‘Glaring’ lack of diversity at city’s tech giants drives creation of new pipeline for people of color
Re:work training helps companies like Google, LinkedIn and Groupon find candidates outside of their traditional recruitment pipelines.
Not many people in the tech industry, particularly in Chicago, look like Leonardo Jimenez.
Jimenez, a sales development representative with sales-i, a software company, is of Mexican descent and from Pilsen.
But just a small percentage of tech jobs in Chicago are filled by Latinos.
“There aren’t many of us. Actually, there’s very few,” said Jimenez, an East Side native.
But despite not being a product of the tech jobs’ pipeline that often favors white men, Jimenez says he is thriving — and also spreading the word that “there’s a lot of opportunity for people [of] Latino or Hispanic descent, especially if you’re bilingual or the Spanish speaker.”
Jimenez’ path to a gig in tech came when he took part in a program run by re:work training, a nonprofit that helps tech companies including heavyweights like Google, LinkedIn and Groupon find candidates outside of where the companies traditionally recruit.
Candidates enroll in a free eight-week program where they get help with resume writing, industry jargon, researching jobs in the tech industry, conducting mock interviews and creating LinkedIn profiles.
Students also receive a stipend while in the program.
Re:work’s CEO, Shelton Banks, said the program provides critical training to help candidates from neighborhoods like the one where he grew up — Roseland— connect with tech companies.
Banks said he noticed the lack of diversity soon after he got a job at Groupon.
“It was glaring,” said Banks, 32. “And for me it was tough because I would have people that I knew from 103rd and Michigan — where I’m from — reach out to me for a job and I always would be intimidated and scared. I’m like, ‘Man, I’m the only person at this company.’ If they mess up, it looks bad on me.”
The numbers across the tech industry back up Banks’ experience.
Less than 5 percent of workers at Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn are black, while the numbers are only slightly higher for Latinos at those companies, according to the most recent figures available.
Only one demographic of color, Asian Americans, posted a significant representation in a sampling of the top tech companies in the industry.
Meanwhile, white employees made up as much as 62 percent of the workforce at Groupon, for example, and made up between 40 and 50 percent at companies like Google and Twitter.
Gender breakdown of employees at top tech companies
Diversity breakdown of employees at top tech companies
Source: Groupon and Instagram figures are from May 2018 and reported in “Diversity in Tech,” by David McCandless • Other figures were taken from company reports in 2019 and compiled by Evan F. Moore/Sun-Times
Banks became CEO of re:work in 2018, a company founded two years earlier by Oak Park native Harrison Horan. Horan also saw a lack of workers of color when he worked at Sprout Social, and pledged to do something about it.
“It was kind of half selfish and half understanding that there’s a real problem here that we have a good solution to, and then we can actually help,” Horan said. “And so that’s kind of the impetus for starting.”
Banks says on re:work’s website that society needs to “simply acknowledge that the opportunities and resources are not balanced among all of Chicago’s communities. As a result, Black and Latinx communities are filled with untapped talent that must overcome historic wage imbalances, undervalued housing markets and poorer quality schools.”
Re:work, the site says, seeks to help residents of those neighborhoods achieve personal and financial success and also provide technology companies across the city “with ambitious, resourceful and qualified candidates with diverse backgrounds.”
Identifying the talent pool helps counter management at companies who claim they “don’t know where to look” for diverse candidates.
“We kind of have a conversation about how do you do the majority of recruiting,” Banks said, noting that even companies seeking to diversify often continue to use “the same funnel that already exists.”
The companies soon realize that they can’t continue to operate the way they have in the past. Banks believes when tech companies don’t have a diverse workforce, it can hurt their bottom line.
“I feel like if you [tech companies] don’t change, you get left behind,” Banks said. “There’s money in diversity.”
So far, about 100 people have completed the training, with 81 getting jobs with an average salary of about $50,000. Twenty people are currently in the program, which starts again in early March. (For details on signing up, go to reworktraining.org.)
Jamie Bradley, 30, of Portage Park, works at sales-i with Jimenez. She says the support system she has with re:work goes further than the time she was in the program.
“I was figuring out how to be successful in sales. And now, I know that I have a community I can call,” Bradley said. “ ... There’s a lot of room for growth.”
Jimenez has a message for tech companies who want to have a workforce that reflects the cities they operate in.
“Yeah, we have talent,” he said. “Give us an opportunity. Let us shoot our shot.”
Contributing: Alison Martin