Speaking at a breakfast devoted to diversity issues Wednesday, one AOL employee stood up to raise what he thought was a persistent problem facing minorities in the tech and advertising industries: mistaken identity.
He recounted one time his colleagues mistook him for the Chinese food delivery man. He's of Asian descent, not an underrepresented minority in tech, but still facing a culture that can sometimes feel unwelcoming to anyone who is not white or a man.
"I'm 46 years old. I close $30 million deals, and I'm still seen within my peer set, by my colleagues, as somebody who is the delivery guy," the AOL employee said. He asked that his name be withheld from the story for privacy reasons, but he was attending an iDiverse event hosted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau at AOL's headquarters in Manhattan.
AOL CEO Tim Armstrong was in attendance. He's one of the CEOs coming out of Silicon Valley looking to shake up how the industry -- and his own company -- hires. The goal is to become more inclusive.
Mr. Armstrong called the effort "the Olympics of diversity."
"What if we said that only certain people could compete in the Olympics and only certain people, depending on their backgrounds, were allowed to get in the starting blocks," Mr. Armstrong said, relaying what he'd have to tell his children if his industry didn't become more inclusive.
Mr. Armstrong, IAB and other organizations have teamed up on an education initiative committed to growing 10,000 new jobs in tech and advertising for minorities by 2020.
Companies like AOL are committing to contributing to the goal without disclosing exactly how many people each individual company will hire.
The issue of workplace diversity, whether it's regarding women or minorities, has become an important issue in Silicon Valley and on Madison Avenue. Just this week, Facebook's admitted struggles to diversify were highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article.
Facebook's workforce is 2% black, 4% Hispanic and 33% are women, according to the article. Those are typical workforce numbers for top internet companies.
The IAB breakfast featured Freada Kapor Klein, an investor and co-chair of Kapor Center for Social Impact, who outlined the most prominent obstacles to achieving diversity. The pipeline is part of the problem, where Silicon Valley is reluctant to hire anyone outside Harvard or Stanford.
However, even when minorities get the dream job, they face unfair treatment such as mistaken identity and other slights that demotivate the employees, Ms. Kapor Klein said. "We see biases and barriers all across the pipeline," she said.
Often the hiring managers don't even know they hold a bias, but Ms. Kapor Klein can prove they do. Studies have shown that investors were twice as likely to fund a startup when seeing a pitch video narrated by a man compared to seeing the same video only narrated by a woman.
People say things like: "We only fund the best and the brightest. We don't care who you are. We only want the best ideas. But the data doesn't support it," Ms. Kapor Klein said.
The group is trying to come up with new industry practices that would truly enable blind hiring methods. Also, IAB Education Foundation, of which Mr. Armstrong is the chairman, partnered with community colleges to develop programs to train minorities in internet and advertising jobs.
The organization also launched a website, idiverse.org, to help match potential talent with tech companies.
"We were all brought up in an era of civil rights, women's rights, equality, tolerance," said Michael Theodore, general manager of IAB Education Foundation. "And if we, the best and the brightest, if we have the problems of diversity, with all the background and everything we experienced growing up. If we still have these problems in our industry. Well, then we have a real problem. We have a problem that points to a problem in the soul of our society."