Jesse Jackson focuses on HP in campaign to highlight Silicon Valley's lack of diversity

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Friday, July 26, 2013, file photo, the Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks as he takes part in a panel discussion during the National Urban League's annual conference, in Philadelphia. Jackson plans to lead a delegation to the Hewlett Packard annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, March 19, 2014, to bring attention to Silicon Valley’s poor record of including blacks and Latinos in hiring, board appointments and startup funding. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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During a recent speech at Stanford University, Jackson cited the dearth of black and Latino leaders in the tech sector. This got sophomore computer science major Rotimi Opeke, a leader at the school's Society of Black Scientists and Engineers, wondering about his own opportunities.

"I've been thinking that if I can code well and produce good products, I can be successful, but to rise up through the ranks is going to be a challenge," he said. "There's just not a lot of people of color in high levels of tech leadership, which is where, eventually, I'd like to be. I'm hopeful that it's not impossible to get there, but I do feel it would take an extraordinary level of leadership skills to navigate."

Freada Kapor Klein started the Level Playing Field Institute 13 years ago to teach and mentor black and Latino students in science and math. Along with her husband, Mitch Kapor, she also invests in startups with founders who are women and people of color from an underrepresented background through Kapor Capital, a venture capital firm.

The Kapors recently wooed former NAACP President Ben Jealous to Kapor Capital to help boost its social impact investing.

Kapor Klein said she and her husband share Jackson's goals and vision of what Silicon Valley should look like, but they choose to employ different tactics to get there.

"Jesse Jackson wouldn't be heading to Hewlett-Packard or any of the other big tech companies if they had done their job and accomplished diversity," she says. "He's shining a spotlight on one aspect of the growing inequality of this country."

Villanova University management professor Quinetta Roberson said the lack of diversity, particularly in Silicon Valley, is a problem given the value of diversity in organizations.

Roberson cites research showing that "diversity of thought generates creativity and innovation, and facilitates better problem-solving, both in terms of quantity and quality of solutions."

"Given that such outcomes are what drives performance in tech companies in the valley, it is imperative to have such divergent perspectives represented within the body that is doing visioning and strategic directioning for organizations," Roberson said.

Brooklyn-based technology marketing strategist Rachel Weingarten said she's frustrated by the lack of diversity in business leadership.

"America pays a lot of lip service to full diversity, and in many ways we're constantly making great strides, but for women like myself, forming our own companies and entrepreneurship is the only true way to level any playing field — by creating our own," she said.

In the past, Jackson's critics have accused him of profiting from similar protest actions. These critics say that after Jackson targeted companies over diversity issues in the financial sector and other industries, some have ended up donating large sums to Jackson's organizations. In other cases, the targeted companies gave contracts to minority-owned firms that paid Jackson for referrals.

Graves, of Black Enterprise, dismisses such concerns.

"If in the fight to create opportunity, some of the money that these companies would contribute to United Way or the American Heart Association happens to go to (Jackson's) Rainbow Coalition, I'm more than OK with that," he said.

"That's just the fear factor coming from when they see him," Graves said, "because they know he's not going to go away."

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AP Technology Writer Michael Liedtke contributed to this report.

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