Is $300 Million the Price of Ambivalence in Tech?

Cristian Santinon,  used by permission

Cristian Santinon, used by permission

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

There’s never a good time to talk about money, it seems. Even if the money is $300 million going to comprehensive diversity initiatives. In a keynote address at the International Consumer Electronics Show on January 6, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced a new, miniature wearable technology module the size of coat button, a wrist-worn camera that can levitate for taking airborne selfies, and, oh yeah, $300 million to advance hiring and retention of women and under-represented minorities at his company. When it comes to what Intel’s audience wants, wearable tech clearly sizzles in a way that diversity in technology does not.

A Good Case for a Good Cause

But $300 million is not, as they say, bean bag. It’s good money, and the "Diversity in Technology" initiative packs a solid punch. In sum, it means participation of women and minorities in the Intel workforce at a level representing their shares of the available talent pool. Measures to accomplish this include:

  • Money to “help build a pipeline of female and under-represented engineers and computer scientists,” taken to mean scholarships by most
  • Hiring and retention goals, with managers’ pay tied to accomplishing them
  • Funding STEM programs for under-represented groups
  • Support for primary education programs in underserved areas
  • Computer science and engineering programs at higher education institutions, including minority-serving institutions
  • Partnerships to come with various groups in the diversity space, such as the National Coalition for Women and Information Technology, Feminist Frequency, and RainbowPUSH

For an integrated, comprehensive approach to the many dimensions of the diversity challenge, you could do a lot worse than this agenda.

Timing Is, at Least, Something

It’s just funny to announce it after introducing high-tech coat buttons and flying cameras. Even Intel recognized the, um, ambiguity of the venue for the roll-out. The Intel executive in charge of the program is Renee James, a president in the company and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the company. She was quoted in Forbes Magazine as saying, “I wasn’t sure the CES was the right venue for this and then we decided there really wasn’t a right venue. I didn’t know if it [CES] was the right place to talk about it. But it’s a big stage.”

How People Hear It and See It

The muffle on the message seems not to have been lost on some of those responding to the announcement.

In Fast Company, Shellye Archambeau, a top-level minority executive in Silicon Valley, said the Intel program, “will make an example of what can be done. It almost doesn’t matter if it’s $200 million or $400 million. By putting a specific target that they’re trying to achieve, by putting money behind it, it’s going to make them hold themselves accountable to make some changes.”

Like Cortés scuttling his ships to focus his crew’s attentions on conquest of the Aztecs, $300 million binds Intel to success in this endeavor, even if they might be coming to it with mixed feelings.

Alamy, used by permission

Alamy, used by permission

The "Parity Pledge"

Jesse Jackson,  WikiMedia Commons

Jesse Jackson, WikiMedia Commons

Jesse Jackson, it turns out, helped inspire the Diversity in Technology effort. A December meeting he had with Krzanich and Intel’s senior leadership addressed diversity challenges in the technology industry. Calling the program a “parity pledge,” Jackson asserted that Intel has “set the standard by which all other companies will be measured.”

Jackson continued, “There must also be innovation in the inclusion and diversity space…. Participating fully and equitably in this world-changing, innovative tech economy is the civil rights imperative of this generation.”

Hmm, Ferguson and Eric Garner, anyone? Even so, never one to retreat from rhetorical excess, Jackson is working hard to embed a commitment to diversity deep in the grain of the technology industry’s defining attribute and most proudly held value: serving as the wellspring of innovation in the global economy.

Making Innovation Work for You

So, to recap: Even if they’re a little confused about how exactly to talk about and accomplish diversity, Intel is all in. They are spending too much money not to make it work, and people are watching. Intended or not, diversity has become part of the innovation agenda as a result of their announcement. For the tech industry now, there truly is no going back to ways of the old world.

Money Always Helps

Somewhat lost in these comments is the notion that $300 million is a lot of money. And it would seem that a big portion of this “lot of money” is going directly to pay for individuals’ studies in engineering and computer science.

For all the focus on gender, race, and ethnicity in the diversity discussion, the subtext of economics can get short shrift. On the one hand, the question of paying for school is widespread, something all families with students aspiring to higher education must reckon with.

But it’s also the case that paying for school pinches harder on under-represented minorities, as they number disproportionately among lower-income groups. So putting more money towards paying for their schooling must be a central plank in any effort to enhance diversity in technical fields.

To be sure, building institutional capacities, identifying role models, and defining pathways for under-represented groups are necessary commitments. But it can’t be understated, the simple act of helping potential tech industry entrants among under-represented groups actually afford the education they need to enter the talent pool from which Intel will be drawing. This might be the most effective measure of those contemplated in the Diversity in Technology initiative.

How We Try to Help

In “Start Engineering,” our just-published guidebook to engineering for high school students, we talk a lot about how students from under-represented groups can find help getting into, paying for, and succeeding in engineering school.

A feature on scholarships highlights 11 well established programs, for both general student populations and under-represented groups, along with a link to hundreds of other scholarship possibilities. It accompanies tips on how to assemble a winning application to engineering programs.

Another feature addresses the importance of enhancing diversity to the field of engineering. And it guides readers to a cross-section of the numerous organizations dedicated to helping women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and LGBT students succeed in engineering.

What do you think of Intel’s $300 million diversity initiative? What kind of impact will it have on diversity in the tech industry? What have you seen that works in this area? Please do share your ideas and experiences directly with us or in comments below.

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at