Like most people, Earvin "Magic" Johnson is deeply bothered by the fact that Silicon Valley is dominated by white males. Fixing the problem, he says, isn't something that can be accomplished overnight.
"Leaders in tech and beyond need to understand that workplace diversity is a real commitment," said Johnson. "It's more than just a CEO statement on a website. You have to work at it."
The former NBA player, who launched his eponymous investment firm, Magic Johnson Enterprises, in 1987, has been helping tech companies improve their diversity over the past 30 years.
Earlier this week, it was announced that Johnson's firm had invested in Jopwell, a New York City-based staffing startup that connects major tech companies such as Facebook and Box to job candidates of color--specifically, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Johnson's stake in the company was not disclosed, but the seed round brought Jopwell's total capital raised to $4.42 million.
Jopwell founders Porter Braswell and Ryan Williams reflected on what it felt like to pitch their company to Johnson, and how intimately familiar the entrepreneur seemed with the challenges of shifting gears to become a business owner in a predominately white sphere.
"I found his insights surrounding his experiences coming out of the NBA to become an incredibly successful entrepreneur, and some of the roadblocks that he faced, really interesting," said Williams.
He added that when pitching Johnson, it was relatively easy to convince him of the legitimacy of their business model, since diversity organizations are something that Johnson "knew intimately well."
A Pervasive Problem
Blacks are especially underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields these days, making up just 6 percent of the total STEM work force, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
While many have argued that this is largely a pipeline issue--insofar as minority groups are similarly underrepresented at institutions of higher education and technical universities--it's important to consider the numbers.
Blacks and Hispanics collectively made up about 18 percent of U.S. computer science graduates in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and yet they make up one just 5 percent of tech workers at Google, and just 6 percent at Yahoo. Of Facebook's 5,500 U.S. workers, only 81 are black.
"It's disappointing the underrepresentation of black and Hispanic communities in the tech sector," said Johnson.
In Silicon Valley, it's even possible to go weeks without seeing another engineer of color, according to Pinterest engineer Makinde Adeagbo, who spoke to USA Today in October.
"It's not only that you are the only black person in the room or in the company, oftentimes you are the only black person you see in Palo Alto or Menlo Park," Adeagbo said.
Still, as important as diversity is to creating a more balanced, inclusive community, it's time we stopped viewing the issue as purely a cultural one. "Diversity isn't just demographic or social," Johnson said. "Smart CEOs see it for what it really is--a business necessity that helps their companies be more successful."
How Diversity Impacts Your Bottom Line
In a recent study from McKinsey & Company, the most gender-diverse companies were 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above the industry medians, while the most ethnically diverse companies were 35 percent more likely to have the better financial returns.
That's likely to do with the fact that even the smallest U.S. startups need to be thinking globally.
"Remember, businesses operate in a global market today," Johnson continued. "That makes diversity a competitive advantage. A diverse team means different perspectives that actually reflect the market they serve. You can't make products or services for a global audience if your company doesn't represent that audience."
If the revenue data isn't enough to suggest the business value of diversity, consider, too, that it will make for a stronger and more productive work force.
"Diversity also helps companies be better caretakers of their employees," said Johnson. "At the end of the day, it's employees that make or break a business."
He notes that making diversity a priority in the work force will help companies attract, recruit, hire, and keep the best and brightest.