airbnb employee to give a chance to the underprivileged youth served by Girls Inc. to take a tour of Airbnb and meet Airbnb employees that can serve as inspiration or role models,” La Rosa, 28, told me.

Airbnb has struggled with the same underrepresentation of women and non-Asian minorities — notably among executives and tech workers — as most other major tech employers. But Airbnb encourages its employees to do programs like this, programs that might actually help shrink the diversity gap in tech.

This should be happening at any tech company that can’t hack diversity.

But somehow companies operate without realizing that the best recruiters for black and brown employees aren’t highly paid consultants, recruiting firms or people with a mouthful of a job description and the word “diversity” in their title.

No, it’s the black and brown employees, however few, already on the payroll.

Yes, guys — and, unfortunately, tech is still very much a boys club — it’s all about connections.

La Rosa’s connection to Girls Inc. is that he’s engaged to Mary Ann Manipon, who works in payroll and development at the organization.

What La Rosa and other black and brown people who have worked for tech companies, including myself, understand is that there’s long been a disconnect between talking about a diversity pipeline and actually building it.

When La Rosa, who spent the first 14 years of his life in Dededo, the largest village in the U.S. territory of Guam, got his first job for a big tech company, he felt like an impostor. This was as a Google contractor.

“I felt like I didn’t belong and that I somehow cheated into getting there,” La Rosa said. “But soon I felt more comfortable with my skills and had confidence with my ability to contribute.”

He realized then that anybody, regardless of socioeconomic background, could perform if given a chance. But some girls in Oakland don’t have that chance, because one in three, many of them black and brown, don’t even graduate from high school, according to Girls Inc.

“It’s just that nobody ever told someone like me, ‘You can make it,’ or made me feel like I belonged in the industry as a youth,” La Rosa said. “I also hope to foster a relationship with Girls Inc. so that Airbnb as a company can be involved at a higher-than-superficial level.”

Sure, Google announced in March that it was a starting a summer program, taught in part by senior engineers, at its Mountain View headquarters that’s geared toward students at historically black colleges and universities. Clap, clap, clap.

But companies won’t be able to effectively train, recruit and retain black and Latino employees if they don’t give those who work there already a voice in the process. That seems to be happening at Airbnb.

“It just happens so much throughout our company and often goes unnoticed,” Jasmine Mora, Airbnb’s press secretary said. “And it’s just very natural and very much a part of Airbnb. Our employees lead these efforts because they care about the communities they live in.”