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Diversity: A bridge for the D.C.—Silicon Valley 'disconnect?'

Beltway insiders often talk about a Silicon Valley - D.C. "disconnect."  As CEO of ITI, an organization representing 60 of the global leaders in technology, I see that disconnect first-hand when it comes to the antiquated policies of yesterday holding back the innovations of tomorrow. My hope is that that disconnect will soon begin to dissipate on a range of issues, especially on how we create a workforce that is reflective of our nation's greatest strength - our diversity. 

There is no debating that there is much work to do in improving the diversity of the workforce in the tech sector.  While the available data veils geographic and industry specific successes, the reality is that overall, the sector I call home and that has embraced me is overwhelmingly white and male.  And, as a result, is likely not achieving its full economic potential. 

That fact is also true for the power centers of our nation's capital-from the leadership to the interns, from Capitol Hill to the administration and the firms on K Street. As an African-American it is not unusual, and in fact is the norm, to be "the only" such person in critical policy meetings in Washington. 

I share that not to cast aspersions or lay blame, but in the hopes of catalyzing a broader conversation on how we ensure our innovations and our policy decisions are informed by inclusiveness.  For that shift to occur we must change how we talk about diversity. 

Discussions around diversity from the Capitol to Silicon Valley tend to follow the normative script for conversations on race and gender in this country: intense public and media scrutiny, then a divisive and false debate about good versus evil, followed by a sprinkle of pixie dust resulting in a pretend "solution" until the next incendiary incident. After that it's wash, rinse, and repeat.  This pattern is as problematic as it is predictable.  

The rush to fall back on the familiar is not surprising. Race and gender issues are complex and involve nuance. These conversations can't avoid the baggage most people, myself included, bring to the table. These factors, along with centuries of painful history, result in an unease that often leads us to talk in code, grasp for easy answers and solutions - or avoid the discussion altogether.   

The tech sector is committed to tearing up the traditional script and to leveraging our disruptive capacity for our diversity efforts. We are publically owning up to the problem and confronting the uncomfortable by publishing and parsing the data and asking tough questions like: Why, despite the millions of dollars our industry pours into STEM education programs, do we still have a limited pool of applicants? Why are so many women and people of color opting out of STEM? Why are we losing so many of the women and people of color who initially join our workforce? And what can we do to improve diversity in both the short and long term? 

We should be asking these same tough questions here in Washington.  Moreover, those of us who are in a position to drive change should.   With that in mind, ITI will follow the example of several of our companies and publicly release our own workforce data. We do so not to suggest that we are the arbiters of inclusion or to advocate viewing diversity as so-called bean counting.  Instead, we do so with the hope that it will motivate other organizations to look at their own data and query what they can do to improve, and as well to inspire a constructive conversation on building a more inclusive workforce and economy. 

It's time to spark action - and not just in Silicon Valley - but in Washington and beyond on how we can all achieve a workforce that is truly inclusive. Fortunately, tech isn't a group that is fond of the established rules or respecting the status quo. We are the sector that has connected the world, created new prosperity, and taken on some of the biggest challenges - from curing cancer to combatting climate change. 

Now, we need to channel that same transformative approach - as the disruptors - to ask the hard questions, challenge orthodoxy and break barriers. The question is will there be a Washington disconnect? We hope not. 

Garfield is president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), an advocacy organization which acts as the voice of the global tech industry.

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