Can These Women Save Silicon Valley?

Their new website is a how-to for building a diverse workforce.
The women of Project Include from left to right (top): Y-Vonne Hutchinson, Ellen Pao, Erica Joy Baker, Laura Gomez, bethany M
The women of Project Include from left to right (top): Y-Vonne Hutchinson, Ellen Pao, Erica Joy Baker, Laura Gomez, bethany McKinney Blount, Tracy Chou and (front) Freada Kapor Klein with her dog, Dudley. Susan Wu, the group's eighth member, is not pictured.

In December of 2015, a group of women started to get together over dinners and coffees to talk about diversity in the tech industry.

Over time, they formalized their ideas and on Tuesday launched Project Include, a website aimed at helping executives in the tech sector diversify their workforces. It's essentially a one-stop shop for solutions to the industry's diversity problem.

Eight women, all with impressive tech-related day jobs, signed on to the project. The headline name is Ellen Pao, who has been, willingly or not, a public face of the fight against homogeneity in the tech industry in recent years. She sued the venture capital firm she worked for, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, for gender discrimination in 2012 and lost in a very public trial in 2015. She was also the CEO of Reddit for a brief period in 2014 and 2015, but resigned after the site's users initiated a harassment campaign against her.

Some of Project Include's other members are senior Slack engineer Erica Joy Baker, engineer and startup advisor bethanye McKinney Blount and venture capitalist Freada Kapor Klein.

Project Include encourages such teams to think critically about where their company could do better and to focus on the recommendations that apply to them. The site includes a set of 60 or so recommendations for how company management teams can approach diversity. 

These recommendations fall into seven categories: defining culture, implementing culture, employee lifecycle (which includes everything from hiring to compensation to promotions), training, resolving conflicts, measuring progress and leading as VCs. 

"You can't keep shoving people into companies but not building a culture that helps them be successful," Baker told The Huffington Post. "Our project focuses on all aspects of the diversity and inclusion issues that need to be addressed." 

One major Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Chris Sacca, has already expressed interest publicly on Twitter.

The site's information is based on a combination of the groups's own experiences and available research on how to best avoid things like bias in the workplace. Recommendations that appear on the website offer footnoted links to research supporting each point and include tips like "define and share clear compensation bands" and "write inclusive job descriptions."

Inclusive job descriptions are important, the site notes, because they can communicate to applicants subtle information about who the ideal candidate is. For example, listing perks like ping-pong tables and game rooms give the implication that the target is young, white men. On the other hand,  the site says that "including 'salary negotiable' in a job description reduces the gender wage gap by 45 percent." 

The goal is to help Silicon Valley better represent the rest of the country.

"At this point there is rigorous research, and rigorous analytics, that point to increased profitability that comes from diversity [at a company]," Kapor Klein told HuffPost.

People often think of Silicon Valley as the closest approximation of a libertarian utopia. It doesn't matter if you graduated college or want to wear sweats to work: If you're smart and work hard, you can succeed.

"If they really believe that, what is keeping them from acting on rigorous data that says they are shooting themselves in the foot?" asked Kapor Klein, who says she would like to see companies get to a place where their workforces reflect the diversity of their customers. 

Baker goes even further than Kapor Klein in describing her goals for the project: "There are a lot of companies whose customer bases aren’t very diverse. I would like to see companies reflect their environment," she told HuffPost.

The women behind Project Include say they realize that the tech industry has a unique way of doing things, and it's important to think about diversity in a way that is congruent with the quick-paced, always adapting ethos of the industry.

"We're doing it the way tech does, which is fast and accessible," said Pao.

The website is minimalist and could be read in its entirety in a couple of hours. And in its simplicity, Project Include is also trying to be different.

"You see tech companies now trying to do a lot of things that finance and banking companies did in the '90s," said Baker. "If you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it."

There are two things that set this new push for diversity apart, says Kapor Klein.

First, America is simply getting less white. That means a more diverse customer base, more diversity (hopefully) in the applicant pool and a relatively easier path to a diverse workforce.

Second, there's been more psychology and management research about how bias works. We have a better understanding of how hidden biases affect everything from hiring to mentorship to promotion. And knowing about these things means being able to invent ways around them.

In that way, Kapor Klein thinks tech can also be a big part of the diversity solution.