Dirk Knemeyer

Silicon Valley & Inequality

Silicon Valley & Inequality, November 10, 2016

I want us to be clear, when we talk about diversity and inclusivity, both of which are important to me, what exactly are we talking about? I wryly noted that you mentioned minorities, after mentioning that Asian men were very present in the tech community. The community that I came from, a little suburb called Sylvania, Ohio, which has a very highly-rated public school that I attended, and the non-white people could be counted on my hands in the school of over a thousand people, more or less, at that time. It’s become more diverse since then. From my perspective, being an Asian male within a culture that was historically white males is a part of diversity. Asian males in our culture, certainly in the sub-culture that I grew up in, that was very white and sheltered, would have been considered a minority. You excluded that group from being a minority. I’m interested in your framing, and let’s be really clear on what we’re talking about when we say diversity and inclusivity.

I lived in Silicon Valley from 2004 or 2005 until about 2008 or 2009, so about four or five years that I was there. What struck me when I was in Silicon Valley, was from a racial and ethnic perspective, it was certainly the most diverse place I had ever been. As a white person, this may or may not be true, but my impression was that a Caucasian was the fourth most common ethnicity.

That’s present around me, in the spaces that I worked with knowledge workers were far-east Asian individuals. I don’t know if that’s the right term, so I’m certainly trying to be inclusive in using that. I apologize if it’s not the politically correct term. Also, Indian individuals. People of Indian decent, which I definitely distinguish from far east Asian, were very common. Then the other, which was not within the knowledge work, but in the community at large, was hispanic. That culture as well.

I went to Silicon Valley, and I felt like I was in the most diverse environment that I’d ever been in. What was missing from that picture were women. Certainly on engineering teams at that time, the men were predominant, well over 90% men, but of a variety of ethnic backgrounds. As you would get into other parts of the company, say marketing, then you would start to see more women. With a little bit of a background in marketing, I would say, still somewhat less than maybe I had seen in other industries or other parts of the country before I went to Silicon Valley.

I never know what to do with statistics like the 29% that you threw out there, because superficially, you know, we say, everything should be equal. Equal translates to 50/50. We get 29%, and we’re like, “Oh my God, it’s a horrible statistic.” It may be a horrible statistic, but I think in our rush to equality, we’re going for equality of outcome, when really what we want is equality of opportunity. Whether or not a similar proportion of women want the same specific job or title or role that men would want in different cases, who knows?

Anecdotally, from living with people of different genders, and doing different things, I know that there’s certain types of people that like to do these things in more proportion, certain types of people that like to do that thing in more proportion, so I think if we’re looking for 50% in outcomes across the board, I think that’s short-sighted. I think it’s sort of well-meaning liberalism going overboard. I think really, what’s important that there’s equality of opportunity for everyone. If a woman is interested in the same role or job or company as a man, that the opportunity should be there equally.

I would even argue that because diversity and inclusion are so powerful and important to the benefit of the company and the other employees there, even allowing a minority group, whether it be ethnic or gender, advantages to get things closer to par is a good thing. The diversity inclusion in and of itself is beneficial for all. I think we need to be a little bit more nuanced in making sure people are paid properly, people have equality of opportunity, but that doesn’t translate into a world were necessarily every company is 50/50, every role is 50/50. I think that’s really, really short sighted. I’m liberal, but that’s where the liberal agenda tends to break down.

Before I forget, I want to make a couple of other comments about Silicon Valley culture. As much as I loved the diversity there, I will say that there was never once, and I worked as a consultant. I worked with over 50 different companies, some of them quite large. I worked with, I would say thousands of people, actually, in ways large or small. There was not a single African-American person who I worked with in Silicon Valley in these great companies, in knowledge working roles of importance. That’s certainly, on the ethnic cultural side, a glaring omission. The other thing I will say is that there’s very few older people working in Silicon Valley.

When I was in Ohio, where I was before I started Involution with Andrei, I was always the youngest person in the room. It was like, there’s Dirk, and there’s a lot of executives who were 40, 50. One of my bosses called me the Boy Wonder. That was my reality. As soon as I started in Invo, moved to Silicon Valley, how old was I? I was 30, and I was they oldest person in the room. Almost immediately. Now I’m working with these CEOs who are younger than me. I’m the design bitch. In the beginning, certainly that was the role that I was playing.

That was weird, and it really spoke to the the culture of youth that permeates, particular the start-up culture in Silicon Valley, but it certainly matriculates into the large corporations which are born of start-ups as well. Anyway, that was winding from a different place, but before I forgot, I wanted to, with more crispness, talk about issues of diversity in Silicon Valley as I lived them for five years.

You know, there’s another way to look at it too, coming back to Silicon Valley. Most of the people there, and again this doesn’t speak for everyone by any means, but, a majority for the people that I dealt with came from wealthy families and many of them had Ivy League or top-level educations. One of the things I took from my time in Silicon Valley is it’s really a culture of wealth begetting wealth begetting wealth over generations.

At one point, Invo was doing quite well, quite well, and I talked to my accountant out here who lived there for his entire life, and I said, “I can’t even dream of owning a big house here. How the hell does anybody afford it?” He said, “Dirk, the dirty secret of Silicon Valley is these young people, their parents buy them the house in Silicon Valley, and then they get the job and they throw them money, and it’s generation over generation over generation.”

I do want to also speak to a lack of diversity from the standpoint of socioeconomic status. From that perspective. I think that’s a really important one. I think a lot of people who would be valuable to Silicon Valley, would be valuable to technology are just shut out.

If they want to live a comfortable lifestyle, and they don’t have the Daddy Warbucks parent or hit the one-in-a-thousand shot on being with the right start-up, or some other existing money or super unusual circumstance, you can’t have the same quality of life there as you can have in the Midwest or even here by comparison. When we talk diversity, inclusion, that tends to very quickly go to racial, ethnic, or gender, but I think there’s other ways to look at it. I think socioeconomic status is a big one. It’s also one that in part speaks to why there is an absence of certain racial and ethnic background of individuals in the knowledge work in Silicon Valley too.


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