People

'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.

Protocol | Workplace

Productivity apps can’t stop making money

ClickUp had one of the biggest Series C funding rounds ever. Here's how it matches up to the other productivity unicorns.

ClickUp made $400 million in its series C funding round.

Photo: ClickUp

Productivity platform ClickUp announced a milestone today. The company raised $400 million, which is one of the biggest series C funding rounds in the workplace productivity market ever. The round, led by Andreessen Horowitz and Tiger Global, put the private company at a $4 billion valuation post-money.

In case it's not clear: This is a massive amount of money. It shows how hot the productivity space is right now, with some predicting the market size could reach almost $120 billion by 2028. In a world of hybrid workers, all-in-one tool platforms are all the rage among both startups and productivity stalwarts. Companies everywhere want to escape tool overwhelm, where work is spread across dozens of apps.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

If you've ever tried to pick up a new fitness routine like running, chances are you may have fallen into the "motivation vs. habit" trap once or twice. You go for a run when the sun is shining, only to quickly fall off the wagon when the weather turns sour.

Similarly, for many businesses, 2020 acted as the storm cloud that disrupted their plans for innovation. With leaders busy grappling with the pandemic, innovation frequently got pushed to the backburner. In fact, according to McKinsey, the majority of organizations shifted their focus mainly to maintaining business continuity throughout the pandemic.

Keep Reading Show less
Gaurav Kataria
Group Product Manager, Trello at Atlassian
The Supreme Court of the United States
Photo: Angel Xavier Viera-Vargas

If a company resolved a data breach in the past, does it need to disclose the potential negative fallout of that breach as a risk to investors later on? In a new petition asking the Supreme Court to take up the question, Alphabet is arguing emphatically: no. And it's using the ol' "the past is history, tomorrow's a mystery" defense.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Protocol | Workplace

Facebook’s hiring crisis: Engineers are turning down offers

"All of you are now starting to experience that major imbalance between supply and demand — and it doesn't feel good," a recruiting leader wrote in an internal memo.

Here are all the Facebook Papers stories
Image: Getty Images, Protocol

Facebook cannot find enough candidates to meet engineering demand, especially in the Bay Area, and has struggled and failed to meet early 2021 recruiting goals, according to a detailed internal memo outlining recruitment strategy and hiring pains.

The company also failed to meet hiring goals in 2019, which frustrated CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and it built an ad-hoc team of leaders to create an emergency plan to address the painful shortage, according to disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by Frances Haugen's legal counsel. A consortium of news organizations, including Protocol, has reviewed the redacted versions received by Congress.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Theranos trial reveals DeVos family invested $100 million

The family committed "on the spot" to double its investment, an investment adviser said. Meanwhile, the jury lost another two members, with two alternates left.

Betsy DeVos' family invested $100 million in Theranos, an investment adviser said.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Lisa Peterson, a wealth manager for the DeVos family, testified in Elizabeth Holmes's criminal fraud trial Tuesday, as prosecutors continued to highlight allegations about how the Theranos CEO courted investors in the once-high-flying blood-testing startup.

An email presented by the defense revealed that the family committed to doubling their investment in Theranos to $100 million "on the spot" during a 2014 visit to company headquarters.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma
Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.
Latest Stories