News Column

Working to Close the Digital Divide

June 2001

Minority communities are vitally important to the nation's high-tech sector, underscoring the need to improve education and mentoring opportunities in those communities. Those were the prevailing messages when representatives from the technology and telecommunications industries gathered to assess Silicon Valley's diversity efforts.

The second annual Silicon Valley Digital Connections Conference, sponsored by the Silicon Valley Project – part of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition – took place April 11-13 in San Jose, California.

Setting the tone for the event, Mr. Jackson told some 200 minority-owned business representatives and technology executives in opening remarks, "The American dream can only work when everybody is included. We who have been traditionally locked out represent market, money, talent, and growth."

Launched two years ago, the Silicon Valley Project seeks to increase the number of minorities and women in the high-tech industry. The group's 2001 Digital Connections Conference included panel discussions and a supplier diversity fair as well as keynote addresses by John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems; John Thompson, CEO of Symantec; and Eric Schmidt, chairman of the board of Novell. Other participating firms included Intel, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, AT&T, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon.

Workshop and panel discussion topics included "Examining the Employment Challenges of the Digital Divide," "Digital Diversity: Building an Inclusive Corporate Culture in Silicon Valley," and "Multicultural Advertising, Marketing, and the New Economy."

Participating in the latter discussion, HISPANIC BUSINESS ® publisher Jesús Chavarría said the growing affluence of the nation's minority population requires new approaches to racial and ethnic-specific advertising, especially when marketing tech products and services.

"Advertising targeted to minorities has been around for decades. However, Corporate America will have to adopt more sophisticated niche advertising methods if it hopes to successfully market to the all-important affluent segment of the minority community," he said.

Throughout the event, Mr. Jackson urged high-tech leaders both to hire more minority-owned suppliers and contractors and to promote more minorities to corporate boards. Rainbow/PUSH has surveyed 44 Silicon Valley high-tech companies in which it owns stock. Of those companies' 356 board members, just 35 are women, 19 are Asian American, six are African American, and three are Hispanic, according to Mr. Jackson.

The importance of education also emerged as a dominant theme. On the second day of the conference, Mr. Chambers discussed the need for technology leaders to be at the forefront of efforts to bridge the digital divide. He cited the Cisco Networking Academy, a partnership involving Cisco and educational, government, and community organizations worldwide. The center, which operates in 121 countries, teaches students to design, build, and maintain computer networks.

According to Butch Wing, director and cofounder of the Silicon Valley Project, the fact that Mr. Chambers and so many other technology heavyweights turned out for the conference is significant in itself.

"I think the most striking thing is that amidst the economic downturn, with companies laying off people and cutting back on spending, the issues of inclusion and expanding opportunities [for minorities] remain high on the agenda. It's important that companies come together to affirm this agenda," he says.

The challenge, according to Mr. Wing, is moving beyond good intentions and expressions of support for diversity initiatives to effecting meaningful change in the workplace.

"The conference presentations were solid," he says. "We're meeting with people within the companies to transform those messages into programs."

Some African-American and Hispanic entrepreneurs have questioned the effectiveness of the Silicon Valley Project, saying the group's efforts have yet to make a difference and in some cases may actually be undermining diversity in the high-tech sector.

Silicon Valley Project officials acknowledge that progress has been slow in coming. Still, events such as the Digital Connections Conference, they say, at least get technology executives talking about diversity issues.

In addition to increasing minority contracting and hiring, the project is working to boost the flow of capital to minority firms, according to Mr. Wing.

"In May of last year we were in the middle of dot-com mania. Well, the dot-cam mania has become the dot-com bust. But there are still businesses out there in need of financing. Access to capital remains a key issue. We want to try to stimulate the flow of capital to entrepreneurs," he says.

MINORITIES ON HIGH-TECH CORPORATE BOARDS


For a list of the 44 high-tech companies in which Rainbow/PUSH holds stock, together with the minority composition of each company's board of directors, log on to www.HispanicBusiness.com/extra.



Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS magazine


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