By Ellen McGirt
Updated: October 17, 2017 3:06 PM ET

When Bärí A. Williams, StubHub’s head of business operations for North America and recent contributor to The Black Ceiling, wrote me to say that she had written an opinion piece on “viewpoint diversity,” I scrapped my own draft on the subject. I know when to hand the mic to someone else.

At issue were remarks made by Denise Young Smith, Apple’s vice president of diversity and inclusion at the One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Colombia. It had a distinctly “all perspectives matter” vibe. “There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse, too, because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.”

The backlash was immediate, and her apology was swift. “My comments were not representative of how I think about diversity or how Apple sees it. For that, I’m sorry,” she said in an email to staff. “More importantly, I want to assure you Apple’s view and our dedication to diversity has not changed.”

Many folks aren’t so sure. From Williams’ op-ed:

Ms. Smith wasn’t the first to endorse the view in her initial statement. Those of us in the tech industry know that the idea of “cognitive diversity” is gaining traction among leaders in our field. In too many cases, this means that, in the minds of those with influence over hiring, the concept of diversity is watered down and reinterpreted to encompass what Silicon Valley has never had a shortage of — individual white men, each with their unique thoughts and ideas. This shift creates a distraction from efforts to increase the race and gender diversity the tech industry is sorely lacking.

This overlaps with the sentiments expressed in a screed by a Google software engineer that critiqued the company’s race and gender diversity efforts and ascribed the unequal representation of women in tech to “biological causes.” It included the line, “Viewpoint diversity is arguably the most important type of diversity.”

It’s worth exploring the diversity of thought that Williams herself has brought to her short but illustrious career.

Williams is now semi-famous for helping to start the supplier diversity program in her previous role at Facebook. It was not her primary gig. Williams was hired as lead counsel, though the idea for the program came to her during an orientation session with the company’s head of diversity. While the Oakland native had grown up in a family of educators on her mother’s side — “there was no question I’d go to college,” she said — her father, the son of former sharecroppers, owned a computer store close to a difficult part of town. “I admired the grit and the hustle,” she said. Williams was also disturbed by the lack of opportunity in primarily black neighborhoods. “You can’t hire everyone who wants to work at Facebook, and some people want to build their own businesses.”

A robust supplier network could build black wealth, provide competitively priced materials and introduce diversity into the experience of Facebook employees in non-confrontational ways. And the company, which is increasingly eating up low-income neighborhoods around its Silicon Valley headquarters, “has a fairly significant gentrification narrative to address,” she says. The supplier network launched last October and made a public showing at a black leadership conference on the company’s campus. Every vendor from the food to the entertainment had been sourced from a black-owned company. “It was the most blackety-black thing we’d ever seen,” she said, still sounding proud.

This is part of a broader movement for true diversity that Williams and others hope will not be abandoned, in hiring and beyond. I’ll give Williams the last word.

“As my former Facebook colleague Regina Dugan said recently, even if cognitive diversity is a company’s ultimate goal, ‘we can’t step away from the idea that diversity also looks like identity diversity.’ The effort to hire people with different points of view must not come at the expense of hiring members of actual underrepresented communities who add tangible, bottom-line value — and who deserve to work in tech as much as anyone.”

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