Intel pledges $300 million to boost workplace diversity, but is it enough?

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

After he trotted out their drones and button-sized computers at CES yesterday afternoon, Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich added one more thing: Intel would boost the diversity in its workforce by 14 percent over the next five years and earmarked $300 million to reach that goal. 

The amount will be spent over the next three years, and among the targets are engineering scholarships and historically black colleges and universities, according to The New York Times. The company also expects to fund efforts to make the tech workplace more welcoming to minorities.

It’s no secret that the workforce at tech companies tends to be homogeneous. Facebook’s US workforce, for example, is more than 90 percent white and Asian, according to its 2014 diversity report, and globally, only 31 percent of its employees are women. Other companies like Apple and Google don’t score much better.

“The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity,” Katherine Phillips, professor and senior vice dean at Columbia Business School, wrote in an article in Scientific American last year, in a special issue that explored diversity in the science, engineering and tech fields. Phillips argued that diversity enhances creativity and “encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving.” What’s more, the argued, it can improve the bottom line.

In the wake of Intel’s announcement, New York tech VC Fred Wilson proposed that companies could be targeting their efforts even further upstream, by supporting STEM initiatives at primary schools. In a post on his blog, he advised tech companies looking to invest in diversity efforts to “start as young as you can and invest all the way up from there… look at elementary school, look at middle school (this is really important), and look at high school.”

Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, agrees. Her nonprofit program holds coding camps and workshops for young girls of color in six US cities (and in Johannesburg, South Africa). Their biggest classes are for middle-schoolers, age 10 to 13; elementary school kids, between 7 and 10, are the next largest cohort.

College scholarships could bridge some of the diversity gap, she said, but efforts must start earlier. “If companies like Intel put all of their effort in the end of the pipeline, we’re going to have some of the issues in terms of the numbers we’re experiencing right now,” she said. “It’s very difficult to convince a high school student who has no exposure [to computer science] to sit down in front of a computer and learn to code. The earlier we can get them into the workshops, the easier it is to show them the other side — the creative side, the collaborative side of computer programming.”

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
Follow Nidhi on Twitter - Facebook