Ken Coleman doesn’t just talk diversity in tech. He lives it

Editor's note: This feature first appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of SVCF magazine.

Ken Coleman

In the many stories written about tech pioneer Ken Coleman, the word “first” is bound to appear.

From his decade at Hewlett-Packard (HP) to his 14-year ascent at Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), Coleman has broken ground as an African American not only working in the tech industry, but also leading in it. But being an icon was never his focus.

“I didn’t have this consciousness about being ‘first’ or ‘only’ that you might think,” says Coleman, 73, now chairman of the board of the data analytics company Saama. “I wasn’t trying to be the first black to do this or that. I was trying to be successful and compete. I wanted to demonstrate the value I could add.”

Mission accomplished. Starting in 1972, Coleman not only helped bring HP into the commercial computer race but also changed hiring practices. At Activision, he and colleagues advanced a new industry: video games. At SGI, a company largely responsible for the 3D graphics many take for granted today, he helped build a culture of intellectual and racial diversity.

Along the way, he picked up perspective few can match, and he’s willing to share it.

Recruiting meets reality

Reports on the low numbers of women, African Americans and Hispanics in the tech workforce have shocked the industry, Coleman says.

“Companies weren’t just surprised, they were embarrassed,” he says. “I don’t think people were convinced it was a problem.”

Industry leaders tend to view tech as a meritocracy, where the best rise to the top regardless of background.But it’s a misconception, he says.

“Tech is not a meritocracy, since so many decisions that get made in hiring are subjective. Social systems tend to recreate themselves. If it’s all white males in a company, there’s a tendency to recreate that in future hiring.”

It’s hard for individuals to admit to hidden bias. Recruiters and managers want to minimize risk. Consciously or not, a risk warning may go off when the person across the table is “different” or “other.” Coleman has worked with recruiters directly to help them uncover and address biases, one person at a time.

He also has worked at the systemic level: “Everything in the enterprise that matters has an objective that is measured. If you don’t have a metric around diversity and measure it, and people are not held accountable, then diversity isn’t important to that company. This is a fact.”

Changes such as analyzing applicant and hiring data, setting accountability in reporting, and expanding the talent search to include historic black colleges and universities have helped his companies like Saama move forward. 

“Different perspectives create more diverse thought and lead to more creative outcomes,” he says. “You want to cast as broad a net for talent as possible. If you can find it where others can’t, you’ll be successful.”

Be a hands-on mentor

Coleman approaches nurturing talent as a personal mission. He hosts dinners and gatherings for minority leaders. He advises promising employees about critical career moves. He built an inclusive workforce at SGI that remains a model current leaders can aspire to.

He has experience navigating the system, and he wants to pass it on so “first” and “only” become a thing of the past. He extends his philosophy to the future workforce, too.

“People tend to achieve what’s expected of them,” he says, “so early on, we have to respect minority kids and young women who engage in math and science. They need role models. They need higher expectations.”

To change the workforce, start early

It’s no surprise Coleman supports STEM education through his philanthropy. “But reading matters, too,” he says. So he and his wife, Caretha, also support early literacy programs through Reading Partners.

“If you can’t write and communicate well, you’re not going to be successful.” Communication isn’t just about reading and writing, either.

Simple things like mastering interview techniques and building a résumé may make all the difference for a promising young person with strong skills. These approaches relate to Coleman’s belief that a truly diverse workforce requires a truly diverse talent pool. Building that pool takes dedication.

“You can’t just snap your fingers and have the workforce you want,” Coleman says. “Diversity is hard work, like any other aspect of a business that matters.”