But when Freada asked how many of the children were from California, she was disappointed, but not surprised, by the answer.
“After a bit of shuffling and staring at shoes,” she told me during a visit to the Stanford campus in July, “I was told ‘none’ with an explanation that they had longstanding relationships with several high schools but none west of Chicago or Texas.”
California isn’t considered a priority given the popular myth that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy – a phenomenon I’ve previously highlighted. Blacks and Hispanics constitute only 1.5 percent and 4.7 percent respectively of the Valley’s computer workers—even lower than the national averages of 7.1 percent and 5.3 percent.
The Silicon Valley elite—like the children at prep schools such as Phillips, at least based on what the Kapors experienced during their visit, rarely get to interact with minorities, so stereotypes get propagated, which only serves to make the problem worse. Phillips head of school, John Palfrey says, however, that the school has come a long way in terms of increasing diversity. Venture capitalists invest in people who fit the “patterns” of successful entrepreneurs that they know, and hiring managers bring in more of the same types of people they have seen achieve success — in other words: people like them.
Indeed, during the July visit, the Kapors recalled an encounter between Mitch and one of his young Latino colleagues a few years ago. He asked if Mitch invented Lotus 1-2-3 (Lotus Software was acquired by IBM for $3.5 billion in 1995). Mitch said he was puzzled as to how someone in their 20s might know of a software program that was a blockbuster in the 1980s. He explained that his mother cleaned office buildings at night in Sacramento and would sometimes take him to work and let him play on the computer while she cleaned toilets and emptied corporate employees’ trash cans. For him, he said, this was the symbol of another life — of being successful. The interaction left Mitch in tears.
“How many Silicon Valley elites have ever had a conversation with the people who clean their offices,” he asked me, “do they see their kids as having the potential to be top talent in any field”?
This motivated the Kapors to establish a program called SMASH—the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy at UC Berkeley. They established SMASH through an organization they had founded in 2001 called Level Playing Field Institute. While inspired by the (MS) 2 program, SMASH is not a replica of it. Instead, SMASH focused on providing project-based learning and integrating science and math into contemporary issues rather than an intensive curriculum oriented towards standardized tests.