Atlanta University Center a pathway to increase diversity at technology firms

By Guest Columnist DARAKA E. SATCHER, partner and chief operating officer of the Pendleton Group consulting firm

Most of us have seen the news by now. A number of major tech firms recently reported dismally low diversity numbers. Only 2 percent of those who work at Google, Yahoo and LinkedIn are African-American.

If one accepts the widely held premise that these companies are representatives of the economy of the future, then this is a harbinger of a much greater problem.

There are things that these companies can probably do better, but it would be misguided to fully blame them. The undeniable fact is that institutions within the African-American community have not been doing a good enough job of creating the techies of the future and supporting those of today with the capability to build their own companies. Things are slowly starting to change as “teach everybody to code” programs pop up all over the place, but that is only half of the battle.

Daraka Satcher

Daraka Satcher

What we have here in Atlanta is basically the premier vehicle to rectify this issue in the near term – the Atlanta University Center (AUC) and its network of alumni and supporters.

I have been working with AUC institutions, in collaboration with Startup Atlanta, to develop a broad-based plan focused on supporting individual institutional efforts and creating collective initiatives focused on innovation, entrepreneurship, and commercialization.

There are certain aspects of this effort that require administration-level leadership, but make no mistake, this must be a “bottom-up” initiative.

Without the buy-in of the students, this will go nowhere. The AUC can provide the foundation and a supportive structure, but the freedom and independence to create, refine, pivot, fail, and succeed (and possibly do it all over again) must be integrated throughout this effort and, more importantly, govern advanced stage development.

I’ve spoken to a number of AUC students so I know how much potential exists there. Many already have functioning, marketable ideas but simply don’t know how to get to the next level of development. The tragedy of unrealized potential in the innovation space is happening every day. We can help end it here in Atlanta while, at the same time, establishing a model to rectify this problem all over the country.

The path forward is clear. Stanford University has been empowering its students to create some of the most successful companies in history (literally) by utilizing internal resources and facilitating external resources for its students. Locally, Georgia Tech is finding similar success. So there’s no need to re-invent the wheel; we just need to put a set on our car.

Let’s not be shy about what the ultimate goal is here. It is not to contain our efforts within the ivory tower of academia. The goal is to facilitate the creation of profitable, innovative companies and products. And, along the way, deprive the Googles and Yahoos of the world of any legitimate excuses when it comes to diversity.

Note to readers: In addition to his roles at the Pendleton Group, Satcher also runs a government affairs firm. He is deeply connected to the Atlanta University Center as a 2nd generation Morehouse College alum; as well as the son, husband and brother of Spelman alumni; and a brother of a Clark Atlanta University alum; and the son of a professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine.

 

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6 comments
atlman
atlman

 This is not realistic. To get more STEM workers, you can't start at the college level. STEM requires motivation, training, rigorous thinking, and the experience of failing over and over again but not getting frustrated or giving up until you get it right. That's the deal: it is a different mindset that leaves very little room for subjectivity and personal opinion. In STEM, something either works - and works consistently under varied conditions - or doesn't. There are no trophies for showing up and personal feelings do not matter. It is also very competitive. "Good enough" gets you outsourced or downsized, and leaves you with outdated skills. 

Honestly, pushing people into STEM who lack what it really needs to succeed is not in their interests. If what you want is a career where you just sit at your desk from 8 to 5 doing the same thing for 40 years collecting a paycheck, then STEM is not for you. A lot of blacks who were pushed into STEM because of the alleged shortage of STEM workers was supposed to mean a wide open job market with high paying positions A) had little true interest in or aptitude for STEM and B) were not informed about the reality of STEM. They were literally sold a bill of goods. They were told that having a STEM degree made them valuable, and being black with a STEM degree made them even more valuable. So they were set up for failure, and of course when that did occur when the job market went south, they blamed their failure on racism. 

The truth: if you want successful people in STEM careers, you have to start early. (By the way, a study shows that most people in STEM come from two parent families. So yeah, that is pretty much how early you have to start ... from conception.) You also have to emphasize a rigorous education, meaning good strong schools starting in elementary but especially in middle and junior high. (By high school it is pretty much already too late ... the sorting between the kids who are strong in sciences and math has already started.) So if your neighborhood school stinks, move. Or find a charter, magnet or private school. And that is just the school.

At home, you need to emphasize self-motivation, independent work, rigor, objective results, and a competitive "be the best" mindset. In other words, the exact opposite of what is being emphasized by the public education community, and in particular is the opposite of what the civil rights/black leadership promotes. Drill, drill, drill, practice practice practice. Your kid has to be the one who does extra work, not just extra credit but extra work with no obvious immediate benefit or reward, and does it while the other kids are playing video games and on Facebook. And extracurricular activities are actually good. Sports teaches competition. (And by this I do not mean the "fun leagues" where everyone gets playing time and a trophy. I mean the leagues where the sport and competition is taken seriously and excellence is rewarded, and losers have to deal with trying their best and still coming up short.) And music - and by this I mean real music lessons from real instructors where actual music is taught - is good too, because you learn about practice, repetition, creativity. If you hit the wrong note, go off time or are out of key, you sound horrible and you have to do it again until the song sounds like it is supposed to sound. 

Honestly, the types of people that are at Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook ... those are the best of the best. The black community is not emphasizing being the best of the best. It actually did back in the day when Booker T. Washington, Percy Julian, Daniel Hale Williams and all of the other people that we learn about during Black History Month were trailblazers and innovators. Instead, now the black community emphasizes demanding its rights and promoting diversity. That is fine and good, but it doesn't get you a career in STEM. A career in STEM means A) actually being good at STEM and B) performing more and producing better than other people who are just as good at STEM as you are.

So you go put a Morehouse or Spelman graduate that only became engaged in STEM in his or her sophomore year in college because of some diversity pipeline program. Send them out to Silicon Valley and have them compete with people with degrees from Texas, Michigan, Cal-Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, Harvard, Duke and Georgia Tech that wrote their first computer program when they were 8, got their first chemistry set when they were 10, were building robots and electric generators in junior high, and were taking college level math and sciences courses in high school plus spending every summer in those enrichment camps. Oh, and those are just the Americans. I haven't even gotten into the H1-B visa tech talent that you have to compete with. 

Honestly, people like this have no idea what is going on in the real world, and it would be best if black people - and by this I mean black PARENTS - stop listening to them. If an actual black leader wants to address this from a public policy perspective, then they need to promote more rigor and merit in education. 

Want more blacks in STEM? Send more blacks to PRIVATE school.

Want more blacks in STEM? Lobby for more MAGNET schools that have merit-based admissions and competitive environments. 

Charter schools are OK if you want to get more kids into vocational education and liberal arts college degrees and that is good. But because charter schools can't do merit-based admissions, they can't emphasize rigor and competition. (That is, unless the charter school is in a high income, suburban type area and as a result draws from a population where the culture emphasizes education.) But the way to get a significant increase in the number of blacks in STEM is a heavy investment in private and magnet school education in the black community. It is not going to happen any other way, and people like this author who claim otherwise are only deceiving people.

atlman
atlman

Burroughston Broch:

As usual you are wrong on four counts.

1. The dual degree program with Georgia Tech requires a STEM degree (biology, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, physics) from an AU center school. Obviously people are not majoring in history, literature or drama at the AU center and then chemical engineering at Tech. Instead, chemistry majors at AU center get chemical engineering degrees, biology majors get biomedical engineering degrees, computer science majors go into computer engineering, math and physics majors go into electrical and mechanical engineering, etc.

2. While Clark Atlanta University is struggling financially, Morehouse is doing OK, with most of their troubles due to the lingering recession.

3. "There is no need to develop at AUC what already exists at Georgia Tech." So Georgia State, Emory, etc. should shut down their STEM programs? And SPSU should not exist at all? And the decision to build engineering programs at the University of Georgia was a mistake? And we should most certainly eliminate STEM programs at 2 year colleges and vocational schools, right?

4. There is more to STEM than engineering. As a matter of fact, engineering makes up only a tiny percentage of STEM jobs. Most STEM workers have computer science and information technology degrees. While engineering did drive STEM in the 70s, 80s and 90s, the invention of the iPhone and iPad changed everything. Now computer science and IT is driving STEM. This is to Georgia's benefit as Georgia's conservative leadership has been too cheap and short-sighted and in some instances (i.e. dealings with Atlanta) vindictive to develop the engineering job market that exists in California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey etc. (the few Georgia based hardware design and production companies were acquired or went out of business long ago) but Georgia still can become a leader in various software and IT fields. And leaving apart bits and bytes entirely, Georgia can do a lot of things in natural sciences (biology, chemistry, medicine) that it is not. 


Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

The author fails to mention that Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta (plus other HBCUs) already have a dual-degree arrangement with Georgia Tech. The student attends (for example) Morehouse for three years and Georgia Tech for approximately two more years, and receives both a liberal arts degree from Morehouse and an engineering degree from Georgia Tech. See http://www.coe.gatech.edu/content/dual-degree for details.

Daraka
Daraka

The author actually failed to mention it because it was kind of irrelevant to the point of the piece. STEM degree programs are only one component of a broader culture of innovation. Not to mention the focus of the piece was the need to develop this environment at the AUC - not GA Tech - which already has a well-established ecosystem.

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

@Daraka There is no need to develop at AUC what already exists at Georgia Tech. Excepting Spelman, all of the AUC members are financially stressed and the facilities required for  STEM are expensive. Where would they get the money?

Daraka
Daraka

@Burroughston Broch 

I don't understand your argument. Are you saying the AUC shouldn't have its own effort? GTech and the AUC institutions are separate entities. What benefits GTech students doesn't necessarily benefit AUC students. Most AUC STEM students are not in the dual degree program. If an innovation initiative is developed and done right, support will come in the form of funding and other resources. It's already starting to happen so we know that to be the case.