Where Diversity, Tech, Money, and Political Power Mingle
Silicon Valley has a diversity problem. It also has a lot of money.
Many tech firms believe spending a lot of capital on projects to increase diversity in the hiring talent pool will solve the greater diversity issue Silicon Valley faces. Intel pledged $300 million, for example, while Facebook and others have joined in the spending spree for scholarships, coding bootcamps, iPads in the classrooms and other great initiatives to help those with less get the skills they need to compete.
Those firms, of course, make it known just how much they are spending and what they're funding every time they release another slow-but-steady progress report on the diversity in their workforces. But Silicon Valley is also spending money in a quieter way, according to a new report from Politico, and that unpublicized money is heading to Washington D.C.
Some of the biggest minority advocacy groups affiliated with black and Latino lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been the beneficiaries of Silicon Valley funding recently, after the issue of diversity rose in the public eye and showed no sign of abating anytime soon. Politico reports the funds usually take the shape of "honorary expenses" -- events like dinners or rounds of cocktails where Congress members, regulators and other Washington influencers on the topic of diversity are honored guests.
The spending still isn't close to the level Silicon Valley normally throws at problems, like the overstated lack of a diverse "pipeline" of STEM talent to hire or the fact that people still die of old age. In contrast to the multimillion-dollar moonshots or multibillion-dollar acquisitions, Silicon Valley's spending in Washington is chump change.
But it's also more than ever before. For example, Google spent nearly $500,000 on honorary expenses in 2015, much of it going to groups like the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. According to federal ethics reports, Apple spent $1.2 million on an awards gala for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, while Uber funded the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute to the modest tune of $10,000. But those were the first times Apple or Uber reported any such spending.
Whether or not the funding compares to other lavish tech industry indulgences, Silicon Valley is certainly seeking more leverage with minority lawmakers, and the outcry for diversity in tech is almost certainly the reason.
"There are many ways companies and other organizations can establish a presence in Washington, and gain access to politicians," said Vivica Novak, spokesperson for the Center for Responsive Politics, to Politico. "And one way to do that -- that some people pay less attention to -- is by giving money to a charitable cause that a politician is associated with." Both the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation are technically separate from the caucuses themselves, but they operate as nonprofit educational and policy arms of those groups, for example.
Don't expect the spending to abate, as Apple and Google have increased spending in Washington D.C. over previous years. In 2014, when the diversity issue was just gaining steam, Apple only spent $249,000 on the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Last year, it partnered with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund for a $40 million project to improve computer science education at historically black colleges.
It's hard to see how much leverage Silicon Valley can gain with honorary expenses, though. After little progress in diversity over the last year, the Congressional Black Caucus launched an initiative called Tech2020 to pressure the industry to increase hiring of blacks to technology jobs.
Along with the initiative, members applied direct, in-person pressure to executives at Apple, Google, Intel and others, visiting Silicon Valley after Tech2020 launched last May. As Congressional Black Caucus chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield said at the caucus foundation's annual conference in September, "Talk is not enough -- and we need more than an amen from the choir."
He added, "We want to see results."
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