Black History Month - checking in on the tech sector's Black equality commitments, from watches to OneTen

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan February 1, 2021
Kicking off a short series on the state of Black representation in the tech sector, an update on how some firms are trying to address long-standing inequalities and encourage change.

Today marks the start of Black History Month in the US, an occasion that Apple has chosen to mark with the launch of a limited edition Black Unity watch, so that anyone with $399 to spare can show their solidarity.

(Apple - Black Unity)

Black History Month, or African American History Month, is celebrated each year during February to highlight the contributions and achievements of African-American individuals and communities, as well as the struggles for freedom and equality in the United States.

Given that - and in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and last year’s hugely visible Black Lives Matter (BLM) activism - is a high-end wrist watch the best we can expect from tech firms?

The answer is clearly no - and to be fair to Apple, there is more to its Black History Month activities than sticking a new version of its watch on sale for a few weeks. To go along with the Watch, there’s a Black Unity strap, available for the rest of the year, as well curated content from Black artists, developers, and businesses across the App Store, Apple Music, Apple Books, and Apple Podcasts.

Apple says that “a portion of the proceeds” from the limited edition watch will go to civil rights organizations, but doesn’t break down how big a portion that is. Apple just reported a quarterly profit of $28.8 billion on revenue of $111.4 billion, of which Wearables (including the Watch) accounted for $13 billion, so some commentators have not unreasonably suggested that the firm could afford to take a hit on a product that’s only going to be on sale for 28 days and donate all the profits.

That said, Apple has identified six groups it will be helping - Black Lives Matter Support Fund via the Tides Foundation; European Network Against Racism; International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights; Leadership Conference Education Fund; NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.; and Souls Grown Deep.

Money and mouths

But after last year’s flurry of highly public and headline-grabbing BLM solidarity, has the tech sector followed through on commitments made in that blaze of publicity? For Apple’s part, the firm has put its money where its corporate mouth is, announcing its $100 million Racial Equality and Justice Initiative (REJI) to help advance racial equality and break down systemic barriers. The money is being distributed to a number of specific projects, including:

  • $25 million to the Propel Center, a new tech education hub in Atlanta to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This is a physical campus located in Atlanta University Center, a virtual platform and on-campus initiatives at partnering institutions. In addition to education, the center will provide tech support, career opportunities, mentorship and fellowship programs
  • $35 million in funding for entrepreneurs of color through Harlem Capital and Siebert William Shank’s Clear Vision Impact Fund, with the stated intent of supporting investments in 1,000 companies led by entrepreneurs of color over the next 20 years.
  • An Apple Developer Academy in Detroit launched in collaboration with Michigan State University to offer coding classes to Detroit area residents, regardless of their academic background or coding experience. The Academy is intended to serve 1,000 students per year through classes in coding, design and marketing, with a 30-day introductory program and a 10 to 12 month intensive program in app development.
  • 100 new scholarships, which include mentorship and career development, for students from under-represented communities through the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

Last week Apple CEO Tim Cook pointed to these efforts as an example of how Apple hopes to heal the divisions of recent months in the US, climaxing in the insurrectionist assault on the US Capitol:

After the events of the last few weeks, we are focused on how we can help a moment of great national need. Because none of us should have any illusions about the challenges we face as we began a new chapter in The American Story. Hope for healing, for unity and for progress begins with and depends on addressing the things that continue to wound us. In our communities, we see how every burden from COVID-19 to the resulting economic challenges to the closure of in-person learning for students, falls heaviest on those who have always faced structural barriers to opportunity and equality.

Apple wants to address this, he added, by targeting assistance where most needed. He cited as a case in  point:

Our new Apple Developer Academy in Downtown Detroit will be the first of its kind in the United States. Detroit has a vibrant culture of Black entrepreneurship, including over 50,000 black-owned businesses. We want to accelerate the potential of the app economy here, knowing there is no shortage of good ideas in such a creative, resilient and dedicated community.

That’s the type of financial stimulus initiative that has been seen frequently from tech firms in the wake of last year’s tensions. In September, for example, IBM revealed plans to invest $100 million to bring technology skills development to Historically African-American universities, PayPal topped that with $530 million to support African-American-owned companies, while Google has made $350 million of financial commitments intended to improve racial equality, such as grants and financings for black-owned businesses.

Putting houses in order

But however commendable such actions may be in their own way, the elephant in the room still remains that of 'putting your own house in order’ in terms of Black representation in the workforce, particularly in leadership positions. Nearly 57 years after the Civil Rights Act, only four CEOs in the Fortune 500 are Black - Roz Brewer of Walgreens Boots Alliance; Marvin Ellison of home improvement retailer Lowe’s; Kenneth Frazier of pharmaceutical company Merck & Co.; and Roger Ferguson, Jr. of insurance company TIAA. None of them head up tech firms.

Everyone claims progress, of course, but there’s still a long way to go. The diversity section on Apple’s company website currently displays data from December 2018, at which point 9% of the workforce in the US was Black vs 50% which was categorised as White, 23% Asian and 14% Hispanic. According to a 2018 filing, that translated to one Black executive out of a total of 123 and 284 Black managers out of a total of 9,878, less than one percent and three percent respectively.  At that point, White applicants made up 40% of new hires, Asians 25%, Hispanics 18% and Black 12%.

Of course, other tech sector leaders track records also leave much room for improvement. In its 2020 Diversity & Inclusion report, Google says 3.7% of its workforce is Black, compared to 51.7% White. The firm has committed to a 30% leadership representation of unrepresented communities by 2025, but continues to attract negative comment.

Most notably of late, in December last year, 12,000 of the firm’s workers signed a letter condemning the sacking of Black ethics expert Timnit Gebru, arguing that this act “heralds danger for people working for ethical and just AI – especially Black people and People of Color – across Google". Gebru claims she was sacked after sending an internal email that accused Google of "silencing marginalised voices".

Google’s response, disputing Gebru’s version of events, didn’t calm the furore. CEO Sundar Pichai told staff in an email that the firm needed to look at how it could have dealt with the sacking via “a more respectful process”:

We need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent, Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily.

The firm has entered 2021 with more controversy about its alleged culture following claims by a former staffer regarding claimed anti-HBCU-graduate discrimination. Former Google diversity recruiter April Curley claimed to have been fired in September after raising concerns about how HBCU graduates are assessed, saying that Google execs don’t believe that such candidates come with the necessary technical skills.

This latest issue has piled pressure on Google after D&I organization HBCU 20x20, a network of HBCU job seekers with partnerships with the likes of Accenture, Facebook, New Relic and Yext, cancelled its tie-up with the firm. Meanwhile Google CEO Pichai has been meeting with leaders of HBCU establishments in a bid to assure them that the firm is genuine in its commitment to increased diversity hiring, citing the existence of a dedicated team to partner with HBCUs.

Elsewhere, Amazon has a public goal to double representation of Black VPs and directors at Amazon in 2020 and again in 2021, while Facebook has committed to increase its Black leaders by 30% by 2025, as well as doubling Black and Latinx employees overall by 2023. As of mid-2020, the latter’s Black employees comprised a mere 3.8% of the total workforce, 1.5% of technical roles and 3.1% of senior management, according to data contained in a legal complaint to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.


But efforts do go on to improve the situation. At the end of last year, IBM, along with other tech firms such as HP Inc and AT&T as well as the likes of Target, General Motors and Walmart, was among the first signatories to what looks like an important new coalition of US businesses, OneTen, which aims to train, hire and promote one million Black Americans to jobs over 10 years and to create “a more flexible talent pipeline and practices that will allow employees and employers to thrive by shifting to a skills-first paradigm”.

The new alliance says that it “multiplies the power of existing and successful programs without replacing their efforts”, pitching that:

We’re creating a network of providers, from select local initiatives to employer-run programs, with the flexibility to meet and sustain the needs of a changing workforce. We connect them with employers who are committed to hiring, up-skilling and advancing Black talent.

As well as naming Maurice Jones, Deputy-Secretary for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, as CEO, OneTen has some heavy-hitting talent at its disposal, including Merck’s Frazier and IBM Chairperson Ginni Rometty as co-Chairs, while Charles Phillips, former CEO of Infor and now Chairman of the Black Economic Alliance sits on the Working Committee.

On the day of launch, Rometty explained the ‘Skills First’ premise of the new organization to CBS This Morning: 

The elevator pitch is that we all need talent and there's a large talent pool in America we're not tapping into. Skills First -  we've been at this at IBM for almost eight years and we're great proof on this. Now, after working hard and adjusting our job requisitions which is one of those structural barriers to address, we no longer require a four year degree to start for 43% of our jobs...It is not a lack of talent, it's just a lack of access, so one of these structural barriers we removed is giving them a new pathway into our companies...It isn't even just a job; we really believe these can be upwardly mobile careers and therefore we really do break a cycle.

Meanwhile Frazier added that he saw this as a moment in time for everyone to make a difference:

I think that this group of CEOs are very interested in not passing the challenges the historical challenges on to the next generation. I think we also recognize looking forward, that this is going to be a more diverse country, and the workforce is going to be more diverse. If we're able to take advantage of all the talent in our country, we can strengthen our economy, and we can eliminate some of the racial and social barriers that we worry about in this country... I think after the whole George Ford killing these conversations were happening across the kitchen table as well as the boardroom table.

My take

OneTen certainly looks to have more long term potential than a fancy new smartwatch and it’s an initiative that diginomica will watch with interest, particularly in terms of how much support it picks up from the tech sector.  Meanwhile, while there may be a long way to go tackle the wider issues at stake here, there are plenty of cases of tech firms that have positive exemplars of good practice to point to. Over the next two days, we’ll drill down just a couple of those.

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