Randi Zuckerberg has had to get used to being the only woman in the room. The older sister of Facebook founder Mark, she was among the earliest employees of the world’s most successful social network when it launched in 2005, leading on consumer marketing.
With such experience, she’s well placed to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the tech industry, and the role that higher education can play in it. One of the industry’s main flaws, she’s clear, is a lack of diversity, and during a panel discussion at the SXSW Edu conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this month, she said that in her Silicon Valley years she often found herself talking to “audiences of guys where [you’d have to guess], are you a college student or a billionaire? And often it’s both of those things.”
“I spent 10 years being pretty much the only woman in the room,” she told the panel hosted by DeVry University. “For me, the tech skills gap feels very personal…I have a complicated relationship with Silicon Valley. On the one hand, I loved being part of such innovative companies and on the front line; on the other hand I felt like – is there only one demographic that gets to decide what is innovative in this country?”
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Ms Zuckerberg argued that the homogeneity that exists in the tech industry was bad not only for the groups who were excluded, but also for the investors, the businesses themselves, and for the world, in so far as it limited creativity and the breadth of the problems that tech entrepreneurs were seeking to solve.
“What you end up with is a situation like we have in Silicon Valley now, where you have all these brilliant thinkers, but most of them aren’t solving problems that are actually problems,” she said. “For every Facebook or Google, you have a million people trying to create luxury valet car services on demand. I think that having more diversity is better for industry – it gets people out of the bubble, and it will build better businesses.”
So how would a more diverse workforce, which depends on the educational opportunities available to people of all backgrounds, have improved Facebook, had it been implemented earlier?
“I certainly think that international expansion would have happened quicker and would have maybe been thought about differently had there been more diversity at the table from the get-go…Diversity is not a nice to have, it’s [crucial] in business today, and if we don’t start training people earlier, getting people to the right [college] programmes and pushing them through the funnel, then a lot of businesses are going to get to the point where they can’t scale any more. So it’s mission critical to start attracting more diversity at a younger age,” Ms Zuckerberg said.
While she is talking primarily about diversity in terms of race and gender, it’s notable that many of the biggest names in the tech industry went to a very small handful of elite US universities. Facebook was famously founded by Mark Zuckerberg with friends he met at Harvard University (he dropped out of his computer science course in 2005).
Snapchat, another social media company that floated on the New York Stock Exchange this month with a valuation of $32 billion (£26.2 billion), was founded by three friends at Stanford University.
So there is also a question over the diversity of the universities producing tech superstars.
A Harvard graduate herself, Ms Zuckerberg jokes that the lesson is “if you finish [your degree] you’ll be fine, if you drop out you’ll be successful beyond your wildest dreams”.
But why does she believe such a small number of universities are producing the majority of those who go on to be so successful in Silicon Valley?
“It’s a cycle that repeats itself. Because you have some of the best engineers graduating from these schools, the companies recruit more heavily at those schools and venture capitalists focus more of their funding dollars on people coming out of those schools.
“It’s very hard to break the cycle, because you now have investors from one of four colleges investing in students from those four colleges, who then hire from those colleges.
“When I talk to people in Silicon Valley, they are good people – they are not sexist, they’re not racist – but people tend to invest in what they know and have a bias even if they don’t know they have a bias."
Ms Zuckerberg does not believe that this cycle will continue in perpetuity. It will take “a few rogue folks, but once we see a few billion-dollar companies coming out of employees who didn’t go to one of these Ivy League schools, I think that’s all it’s going to take”, she said.
But she also argues that it’s not good enough just to sit around and wait.
In a move that might concern universities aware of the value of their brand in the workplace, she suggests that a move to “blind hiring”, where candidates carry out assignments that are then assessed without contextual information about their race, sex or alma mater, could be a more radical way to bring about change.
“One of the things we did at Zuckerberg Media [her new company] was a completely blind hiring assignment. I knew that even someone like me, who is out there every day talking about gender and racial diversity, even I have biases that I don’t know I have. I think that if more companies started to do that – if investors started to look at pitch decks without knowing who was behind them, if more jobs were filled by blind application processes, I think we would get a tremendously diverse and talented workforce.”
So should universities worry about such an approach? She believes not: “I think universities should embrace it. The value you get from a university [like Harvard] is your network. And you can never replace that…For me, being the one woman in the room in Silicon Valley made my network even more important, because what I couldn’t find from other women in the room, I could find from smart women in other industries who I’d gone to school with.
“We had a peer network even though we weren’t in the same industry, and over time, as technology found its way into everything, I found myself back in the same industry as all those people. So I think that, especially if you’re in a group that is in a small minority, having that network is everything.”