by Camille Kail
“There’s this myth that it’s hard to find great talent from underrepresented backgrounds—it’s just simply not true,” says Rhonda Allen. “And at the same time, there are reasons why companies struggle to recruit, retain, support, and advance Black leaders and leaders from underrepresented backgrounds. Understanding and taking the time to solve for those challenges is important.”
Although Allen is dressed casually in a black hoodie, she means nothing but business. The new CEO of San Francisco-based nonprofit /dev/color has hit the ground running with the organization, which works with Black software engineers and industry leaders to build and nurture a new generation of tech employees through mentorship and networking opportunities.
In the seven years since tech giants began releasing data on their hiring practices—including breakdowns of employees by race, gender, and ethnicity—the numbers around Black employees have been disappointing. Black employee representation at major tech companies ranges from 2 to 6 percent based on reporting data taken from 2014-18, with some increases in the years since. Although representation is rising slowly, it’s clear that there are deficiencies in equitable hiring practices.
/dev/color is looking to change that. Started in 2015 by a small group of Black engineers and funded by a seed round from Y Combinator, the organization has expanded to include member chapters in San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, and Seattle. “More than 30 percent of our members identify as women or non-binary leaders, and more than 30 percent [are] senior or executive level,” Allen says. “And those numbers are not just numbers—they are real people making a real impact at levels that over-index relative to the broader [tech] field. We’re literally building the world that our children, family, and communities will steward, and it’s powerful to [support].”
“More than 30 percent of our members identify as women or non-binary leaders, and more than 30 percent [are] senior or executive level…We’re literally building the world that our children, family, and communities will steward, and it’s powerful to [support].”
–Rhonda Allen, CEO, /dev/color
Leveling Up with A*
A cornerstone of the /dev/color mission is the A* Program, a one-year collaborative mentorship program that offers working software engineers and engineering managers the chance to connect and learn from their peers and partnering industry leaders. Broken out into 60 separate squads, members of the A* Program contribute an annual fee of $350 and meet two to three times each month to create career roadmaps, participate in member events, and share their experiences with other squad members.
“It’s really hard to be the first or only Black leader on a team or in a space,” Allen says. “And so many of our members find themselves or have found themselves at some point in their career in that space. To be able to talk through challenges along the lines of affinity and still have diversity within that conversation is really powerful.”
“It’s really hard to be the first or only Black leader on a team or in a space. To be able to talk through challenges along the lines of affinity and still have diversity within that conversation is really powerful.”
“People love their squad,” Allen adds, “and our programs team is seeing folks really want to leverage the expertise of the full community. So we’re thinking, what does it look like for us to engage the broader Black tech community and the broader tech community?” In /dev/color’s effort to create these pathways, they provide A* Star members with access to tech conferences, professional training with career coaches, and opportunities to connect with other underrepresented groups via panels and open houses.
In the five years since the outset of the A* Program, members have received promotions, launched new businesses, and made connections with industry leaders. “We partner with companies to create the conditions for all people, but especially folks from marginalized backgrounds and Black leaders, to thrive,” Allen explains. “We’re having real conversations with leaders at companies about representation on their teams, talking about their core values and their values around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and what it means for them to walk the talk and how we can partner with them.”
“We’re having real conversations with leaders at companies about representation on their teams, talking about their core values and their values around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and what it means for them to walk the talk and how we can partner with them.”
The Path Forward
And what of the promises that were made last summer, via social media and press releases, as a response to the justified civil unrest that gripped the country and the world? Companies like Uber and Reddit (and even, surprisingly, Gushers) made commitments to supporting Black customers and employees through a variety of actions, including allocating funds, revisiting hiring practices, and investigating employee complaints.
“It’s easy to write a check, and while resource allocation and redistribution is really important, there’s also something important about sustaining a commitment to a cause and to a movement beyond the moment,” Allen says, “I saw lots of white words on black screens and had a sense of hope based on some of the action that I saw following those statements—but there’s still a lot of work to do. So whether that is making decisions about where these investments go or facilitating deep partnerships with organizations that are doing the work, this particular moment cannot pass without making sure that we are centering Black leaders at every stage of the process.”
As /dev/color moves into its seventh year, the company is focused on expanding its reach and resources to accommodate increasingly virtual modes of connection. Whether looking to expand chapter locations, facilitating more communication between A* Program squads, or securing more connections to leading tech companies, Allen and the team at /dev/color is ready for whatever 2021 comes up with next.
“There is something really powerful and important about creating the conditions for folks to see Black leaders doing this kind of work and to be able to see themselves in positions of leadership,” Allen says. “We need to make sure that the folks who are most impacted by the issues that we are trying to address or solve for are not only just at the table in the room, but are really leading at every stage.”