- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Rev. Jesse Jackson is bringing a strategy borrowed from the traditional civil rights era playbook to the age of social media and a booming tech industry known for its disruptive innovation.

Jackson led a delegation to Hewlett-Packard Co.’s annual shareholders meeting Wednesday to bring attention to Silicon Valley’s poor record of including blacks and Latinos in hiring, board appointments and startup funding.

In a nearly 10-minute exchange with HP CEO Meg Whitman, Jackson urged her and the company to ensure blacks and Latinos have prominent leadership roles in the booming technology industry.

“Silicon Valley and tech industry have demonstrated that it can solve the most challenging and complex problems in the whole world,” Jackson said during the meeting, which was held in Santa Clara, Calif. “We need you to assume a different level of leadership. Today, too few have too much, too many have too little, and the middle class is sinking.”

Whitman defended HP’s track record, pointing out that the company has been fighting for racial diversity among its suppliers for more than 40 years. She also boasted that HP may be the only major company that employs women in the positions of CEO and chief financial officer, a reference to Catherine Lesjak.

Jackson congratulated her, but then chided Whitman for the absence of blacks and Latinos on HP’s board. “We are not perfect by any means,” Whitman conceded and assured Jackson she hoped to continue to discuss ways to promote more racial diversity in Silicon Valley.

In a letter Monday, Jackson raised similar issues with a list of other technology companies that included Apple Inc., Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google Inc.

Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., president and CEO of Black Enterprise magazine, said Jackson is shining a light on the fact that technology companies don’t come close to hiring or spending what is commensurate with the demographics of their customers.

“Hopefully, what Rev. Jackson is doing will bring attention to the 800-pound gorilla in the room that nobody wants to talk about. It’s high time that gets addressed,” Graves said.

It’s widely recognized that the tech industry lacks diversity: About 1 in 14 tech workers is black or Latino, both in Silicon Valley and nationally. Blacks and Hispanics make up 13.1 and 16.9 percent of the U.S. population, respectively, according to the most recent census data.

“We agree with you there is much work to be done in the United States and much work to be done in Silicon Valley,” Whitman told Jackson during the meeting.

Yet as recently as 2011, The Allstate Corp., in alliance with Jackson’s RainbowPUSH organization, recognized HP for its commitment to diversity.

In an emailed statement to The Associated Press, HP Executive Vice President Henry Gomez said HP spent nearly $1 billion with almost 500 minority business enterprises in the U.S. and an additional $500 million with businesses owned by women during 2013.

Apple and Google declined to comment on Jackson’s grievances. Facebook and Twitter didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Of course, the technology industry isn’t without a handful of high-profile black executives. Microsoft Corp. named John Thompson, an African-American, as chairman of its board last month after he led a search that culminated in the appointment of Satya Nadella as the software maker’s new CEO. Thompson, the former CEO of security software maker Symantec Corp., joined Microsoft’s board in 2012.

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