On 6 February at the 10th Annual Crunchies Awards Show in San Francisco, Silicon Valley players got together to honour the top innovators of last years. This year’s event saw great emphasis placed on the social impact of technology and the need for tech companies to create a workforce balance that more fully represents the diversity of the population.
The current political situation in the United States has prompted Silicon Valley to become more aware of its role in society. Accordingly, the organisers of the ‘Crunchies’ seemed determined to confer awards on a number of people and projects on the basis of their positive impact on society rather than merely their technological or financial success. This is highly characteristic of the self-critical stance Silicon Valley takes vis-à-vis its practices and the consequences for society of the technologies which set out to ‘change the world’.
In this spirit, Jeff Lawson, co-founder and CEO of Cloud communication company Twilio, introduced the Social Impact Award at the Crunchies event by underlining: “It’s pretty impossible not to take this moment to reflect on how the technology we create and what we do here in Silicon Valley really affects society. I’m sure you’ve noticed that a lot of technology is being co-opted to divide us, whether it’s through social media bullying or algorithms that are feeding us fake news. Too often technology leaders shirk their responsibilities for how their inventions get used. When you change the world and you cash the cheque for doing so, you have a responsibility to accept everything that goes with it.”
Greater workforce diversity leading to more benevolent technologies
The Social Impact Award went to the Kapor Center, a non-profit set up by Mitch Kapor, a micro-computing pioneer who developed Lotus software, one of the leading business office software packages, before selling it to IBM for $3.5 billion in 1995. The Kapor Center works in Oakland, a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of San Francisco, encouraging people from deprived backgrounds to get involved in and take advantage of opportunities offered by the new technologies. “We think the tech world will be at its best if it resembles the communities that it serves,” argued Mitch Kapor, who finances programmes to train people up on the new technologies and invests in firms that have a positive social impact.
Among the other winners that evening, Naval Ravikant, voted Angel Investor of the Year, is an immigrant to the US, as were two of the other four in that category, French nationals Carine Magescas and Fabrice Grinda. Without doubt this was also a way for Silicon Valley to underline the fact that in addition to bringing in their skills, immigrants also invest their own funds to help finance innovation in the United States.
Silicon Valley companies thus seem convinced that by being more inclusive, by recruiting skilled people who are representative of the broad diversity of the population and by financing ventures led by people with diverse profiles – in terms of geography, gender, ethnicity and social background – they will also be able to develop better solutions from society’s viewpoint. In short, by ensuring a fairer approach to recruitment, operations and funding, a Silicon Valley firm will also be able to embed greater fairness in the technologies it develops. This fairness translates inter alia into greater male-female equality in the workplace.
Silicon Valley looking to be more inclusive… including towards women
It is a fact that Silicon Valley suffers from a shortage of female representation, especially in decision-making jobs such as on its engineering teams. A TechCrunch study published last year revealed moreover that women accounted for only 7% of the partners at the top 100 venture capital firms worldwide. And of course, this has a non-negligeable impact on the financing of ventures run by women entrepreneurs. The fact that a woman, Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures, won the Crunchies ‘VC of the Year’ award is therefore highly illustrative of the desire in Silicon Valley to remedy its own injustices and highlight positive role models.
Also present at the event was Dave McLure, founder of ‘500 Startups’, the Silicon Valley flagship early-stage venture fund and seed accelerator, who launched a fund specifically for women-led businesses after noting with disappointment that women entrepreneurs only made up 15% of the applicants to his programme. And he underlined moreover that: “We aren’t doing this out of charity, or to improve our social image or to sleep better (even if it helps). We’re doing it because it makes sense. We’re doing it because it’s profitable to invest in women and minorities. Diversity is a vital impulse for innovation in the 21st century.”
The Crunchies have a specific award category for the company that has done most to advance social inclusion – the TechCrunch Include Award. The winner this year was the non-profit diversity consultancy Project Include, founded early 2016 by Ellen Pao, an iconic figure in the battle for diversity in Silicon Valley. Project Include works directly with Silicon Valley bosses to draw up a status report on the level of diversity at their companies and conducts a survey among employees in order to determine whether there are any inequalities, either in fact or as a matter of perception. Project Include will then work together with the company head to come up with concrete measures to even up the inequalities that have surfaced. In the same way that traditional companies have Digital Transformation plans, tech firms working with Project Include draw up Equality Transformation plans.
Even where the award category does not formally carry a ‘social’ label, several of this year’s winners could point to a social dimension. The fact that Slack Technologies is well known for the efforts it makes to promote workforce diversity is certainly one reason why the software company won the Best Startup award. Slack has published transparent figures on its diversity and inclusion record , showing that 43% of its employees were women and that women made up 28% of the technical staff, which is clearly above the industry average even if these proportions are still not fully representative of the wider population.
In early February L’Atelier representatives attended an event in San Francisco organised by Women in Fintech where Stephanie Dukes, an Engineering Manager at free credit and financial management platform Credit Karma, refuted the argument that a shortage of available female engineers is the main obstacle to equal recruitment by saying: “28% of engineers graduating every year in the United States are women, so if your firm hasn’t got 28% women in its engineering teams it’s your company that’s the problem, not the education system or society.”
Twilio founder announces CivicTech project, asks for contributions
Jeff Lawson won the Founder of the Year award. In addition to successfully going public in 2016 with the firm he set up in 2008, having followed a programme with the 500 startups accelerator, Lawson was perhaps also given the award for his involvement in social action. He was one of the first to call on the services of Project Include to help improve diversity at his firm.
Twilio is perhaps proof that any organisation based on greater social justice is likely to produce solutions that are fairer from a social viewpoint. On accepting his award, Lawson, having paid tribute to his team, took the opportunity to announce a new CivicTech project called ‘Voices for Democracy’, and called on everybody to contribute their energy and their skills.
“Let’s try to use our power of technology to connect people, not to divide them!” he urged, explaining: “We’ve heard from a lot of people who work in government that the best thing you can do is to advocate with your representatives in Congress. And we’ve heard of a lot of developers who are starting to build applications that are connecting citizens to their representatives, and doing it at scale. So… if you want to build those kinds of things, please do it(...). So, at Twilio, we’re announcing something we’re calling Voices for Democracy. If you’re interested in being a part of it, text your email address to Twilio, and we’ll be in touch with you about how you can help.”
Lawson is now offering free-of-charge the services of Twilio – which provides integration of SMSs and telephone calls, whether voice or video – on the Internet via online software apps, to non-profit ‘DemocraTech’ ventures.
Among other things, Twilio technology can actually help to identify which are the most lobbied elected representatives and when is the best time to call them. Looking at it from the other side, Twilio can also show a legislator the volume of calls coming from organisations ‘for’ or ‘against’ a proposed measure. Organisations can run campaigns by urging their members to mobilise while at the same time generating, on their request, a call from their telephone direct to the representative. This call will also be taken into account on the representative’s dashboard as a mark ‘for’ or ‘against’ a specific proposition. With publicly-available data on the number of calls ‘for’ or ‘against’ a measure, legislators can be held accountable in terms of whether or not they followed the preferences of their electoral constituents. Last but not least, Twilio offers to manage with greater efficiency a stream of incoming calls that threaten to overload public telephone networks, enabling the politician in question to receive voice messages.
Contacting your local legislator by telephone rather than email or some other channel is reportedly the best approach as far as legislators are concerned. If it is true that the perennial preoccupation of Silicon Valley players is to understand the precise needs of any given target audience, Twilio now seems to be applying this rule to a relatively new audience – politicians.
— Caroline Caselli (@cmcaselli) February 7, 2017
In his closing address to the Crunchies event, TechCrunch Editor-in-Chief Matthew Panzarino, pointed out: “Many entrepreneurs say they want to change the world (…) but very few of them end up fulfilling the second part of the equation which is ‘for the better’. However, it is clear that, pixel by pixel, our community, the tech community, is becoming more inclusive, and so more interesting.” He argued that CivicTech is not really a technology sector like FinTech, AgTech or AdTech but all technologies should be created with a civic conscience. In short, every technology ought to be ‘civic’ right from the design stage, i.e.”civic by design”. And yes, he said, public spiritedness can also be coded in those widely-used computer programming languages PHP, C++ and Java.
The consensus in Silicon Valley appears to be that if tomorrow’s cities are to become smart through technology, it will be through technologies that conform to the famous adage of French 16th thinker and writer François Rabelais: “Science without conscience is the soul's perdition”.