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'White supremacy is the original algorithm': Why Code2040's new CEO wants to debug Silicon Valley

Mimi Fox Melton wants to do more than get Black and Latinx people jobs in tech. She wants to reform the industry's biased HR practices.

​Mimi Fox Melton is Code2040's new CEO.

Mimi Fox Melton is Code2040's new CEO.

Photo: Philip Faraone/Getty Images

Code2040, a nonprofit organization built to knock down systemic barriers of racism and inequality in the tech industry, named Mimi Fox Melton its permanent CEO Tuesday.

Fox Melton, who has served as acting CEO for nearly the past year, is taking over from Karla Monterroso, who is stepping down.

Code2040 partners with tech companies like Slack, Redfin, Dropbox and others to connect Black and Latinx technologists with internships and mentors. Fox Melton's appointment makes her the third person to hold the title of CEO at Code2040; Monterroso also served in an acting role before taking over from Code2040 founder Laura Weidman Powers in 2018.

Fox Melton wants to center the experiences of Black and Latinx people in the tech industry in the nonprofit's work, she told Protocol.

Rebooting the system

"I think it's critical that we focus on the people who are best positioned to see and impact those biased systems, which are Black and Latinx people in tech," Fox Melton said. "And so over the next five years, our work remains to train resources and support the largest racial equity community in tech, and for that community to be the ones leading the charge for racial equity within their workplaces."

As CEO, Fox Melton plans to continue Code2040's work of identifying and addressing systemic racism in the human resources practices of tech companies, she said. In 2019, for example, Code2040 began requiring its tech company partners that offer internships to no longer use GPA or university pedigree in the selection process, Fox Melton said.

Fox Melton pointed to recently reported events at Google as an example of the systemic racism and inequality in the tech industry. In December, a former Google diversity recruiter alleged the company screens out resumes from students who attended historically Black colleges or universities.

"So this is an example of how individual bias, individual racism gets codified into a systemically racist practice," Fox Melton said. "Google actually had a literal ranking system where Black people were at the bottom."

Google has said its work with HBCUs is "critical" and has expanded its recruitment to more colleges.

But for Fox Melton, the former recruiter's allegations highlight the connection between systemic racism and the lack of diversity in tech.

"Like my predecessor, Karla, has always said, white supremacy is the original algorithm," Fox Melton said. "So part of our work is to keep up with the algorithm as it learns and shifts. Pretty much as soon as something becomes unacceptable, another type of system appears to keep us out."

Tech companies have long cited a "pipeline problem" — a supposed lack of qualified candidates — to explain the lack of Black and Latinx people in the industry. But it's since become widely understood that the "problem" is a myth.

"Now it's pretty unacceptable to say that," Fox Melton said of the pipeline problem theory. "Companies still do, but there's a swift backlash."

Ultimately, she said, the work of calling out harmful myths and bad practices can make them so "socially unpalatable that companies abandon them."

A low bar

The conversation on diversity and inclusion may be changing, and programs to advance it growing. But the tech industry still has much work to do.

Given that, Fox Melton concedes her organization can't afford to be too selective in choosing partners.

"Unfortunately, the bar is low," Fox Melton said. "There aren't enough companies doing this well in a way that we could have truly high standards that require companies to have a fluency around racial equity in order to partner with us." She said the tech industry is "shockingly" behind the rest of the country in that regard.

Code2040 is more focused on ensuring companies are able to have hard conversations about race and be willing to receive feedback, she said. Code2040 will also draw a line if a company actively harms Black or Latinx populations.

A couple of years ago, for example, Code2040 was in talks with Amazon about a potential partnership, Fox Melton said. Around that time, however, reports showed Amazon was selling its facial recognition software to law enforcement. Code2040 also took issue with the reported mistreatment of Black and Latinx warehouse workers at Amazon facilities. (Amid the racial justice protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd last summer, Amazon announced a one-year moratorium on the use of its Rekognition technology.)

"There was no way that we could work with them," she said.

Given experiences like that, Fox Melton hopes to reach companies earlier in their growth. "There is a certain size of growth where companies are really able to metabolize feedback on their culture and their practices before those practices and cultures are baked into the DNA of the organization," she said. "So more and more, we're leaning towards doing the deepest work with companies that are earlier in their growth or intentionally staying under 1,000 people."

A year of flux

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, tech companies dropped their diversity programs in order to save money. Code2040 was one of the programs affected.

Amid this financial crisis, Fox Melton, who was already helping run the nonprofit as general manager, also had to step in as acting CEO when Monterroso took medical leave to fight COVID-19.

While Code2040 is free for Black and Latinx participants, the nonprofit's filings show it also earns revenue from some programs. (Code2040, for example, previously received grant money from Google, but no longer counts the company as a partner.) Code2040 partner companies must also pay their interns. During the early days of the pandemic, about half of Code2040's tech company clients that had committed to offering internships backed out.

Money was undoubtedly part of the decision-making process, Fox Melton said, but she said some companies were also genuinely concerned about creating untenable work situations for interns in a remote world.

Fox Melton helped companies wrestle with that decision, urging them to give Black and Latinx intern candidates "agency" to opt in or out of remote internships. "I'm no defender of tech companies, but I do think that in that particular instance, they thought that they were making a decision that would cause the least harm," she said.

Then, Floyd and Breonna Taylor's killings sparked a massive racial justice uprising throughout the country. That prompted some tech companies to increase the focus on diversity and inclusion after they had just put it on the back burner.

"Last year was such an anomaly," Fox Melton said. "Once George Floyd was murdered, and white folks suddenly realized that racism existed in this country, the interest for partnerships with us skyrocketed. So after dipping in the spring and then just taking off over the summer, in the fall, we had more interest in our programs going into this year than maybe ever before combined in the history of Code2040."

Code2040 plans to continue remote internships and mentoring through the end of 2021, matching many companies' plans to delay any kind of wholesale return to the office. It's unclear what 2022 will bring.

The embrace of remote and hybrid work, which initially looked like it could disadvantage Code2040's interns, could actually help bring more people into tech. For the first time, Fox Melton said, Code2040 has been able to reach folks outside of Silicon Valley thanks to its remote programs.

"That is a matter of equity as well," she said.

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