By Sheryl Estrada
“When you do your best in America, great things come your way,” said Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. to more than 900 corporate senior executives from around the country at the2015 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity Announcement Dinner in New York City on Thursday. “I’ve seen it in my lifetime. That’s why this dinner, and the set of workshops Luke [Visconti] puts on, has such meaning to me.”
Keynote speaker at the event,the iconic American civil rights leader, Baptist minister and politician, made a case for diversity in the workforce, explaining that a diverse and inclusive staff is not an option, but rather an essential reflection of the diversity that exists in America, which only adds value to a company.
“As you fight for diversity, you are the driving force in driving a company into the future,” he said. “We changed the South by diversifying opportunities. It is a better South. Inclusion leads to growth. When there’s growth, everybody wins. And that is our challenge tonight.”
He explained how the civil rights movement brought down the cotton curtain of legal segregation, creating the new South.
“You wouldn’t have had companies invest in the South behind the cotton curtain,” he said.
Rev. Jackson highlighted how marching for the right to vote in 1965 in Selma, Ala., helped democratize democracy for Blacks. And the fight against “winner-take-all” single-member district schemesled to diversifying voters by allowing fair representation of underrepresented groups. He said that out of that process eventually came President Barack Obama, the first Black President of the United States.
Using sports as an analogy, Rev. Jackson said, “Whenever the playing field is even, and the rules are public, and the goals are clear, the referees are fair, we [underrepresented people] always do well. Imagine baseball without Jackie Robinson, or football without Jim Brown, or basketball without Magic Johnson, without LeBron.”
He also noted that Title IX leveled the playing field for women in sports, not because of lack of ability, but the need to provide opportunity that otherwise would not have existed.
Rev. Jackson shared an anecdote on the efficiency of women in leadership: “When I get on a plane and see two women, a pilot and copilot, the plane, from my experience, always lands at the right place at the right time.”
Echoing his fight for justice and equal access to opportunities, as founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition (RPC), he leads The Rainbow PUSH Silicon Valley Project.
He’s on a mission to change the face of tech companies, like Intel,Google, andFacebook, which are predominantly white and Asian males, with few Blacks, Latinos and women, including on their boards. The RPCorganized a summit in Decemberwith 300 people from 25 companies, and will host one in May.
“We bought stock in each of the major companies in Silicon Valley, just enough to get on the floor and make our protest,” he said. “All of them had about zero people [of color] on the board. We went to the shareholders meeting to make the case that we ought to change the direction of growth.”
According to Rev. Jackson, diversifying Silicon Valley begins with training and development of talented candidates, many of which can be found at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“‘We can’t find any Black engineers,'” a statement Rev. Jackson said he’d hear from the tech companies. “You cannot find them at USC because they can’t get in. If you go to Morgan State, Howard [University], North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M — those schools are producing more engineers and more STEM-based scholars than any of the Ivy League schools. And so we should do some major investing in those schools.”
He offered that 25 top firms in Silicon Valley are now creating goals and timetables, in order to make the area reflect the diversity of the U.S.
“Intel put forth a proposition with 300 million dollars with the goal of by 2020 making Intel look like America,” Rev. Jackson said.
And in the U.S., he named access, capital, industry, technology, deal flow, and relationships essential to the success of underrepresented people.
“You can be out of slavery, out of segregation, have the right to vote, and will starve to death, unless you have access to capital, industry, and technology,” Rev. Jackson said.
Being a champion for justice, he also made a point to mention the current social unrest due to recent police-related deaths of Black males.
“My hardest pain tonight is this epidemic of killing young, Black males,” he said, citing cities such as Baltimore, where “Black Lives Matter” protests are taking place. “In a community [Baltimore] with about 25 percent unemployment, public housing over private housing, there is no investment there to have the tax payers educate their children, creating second class schools. They can’t discuss diversity, they’re discussing discovery.”