Earlier this week I was plugging in my Christmas lights when I heard my phone vibrate on the counter — it was a Twitter notification from my company's intern. She said in a direct message, "Read this thread."
I stopped what I was doing and began skimming April Christina Curley's Twitter thread about her removal from Google and my jaw dropped.
April Christina Curley was the latest Black woman to call out Google alleging discriminatory practices and bias in recruiting in a detailed Twitter thread on Monday night. This comes three weeks after Dr. Timinit Gebru, a former Google AI Ethicist known for work against algorithmic bias, says she was involuntarily fired for not withdrawing a paper on the risks and bias in large language models that she and her co-authors submitted to a conference.
For its part, Google has said Dr. Gebru resigned, and denied further comment when the story was reported by Wired earlier this month. As to Hurley's tweets, when the news broke on Monday, a Google representative told Business Insider: "We don't agree with the way April describes her termination, but it's not appropriate for us to provide a commentary about her claims."
But after learning about all of this, I messaged my team and shared my concerns.
Should we move forward with our partnership with Google?
I founded HBCU 20x20 in 2017 to effectively prepare and connect the Black community to jobs and internships, while providing diversity workforce strategies to a wide range of industries. From my own experience of attending both a HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and Ivy League, I know there are built-in privileges afforded to Ivy League students that are not afforded to HBCU students — and I want to close this access gap.
In the early days of the company, my team and I created a list of organizations we wanted to partner with. We were overzealous to start a partnership with Google because of the impact we knew would follow. Having more students and professionals from HBCUs working at Google would drive our impact and lead more companies to also value talent from the HBCU community.
But after months of long-delayed responses, we were finally told, "Unfortunately, due to resourcing, we cannot commit at this time, but good luck on this initiative."
Three years later, following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Google reached out to inquire about partnering with us through our HBCU 20x20 Mock Interview program. This time around, we weren't as eager to partner with Google because we realized it took lives being taken for them to want to partner with us.
Still, in September 2020, we established our partnership and anticipated hosting our first event on January 23rd, 2021, with subsequent events to follow.
The more involved I became with the tech industry, the more I learned about the race, class, and gender issues at play. A well-known venture capitalist outright told us, "Sometimes you're better off finding something else to do," after sharing HBCU 20x20's mission, and a white CEO in the SaaS industry said, "Give us your database and we will pay you in clout."
It became clear to me that the bias and discrimination I faced as a Black woman tech founder would ultimately mean people in the Black community would also face bias and discrimination.
Whether it's diversity recruitment, improving retention rates, or closing the wage gap, there's no doubt that there is a system that forcibly tries to maintain the status quo, while upending its commitments to diversity and inclusion.
In its 2020 Annual Diversity Report, Google reported that Black people represent 3.7% of its workforce representation, compared to its previous years of reporting at 3.3% of the workforce in 2019 and 3% in 2018. These small margins of growth may indicate that more hires are being made, but Google's attrition rates for Black employees indicate a larger problem — people aren't staying.
We have to engage in more dialogue around this, but first, we must listen to and believe Black women — that's why HBCU 20x20 proudly cancelled its partnership with Google effective immediately.
We sent an email to our point of contact at Google: "We cannot morally move forward with a company who will blatantly disregard the concerns of the people. Black people."
And while he was understanding, I was left feeling dismayed. He indicated that he was committed to DEI and would continue to build an inclusive environment and culture, but I began to think about how much leadership matters in fostering diverse and inclusive environments.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai issued an apology regarding the handling of Dr. Gebru's departure and vowed to restore trust, but never apologized directly to Dr. Gebru. If the CEO can't take a step back and right the wrongs inflicted on one of his top AI Ethicists, what happens to the Black intern or diversity specialist who speaks out?
"If you see something that you think isn't right — speak up." – Google
There was a tweet within April's thread that resonated with me so deeply it made our decision to cancel our partnership a no-brainer. She wrote:
In many instances, Google engineers who were interviewing HBCU candidates would leave demeaning and absolutely insulting feedback about students which would ultimately result in a rejection at the hiring committee stage.— Real Abril🌈 (@RealAbril) December 21, 2020
This specific tweet brought up a memory between me and an executive at a prominent tech company (not Google). He told me, "You all had 120 [Black college] students submit applications through HBCU 20x20, but only 2 passed the technical assessment." I knew then that there was a systemic issue that held Black students back, similar to the bias found in standardized testing such as the SAT, and April's thread validated my own beliefs: Our students were not expected to make it through the interviews — and that is ultimately rooted in bias, elitism, and racism.
HBCU 20x20's mission and impact
HBCU 20x20 has successfully placed more than 1,200 people into jobs and internships, partnered with hundreds of companies, visited 37 (of 101) HBCUs, and hosted events in cities including Silicon Valley, New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, and Washington, D.C.
We're intentional about keeping our eyes, hearts, and ears to the communities we serve, and we've heard from students and professionals about the difficulties of landing internships or full-time roles within tech.
I also knew it would take a lot of work to upskill and provide the HBCU 20x20 community with professional developmental resources needed to enter tech — based on the barriers in place — but I never knew the level of organizing and advocacy it would require for our community to be seen as quality candidates.
What companies and their employees can do
We're proud of the work we do, but we're also deliberate in which companies we choose to partner with. While businesses have the capacity to improve and be better, there are certain steps companies must take to create a more equitable workforce today.
- Do your homework. Read about the experiences of Black people in the workplace. Hold listening sessions where you actively listen without defense and create a strategy to do better with the people who are currently on your team. In a Harvard Business Review Article, Melissa Daimler, a leader in Learning and Organizational Development, shared why listening is an overlooked leadership tool and how to become better.
- Speak up and out. When you see something, it is imperative that you say something. Racism is taught, and it takes bold individuals, groups, and companies to combat it. It's not enough to share a Black Lives Matter statement, or to even create a commercial about Black History Makers who are the most searched — it takes you utilizing your agency and power to actively stand against it.
- Invest in HBCUs. Oftentimes when we hear "invest" we think about financial commitments. While we certainly encourage financial gifts to all 101 HBCUs, we also want to encourage you to develop professor fellowships, provide scholarships for students to participate in additional skills-based programs, and give back by giving your time. HBCU 20x20 offers a robust mock interview and resume review program, and a recruitment platform.
- Pay equitably. Pay Black people what they are actually worth and the moment they are asked to take on new duties and tasks, like taking on a new role, leading a diversity council or ERGs, be sure to pay them for THAT too. According to AAUW, a non-profit organization that advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research, Black women were paid 63% of what non-Hispanic white men were paid in 2019
- Become more inclusive in your hiring practices. Do everything in your power to create a more diverse hiring committee that has completed anti-bias training, has a high level of cultural competency, and is committed to creating a more equitable workforce. It truly matters who sits at the big table.
- Give Chief Diversity Officers unconditional support. It's time for a new era where Chief Diversity Officers are more than just faces for companies. Give CDOs and their teams EVERYTHING they need to be successful and build out sustainable programs that improve the company's workforce, while serving the communities you value. Support has to be a top-down approach where budget is increased to develop bigger teams for new programming opportunities.
Changing a company's culture does not happen overnight. It takes hard work and dedication in wanting to do and be better. It also requires building and sometimes regaining the trust of communities that have been marginalized.
From Google to Pinterest, this year has shown us that injustice will always make its way to light because Black women like Ifeoma, Aerica, Timnit, and April, among countless others, have encouraged speaking out and been torchbearers in the workplace.
As we wrap up 2020, and head into 2021, I ask that each of you take a bold stance in creating a better world. We all have a role to play — what will yours be?
Nicole Tinson is the founder and CEO of HBCU 20x20, a national diversity and inclusion company that connects HBCU students and alumni to jobs and internships. To learn more about HBCU 20x20, visit hbcu20x20.com or text HBCU to 33222.