The technology field has never been a terribly diverse place. According to a recent article in USA Today, leading technology companies released data showing that African Americans and Hispanics make up 5 percent of the companies' workforces, compared with 14 percent nationally. The numbers aren't much better for women: According to a recent survey by Fenwick &West, women at Silicon Valley companies hold just 10 percent of director positions, 8 percent of committee chairs, and 10 percent of committee members. Only 16.7 percent of the companies surveyed--which include such giants as Apple and Hewlett Packard--have a woman who is a top corporate/business development executive.

These guys may be super-smart but dismissing the need for diversity is really dumb. However, this opens the door for smaller enterprises to seize a strategic opportunity.

Leaders have long recognized that an inherently diverse workforce--one that's inclusive of all streams of talent--confers a competitive edge in terms of selling products or services to diverse end users. As whites are forecast to become a minority of the U.S. population by 2044, and Latino and African-American buying power is on the rise, and as tech tries to appeal to users not just around the country but around the world, "matching the market" becomes increasingly important.

Furthermore, research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that an inherently diverse workforce can be a potent source of innovation, as diverse individuals are better attuned to the unmet needs of consumers or clients like themselves. "Innovation, Diversity and Market Growth" reports: "Indeed, their insight is critical to identifying and addressing new market opportunities."

Yet it's precisely this crucial tranche of talent that's at risk for career brown-out and attrition.

Women are often flag-bearers for diverse talent as a whole, so our most recent research on women in science, engineering and technology (SET) shows a startling statistic: 31 percent of SET women between 25 and 34 feel stalled in their careers; more than 38 percent of SET women who are only somewhat or not at all satisfied with their rate of career progression report that they are likely to leave the field. How many more great inventions like the Roomba, Kevlar, and 6-mercaptorpurine--all created by women--might never emerge because women entering SET careers become discouraged and either stall out or leave the field altogether?

Extrapolate those implications for the entire pool of diverse talent and the need not just to retain but sustain high-potential women and people of color is urgent.

By virtue of being more nimble and less hierarchical, smaller companies have an opportunity to quickly and effectively move the needle to address some of the issues providing barriers to the advancement of diverse talent.

One simmering issue is that of executive presence. Because senior leaders are overwhelmingly white and male, multicultural professionals and women find themselves at an immediate disadvantage in trying to look, sound, and act like a leader. CTI research affirms the importance of executive presence (EP) in order to be considered for positions of authority; EP constitutes 26 percent of what senior leaders say it takes to get the next promotion. Yet women and people of color are hard-pressed to interpret and embody aspects of a code written by and for white men. And the feedback that might help them do so is markedly absent at all levels of management. (We discussed how managers can give effective EP feedback to women and multiculturals in a previous blog.)

But there's more, especially when it comes to women. Although many companies try hard, their considerable efforts and expense often come up short because of a profound misunderstanding over what women want from their careers.

CTI's latest research shows that too many women step off the fast track because they perceive the burdens of leadership outweighing the benefits. What keeps them fully engaged and on track for leadership roles is a multifaceted value proposition, which we explored in a previous blog. According to Women Want Five Things, women want the ability to:

  • Flourish. Women want to have agency and impact: the ability to self-actualize through their career.
  • Excel: Women want intellectual challenge in order to grow their mastery and ace a domain of knowledge or expertise. Equally important is being recognized for their smarts.
  • Reach for meaning and purpose: Women blossom when their work helps advance causes important to them and allows them to stretch beyond their own expectations and those of their family or community.
  • Empower others, and be empowered: Women seek both sponsors who are willing to take a bet on them and advocate for their next big opportunity, as well as protgs whom they rely on to deepen their capabilities, extend their reach, and burnish their brand.
  • Earn well: Women say it's important to them to attain financial security as well as financial independence.

Our research further shows that when women perceive that an executive role will satisfy, rather than subvert, their value proposition, they reclaim their ambition for leadership. In the U.S., women who anticipate getting what they want are 2.8 times more likely to aspire to a position of power as those who do not anticipate fulfillment.

Not surprisingly, the precepts that sustain women on the path to leadership apply to diverse talent in general. Companies can help their diverse high-achievers accomplish even more by providing the necessary support systems: advice in building powerful allies, trusted lieutenants and extensive networks of loyal protgs; opportunities for stretch assignments and high-profile projects; and coaches, mentors and, most particularly, sponsors willing to teach, protect and promote them as they navigate the corridors of power.

In addition to these tactical steps, companies must put an equal amount of effort into changing the perceptions of what powerful positions entail. They must provide diverse role models who give voice to the substantial joys and rewards of leadership--and who prove that executive presence isn't only the province of white males. They must inspire qualified women and people of color to stay connected through the difficult mid-career years. They must share the secret rather than smothering the value proposition, a powerful position actually amps up agency and autonomy, affording diverse talent the opportunity to achieve their aspirations.

It's understandable that up-and-coming companies would want to emulate the existing model of success. That places the responsibility squarely on leaders to change their companies' culture: to systematically reward diversity-promoting managers rather than penalizing them; to attract people of different perspectives, abilities, ages, genders, sexual orientation as well as professional and educational backgrounds; to foster a "speak-up" culture where everyone feels free to volunteer opinions, suggest unorthodox approaches, or propose solutions that "aren't invented here."

Innovative capacity resides in an inherently diverse workforce where leaders prize difference, value every voice, and manage rather than suppress disruption. For any company seeking to grow and prosper, diversity isn't just a "nice to have." It's a necessity.