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A tech shortcut to diversity in the workplace? (Q&A)

Entelo CEO Jon Bischke's company parses social-networking data to help clients find job candidates based on racial or gender search criteria. But will it play in Peoria?

Protesters in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on October 10, 2012, in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Entelo CEO Jon Bischke may soon get dragged into the national debate about workplace diversity, but he's ready to handle any heat if his company winds up getting turned into a political talking point.

On Wednesday, Entelo, a 3-year-old software startup in San Francisco, will announce Entelo Diversity, a service that it says will help companies come up with lists of potential job candidates who are female, Latino, African American, or veterans of the military. The idea being that a more diverse workforce is a stronger workforce.

The company won't reveal many details about the technology other than to say that it has developed an algorithm that sifts through data uploaded to social-media sites and allows companies to draw probable conclusions about the racial or gender background of a potential job candidate. Of course, the prospect of a software program like this may be catnip for the critics. Affirmative action of any sort remains an unsettled question, with the Supreme Court recently voting 6-2 to uphold Michigan's ban on state affirmative-action programs. Conservative critics say that the emphasis in job hiring ought to be on hiring, training, and promoting the best-qualified candidates regardless of racial or gender background.

"I understand this is not going to be without its controversial angle," said Entelo. "There will be some people who take offense at it, but we think the upside will outweigh the bad."

And with a client list that runs the gamut from Facebook to Salesforce to Yelp, Entelo, which is backed by Menlo Ventures and Battery Ventures, believes it has a big opportunity both to make a buck and foster some social good. The following is an edited transcript of a recent conversation CNET conducted with Bischke.

Q: You're billing this as the "Industry's First Automated Diversity-focused Recruiting Solution Helps Companies Efficiently Source Underrepresented Groups Including Minorities and Veterans." That's quite the mouthful. What does it do?

Jon Bischke: We work with a lot of companies but a lot of tech companies, in particular, had a challenge: They had engineering teams that were male-dominated. 95% of the teams were men. There's a huge amount of academic research that the more diverse team was a better team. A common theme that we heard was, 'We'd like to hire more female software engineers.' After hearing that a number of times, we went back to the system and asked would it be possible to run that sort of query. We found indeed that we could do this and with a high degree of accuracy. We went back to the companies and they flipped their lids. They thought it was fantastic.

The technology is supposed to let businesses identify potential candidates that fall into a specific minority group. How does it work?

Bischke: We index a huge amount of social data. It takes into account that social data which might be ascertained to race, gender, or military status. But we don't reveal the individual factors we use. It's a black-box algorithm.

It's all taken from publicly available social data?

Bischke: If they are self-identified, yes, or if there's something about their data so that this person looks to have a high degree of probability.

I'm not sure I like the idea that there's a piece of software out there which knows so much about my personal identity and it's being used by companies. Something's spooky about that, frankly.

Bischke: We spent lots of time thinking about this. At the end of the day, we're going to put our brand on it. And we thought a lot about what's the right thing to do. Companies are spending lots of time and energy to get a more diverse workforce. It's inefficient and costly to the company. We thought that the good -- the ability of a company to recruit more software engineers -- outweighed the bad. It was very important to us in building the product that it could not be used to discriminate against anybody. So for example, you can't use it to exclude or filter out women or Hispanics from certain jobs.

What's your prospective pitch to companies going to sound like?

Bischke: Our strong belief is that companies with more diverse workforces are stronger companies. We believe that you should hire the best person for a job. It's also our belief that you should have a diverse pool of applicants so if all 50 applicants for an engineering position are men, that's wrong. You don't hire a woman just because she's a woman but she should be in the mix of applicants.

Which industries do you think are more likely to turn to a tool like this to achieve compliance levels?

Bischke: Anyone doing federal contracting. In the guidelines, you are required to show a good-faith effort that you are recruiting a diverse pool of applicants. A new set of guidelines went into effect three weeks ago that have to recruit a certain percentage of people with military experience in order to apply for federal contracts.

My hunch is that a lot of startups here in San Francisco and Silicon Valley would fall into the list of companies where minorities are underrepresented. What's your guess?

Absolutely. When you have a culture that's oftentimes male-dominated, it becomes a company where discrimination might occur.

Any idea what percentage of minorities or women work at Entelo?

Bischke: We have about 40 percent of the team that's female while 30 percent to 40 percent team is non-white. I think we're doing a pretty good job.