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Y Combinator report shows difficulty in diversifying high-tech workforces

SAN JOSE, Calif. – As much as tech firms talk about diversifying their workforces, and as much as venture capitalists talk about funding more women and people of color, there is one glaring and persistent problem – not enough women, blacks and Latinos are signing up for the tech industry.

Y Combinator, arguably the most prestigious startup accelerator in the nation and backer of companies like Airbnb and Dropbox, recently released a self-assessment of its diversity – part of the broader Silicon Valley push to find solutions to its chronic underrepresentation of blacks, Latinos and women.

Despite its efforts to create a more diverse industry, the numbers reveal just how extraordinarily difficult it is to change the color and gender of the tech world. And they imply that even if a company hires all the women and black engineers who apply for a job, or a venture capitalist funds all the women and black founders who pitch a startup, the industry would still be predominantly white and male – until middle school science classes, university majors and the entire pipeline includes more women and people of color.

In an analysis that looks at its pool of startup founders, Y Combinator says nearly 12 percent of applicants for this winter’s class were women, while about 3 percent were black and 3 percent Hispanic, based on a small data sample. That breakdown of applicants reflects the recent graduating class: 11 percent women, 3.7 percent Hispanic and 4 percent black.

“The good news is that there is no disadvantage to applying to YC as a female or minority founder,” said Michael Seibel, a Y Combinator partner. “The bad news, of course, is that applicant percentages are low relative to the entire population.”

Intel this month announced a plan to commit $300 million to increase the number of women and minorities it employs by 2020. Google and Facebook pledged more diversity in its ranks. But if a startup accelerator, headed by a 29-year-old and with four women and an African-American among its leadership, as nimble and aggressive as Y Combinator can’t achieve a demographic that is representative of the U.S. population, who can?

“You cannot change the pool of your applicants,” said Saeed Amidi, founder and CEO of Plug and Play in Sunnyvale, a tech accelerator. “You can only deal with who comes through the door.”

There’s that nagging ongoing pipeline issue – too few women, blacks and Latinos entering computer science majors at universities, or seeing them through to a degree.

But if Mountain View-based Y Combinator – a three-month, bone-grinding, highly competitive boot camp for aspiring entrepreneurs – is successful at bringing more women, blacks and Latinos into an accelerator that has given birth to some of the most successful tech companies in the world, it could change the face of the next generations of Silicon Valley startups, experts say.

Recruiting more black entrepreneurs may be a bigger challenge. YC is reaching out to more historically black colleges, and Seibel is setting up meetings with young black students. Black engineers fresh out of college are more likely to be from lower-income families, with mounds of college loans to pay off and without the safety net white, upper-class graduates often enjoy, Seibel said.

“For the first time in your life, someone, maybe a tech company or a financial firm, is offering you a six-figure salary,” Seibel said. “It feels like you made it, and starting a tech company is too risky. … I think they need to see that there is someone who will listen to them and show them the ropes.”

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