Native American representation in Silicon Valley’s technology industry remains low, despite the industry’s efforts to diversify their workforce.
In May and June, Google, Yahoo and Facebook released numbers about workforce diversity. Across these companies, white and Asian men dominate their workforces. There were no specific figures for Native Americans, Native Hawaiians or Native Alaskans.
“Diversity is definitely part of the dialogue now, especially in the Bay Area,” said Heather Fleming, founder of Catapult Design, a nonprofit design firm based in San Francisco. “But I’ve never seen Native Americans on the radar.”
The technology job sector is the first to see diversity problems and is eager to solve them, according to Matthew Yazzie, a former Google employee who founded the Google American Indian Network (GAIN) in 2004, one of Google’s employee resource groups for minorities.
“At the time, Google was not disclosing its diversity numbers,” Yazzie said. “But there were very few Native Americans, about six or seven active members in GAIN.”
But according to Yazzie, the mentality for Silicon Valley is problem-solving. “They’ll ask, ‘What’s wrong with this? How can we fix this?’ These numbers are wrong and we need to begin fixing it.”
“From a company’s perspective, diversity makes your product and experience better. You can offer a lot more to more different groups,” he said.
In the mid-2000s, GAIN created 20 scholarships worth $10,000 each for Native Americans studying computer programming, Yazzie said. Other companies have similar scholarship and outreach programs for people of color.
However, despite even his best efforts to recruit students, there weren’t as many applicants as he had hoped for, Yazzie said.
Native Americans, especially those who grow up on reservations where technology tends to be lacking, can have a difficult time even seeing themselves flourish in the tech field, Yazzie said.
Reservations have more of an insular environment, preventing youth exposure to certain academic fields, he said. “Most youth aren’t exposed to explore science or programming in-depth,” Yazzie said. “There’s a disconnect.“
Native American youth who do go on to higher education may choose a local school instead of a school far away because of family ties, according to Yazzie. “You feel more connected with your family and extended family.”
“Some families would be devastated if their kids move far away,” Yazzie said. As a result, students tend to stay closer to home when choosing a school.
“Growing up on the reservation, I never thought I’d say (that) I am where I am now,” Yazzie said.
Having role models to look up to is important, according to Fleming of Catapult Design. Fleming, who is a member of the Navajo tribe, said she had a cousin who was a civil engineer when she was in high school. “We’d drive down reservation roads,” Fleming said. “My cousin was getting water access to rural people.
“Now at the reservation, you have this new generation of kids that are growing up with technology. There are a growing number of role models on the reservation.”