How can tech companies boost racial diversity?

WillowTree CEO Tobias Dengel said it took a year for tech recruits to warm to Charlottesville, Virginia, after a deadly neo-Nazi rally and counter-protest in August 2017. (Hamblen)

Recruiting IT talent and engineers can be daunting enough. Consider what tech businesses faced when trying to attract qualified workers to move to Charlottesville, Virginia, after a violent Unite the Right rally and counter-protest in August  2017 led to one hit-and-run death and months of collective anxiety for the region.

The aftermath of those events “had a significant impact on recruitment in the first 12 months afterwards,” said Tobias Dengel, CEO of WillowTree, a company that builds apps and web designs for many of the world’s biggest brands including Pepsico, GE, Synchrony Financial and American Express.

“For a year, people visiting here associated Charlottesville with that group of people—neo-Nazis. While they were not from here, there was a perception they were," he said.

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The recruitment anxiety at WillowTree has calmed down more than two years after Heather Heyer, 32, was killed Aug. 11, 2017, by a car driven by a man associated with the Unite the Right group. James Fields, 22, was sentenced in July to life in prison plus 419 years in her murder for plowing his car into a crowd opposed to the rally, killing Heyer and injuring dozens of others in the process.

Today, her name marks a street sign at the lonely corner where she died.

WillowTree has offices in several locations near that intersection in downtown Charlottesville. The company is relocating its workforce to a nearby restored historic mill along the Rivanna River that will accommodate up to 500 workers.

“It took a while to explain to people what happened in 2017,” Dengel said in an interview along one of WillowTree’s office balconies. Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia with a bevy of computer science programs and annual tech graduates, many that WillowTree and others want to attract to stay in town for top-paying engineering work.

Dengel called Charlottesville a “very liberal city” but the fallout of August 2017 made many people realize the town might be more racist (or oblivious to some racism) than earlier believed, even if the worst elements came from far away. The neo-Nazi rally started, after all, as a protest of a city proposal in 2017 to remove two large statues of Confederate generals. In April, a Virginia judge ruled they are war monuments protected by state law.

“There’s a much more open discussion of racism now than five years ago,” Dengel said while overlooking nearby mountains and the Monticello property, home of the third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder. It has taken centuries for historians to unravel details that Jefferson fathered children with one of his slaves. 

The events of August 2017 were a jolt. “It led to a new conversation,” Dengel said.

WillowTree has long been open to recruiting on historic black colleges and other academic institutions in Virginia and nearby states, but the mission is now more focused and proactive than before, he said. “We’re very engaged and conscious of inclusion…. Diversity is a bigger concern for us since two years ago.”

Dengel said the company has a "very strong" diversity mix compared to the tech industry at large, but added, "obviously we have work to do." Out of 410 workers, 28% are minority of all backgrounds and 72% are white.  Also, 32% of the total are female, 67% are male and 1% are non-binary.*

WillowTree hires talent that can work at all levels of programming and computer design in creating effective applications. Today, the prime focus is on mobile and voice, to allow users of smartphones and home smart devices to speak commands to do far more than is possible today.

“Everything in our business is going to voice where you will talk to apps with voice,” Dengel said. “In two years, voice will be in every application.”

With that transition in mind, WillowTree employs talent who can build hooks into existing voice assistant services such as Siri, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. WillowTree offices are also designed with open concept spaces to bring teams together rather than working in home offices sprawled at great distances. That way they can directly interact to solve problems, rather than being forced to rely on email and video conferencing apps, often from different time zones.

WillowTree’s relocation from several offices into the restored and historic Woolen Mills location is set for second quarter 2020. Bringing the team together in one location provides a metaphor for what Charlottesville and church and civic leaders are grappling with around issues of race.

At the edge of University of Virginia’s campus near WillowTree’s offices, a memorial to slavery is being erected. It will include a low circular wall with the names of enslaved laborers who constructed university buildings and Monticello well into the 1800s. Sponsors of the memorial hope it can provide a reminder to students and visitors, including potential job recruits, that Charlottesville’s past is not necessarily its future.

Virginia’s regions of contrast

Charlottesville’s transition from tragedy to a greater sense of normalcy over the past two years contrasts, somewhat, with what has happened elsewhere in Virginia.

Take Northern Virginia, for example, an area sometimes called Data Center Alley for its abundance of data centers mainly serving federal agencies, many of them across the Potomac River in Washington. The region is racially and ethnically diverse and votes heavily for Democrats. The area and much of the Mid-Atlantic Coast is getting ready for Amazon’s second headquarters arrival with 25,000 jobs on the border of Alexandria and Arlington in Virginia near the Potomac.

Two hours’ drive southwest from Charlottesville is Blacksburg, Virginia, home to Virginia Tech, a bustling center of science and engineering that serves 26,000 students. Nearby is Radford University between Interstate-81 and the Allegheny Mountains that mark the border of West Virginia.

“We don’t see the issue of racism so much here,” said James Cabler, director of business engagement for an economic development public-private partnership called Onward New River Valley, centered in Blacksburg. “The universities attract so many different people, and we’re so used to being around each other.”

Cabler knows it can be different. He grew up in an agricultural county in the southwest corner of Virginia that was and still is 98% white. As an African-American youth, he felt he was in a distinct minority there that he doesn’t feel nearly as much in Blacksburg today. He acknowledges that events in Charlottesville made business leaders re-examine their commitment to diversity.

“It’s always going to be a challenge,” he said. “We try to be open and welcoming here. Yes, we care about diversity of age, race, culture—all of it is very important. But questions about race are not so in your face here.”

“If people peel back the layers and come here, they’ll think it’s great,” Cabler said.

RELATED: Apple budget phone coming in 2020 with A13 chip, analyst says

* UPDATE:  Data about WillowTree's worker diversity mix was added after the article originally published.

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