I often say that I may be the only person to move to Silicon Valley specifically for its lack of diversity. I also say that I have made it my mission to make sure that I am the last. I came here following eight years of service in the Obama Administration where our team was tasked by the President to come up with innovative solutions to solve for national challenges. My colleagues and I began routinely visiting Silicon Valley in 2009. Over eight years, the tech sector taught us models which we used to cut red tape, improve services, and save billions of dollars. However, as wondrous as that collaboration with Silicon Valley was, something about the conversations we shared immediately started to seem a bit off.
“Oh, I notice that you have an interesting gap where the women in your workforce aren’t being promoted to management as quickly as their colleagues,” I’d say to company founders and high-level executives. “What are you doing to solve for that?” Each time I asked a variation of this question I’d be met with looks of bewilderment. I’d get that same look whenever I’d point out broken pipelines and practices which were falsely creating diversity gaps. Each time a look of bewilderment. Each time a sense of confusion. Hey, I’m autistic and often have trouble reading facial expressions. However, even I could clearly pick up on that.
The Kapor Center for Social Impact picked up on that early as well. In fact, Freada Kapor Klein (who founded the center along with Mitch Kapor, her husband and business partner) picked up on that decades before. Her 2007 book Giving Notice on the subject of workplace culture is one that I studied when the White House first asked me to serve. Three years ago, Kapor and a small group of advocates eager to see greater change in tech started Diversity Advocates, an informal and effective network of individuals working in Silicon Valley dedicated to helping their companies strategically think and act on issues of diversity. This week, the Kapor Center for Social Impact hosted a third birthday party for the group.
“It’s essential that we all share knowledge and support each other’s efforts,” said Jessie Wusthoff of Diversity Advocates. “No one can successfully do this work in a silo. The solutions people have tried in the past have not created the change needed. Members of Diversity Advocates aim to work together, share ideas, and help each other move tech companies to a place where equity, inclusion, and diversity are the daily experience.”
Three months ago, I began working with Autism Advantage in order to develop quality career positions for autistic people in the IT sector and beyond. However, helping solve for autistic underemployment is just my operational lane. While I’m tremendously passionate about that, it’s just a function of a larger passion in helping to solve for the talent diversity gap in tech.
As I’m someone who came from the federal government, you may understand my amazement at how fast this sector moves. Autism Advantage is new, however our program has already started to do amazing things. Thankfully, I’m fortunate to have colleagues who recognized at the program’s beginning that solving for autistic underemployment will not be possible if we simply try to solve for it alone. So, when our work opens a pipeline to the autistic talent we train, we ensure it stays open for others. For every one person in tech who connects their professional network to ours, we connect them to the work of at least two others as well.
When people think of autism, they often think of its challenges. I’m not denying that. However, there are incredibly wonderful things about being autistic. Apart from the individual traits I get to experience, one of those things I cherish most is the diversity of the autistic community itself. All communities have autistic people, and the autistic community is composed of people from all communities. As such, our collaborative work often positions us in a way where we can piece together the connecting patterns between disparate employment barriers experienced by individual communities. My colleagues know if I suddenly shout “Remind me to map access to healthcare for black families in upstate New York!” I could very well be mentally connecting its impact, through multiple networks, on employment barriers experienced by autistic Latino individuals in Southern California.
Community needs regarding barriers to representational employment are often unique. Yet, if we look at the patterns we can see that all unique barriers always seem to intersect. Solving for the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley takes coordination. None of us are in this effort alone. It takes addressing both community-specific challenges as well as shared barriers. It takes supporting communities other than yours and it takes sharing knowledge so it’s not just your own. It takes leverage. That’s what Diversity Advocates believe. That’s what keeps me working towards the day that, despite moving here specifically for the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, I may be one of the last people who choose to move here for that.
Hey! Our friend Kenneth is riding his bike this July for 100 miles from Washington, DC to the Atlantic Ocean. He decided to do this on his own to raise awareness and funds to train autistic adults through Autism Advantage. We think that’s awesome and hope you do to. You can support his effort by clicking here. Check it out!