Rev. Jackson: Tech companies are ‘boycotting our talent’
The head of the Rainbow Push Coalition talks about Microsoft, Amazon and opening up more opportunities in the tech industry to minorities and women.
Seattle Times business reporters
The Rev. Jesse Jackson received a mixed welcome this week from a pair of Seattle’s corporate giants.
Jackson, in town to campaign for greater opportunity for minorities and women in high-tech jobs, met with Chief Executive Satya Nadella and other Microsoft executives on Monday. He plans to speak at Microsoft’s shareholders meeting Wednesday morning in Bellevue at the invitation of the company.
Microsoft also is set to send representatives to a Dec. 10 conference hosted on Intel’s Silicon Valley campus and organized by Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition to discuss solutions to the dearth of minorities and women in the tech industry.
Amazon.com, on the other hand, hasn’t accepted Jackson’s request for a meeting.
Jackson plans to hold a rally Wednesday morning outside Amazon’s South Lake Union headquarters along with the Service Employees International Union, which is hoping to unionize the company’s contracted security workers.
Jackson has long been among the louder voices in a push to broaden a technology workforce predominantly white and male.
Many of the industry’s leaders have disclosed data on workforce diversity that largely confirms public perception. Microsoft is 71 percent male and 61 percent white. Those figures grow when looking at the company’s leadership or tech-job ranks alone.
Amazon says its global workforce is 63 percent male and 60 percent white. That includes the company’s lower-wage warehouse workers, who are likely more diverse than staff of the company’s Seattle headquarters.
Jackson, 73, spoke with The Seattle Times about his meeting with Microsoft executives, efforts to push for greater benefits for Amazon’s security workers, and giving priority to teaching in science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM).
He also talked about the links between frustration about the level of economic opportunity for minorities and the protests around the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
An edited and condensed version of the interview follows.
Q: What are you hoping to accomplish with your meetings with technology companies in Seattle?
A: There’s a move in economic justice toward access to capital, industry, technology, deal flow and relationships. One can sense a kind of coming together of many strands.
Rainbow Push is going to establish a more permanent presence up here in the Northwest because there is such a strong industrial base up here.
Q: How did the meeting with Satya Nadella go?
A: We sat down and had a very good meeting. I think Microsoft sees their future growth is in inclusion.
One sees in Microsoft a much bigger willingness and effort to move toward some plan. I think they get it.
We’re going to the next step. We’re going from ‘here’s how bad we are’ to planning for goals, targets and timetables.
Q: What issues did you discuss?
A: Opening up the door and letting more people in.
Interestingly, these same technology companies put huge amounts of money offshore; they bring in [foreign] workers. There’s nothing unique about the talents people are bringing in that they can’t [learn] here.
It’s teachable, it’s a matter of priorities.
[The industry is] as segregated as the Ferguson police department. ... They don’t reflect the market.
Q: Could you compare Microsoft’s response with Amazon’s?
A: We want to meet with [Amazon]. We don’t come harboring any predispositions toward the negative, frankly. But we do intend to be heard. We’re concerned about workers.
It seems to me that top companies in the world should take seriously the idea of fairness from the bottom up.
Now [Amazon] is talking about expanding [in Seattle], maybe four more buildings. There’s going to be more guards, more workers. We hope that they see the wisdom in getting to be a company that helps everybody.
Q: If Amazon isn’t going to commit to anything, would you encourage a boycott?
A: We’re reluctant to.
They’re boycotting us. All white board? They’re boycotting people of color. They’re boycotting our talent. They’re boycotting our market.
We buy their products, we expect reciprocal trade. Mutually beneficial trade.
Q: Some executives say a lack of workforce diversity is the result of a limited applicant pool. How do you respond to that?
A: It’s the ultimate insult. You can’t find what you’re not looking for. These [companies] that can find a dime on the White House from outer space, can find what they’re looking for.
Most of the jobs [at technology firms] are not high-tech. STEM is important, but 60 percent-plus of the jobs are advertising, marketing, lawyers, construction.
There’s a core of people who are engineers. But [Mark] Zuckerberg may be the only engineer on Facebook’s board. You can’t find people? We can help find people.
Q: Are there parallels between what happened in Ferguson and the opportunities, or lack thereof, for tech workers?
A: In Ferguson, the issue is not the end of prejudice, it’s about disparities.
I was in Portland [this week], with 2,000 kids, mostly white kids, protesting Ferguson. Their concern is debt, the 1 percent, and they identify with the Ferguson situation.
We have these workers concerned about that growing [income] gap, blacks interested in being on the board and in the [executive] suites.
They’re kind of converging in the quest for economic fairness. Ferguson is a metaphor for disparities.
Q: Why is the tech industry the right fight?
A: High-tech and biotech are the growth industries of our country. These companies have the most profits, and are most able to afford helping to realize the American dream. We should all grow together.
You’ve got a society — white, black and brown, have and have not — such splits undermine the premise of democracy. We must democratize the economy.
If Microsoft, Amazon, Oracle or Groupon, if they’re [growing], the workers should benefit from it. That’s democracy at its best.