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Could downturn derail workplace diversity?

Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson says despite financial troubles, Silicon Valley should not sideline diversity issues.

SAN JOSE--Silicon Valley remains a place where diversity in the executive ranks is the exception, not the rule, according to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

Amid a climate of rampant layoffs and retrenchment in technology, Jackson continues to promote the idea that high-tech companies should provide better education and employment opportunities to women and people of color.

Jackson was in Silicon Valley this week to promote Rainbow/PUSH's Silicon Valley Project. The initiative was started in 1999 to promote diversity within the technology industry, a goal he believes the industry must still strive to reach even if the good times in the tech sector have largely evaporated in the short term.

CNET recently spoke with Jackson to discuss the progress of the Silicon Valley Project and the impact of the economic downturn.

Is it harder now for you to recruit tech companies for your Silicon Valley Project of providing better education and employment opportunities for minorities?
Silicon Valley will bounce back. It may be in a new form, but there's too much talent here for it not to bounce back. For one, Silicon Valley will bounce back. It may be in a new form, but there's too much talent here for it not to bounce back. Two, recruiting black and Latino talent is of added value. It could be a factor in the resurgence because blacks and Latinos represent market and money and talent and growth. So companies, even while they're down, must look toward more markets.

Does the downturn make it difficult for companies to hire people of color?
Some will use last hired, first fired as a rationale. The fact is that those who have been denied historically must fight to maintain their place in a company's growth. The downturn must not be a pretext for...putting those out who have been historically locked out.

Some call Silicon Valley "the great equalizer"--a place where degrees don't matter, but ideas and skills do. Would you agree with that?
No, I do not. You look at this list. (Rainbow/PUSH owns stock in 44 leading technology companies, and of the 356 board members, there are only six African Americans, three Latinos, 19 Asians and 35 women on the boards.) Clearly race, culture and gender are factors in the Valley. This reflects a pattern of exclusion that must end. We must not accept economic apartheid. Not only is it immoral, it's unproductive.

The technology business is a bottom-line enterprise. What bottom-line benefits will tech companies receive from hiring more minorities?
What if baseball wouldn't allow Jackie Robinson or Roberto Clemente to The downturn must not be a pretext for putting those out who have been historically locked out. play? It would be unimaginable. My point is that we didn't know how good baseball could be until everybody could play. And before you saw Roberto Clemente and before you saw Jackie Robinson, you couldn't imagine how good they could be. But once the doors opened, in came Reggie Jackson and Sammy Sosa and that, in some sense, is our point here today.

Blacks, Latinos, women and Asians must have access to an even playing field. You can relate to us based on fear or greed or added value. We represent added value.

What progress has been made?
We have three more minorities on boards this year than we had last year. That's incremental but it's in the right direction. Hewlett-Packard, Cisco and Agilent.

According to the recent census figures, this country is becoming more multicultural, more heterogeneous. Would one benefit to companies that open their doors to minorities be to prepare their work force for a more heterogeneous California and country?
Indeed. Because it's more multicultural, the staffs should look like the marketplace. You can't sell a strong line of female items with all male directors. You can't penetrate the Latino market if you can't speak Spanish. So a broad-base, multicultural, diverse staff is the reality. Our world is diverse. Half of all human beings are Asian, half of those are Chinese. One-eighth of the human race is African.

Most people in the world today are yellow, brown, black, non-Christian, poor, female, young and don't speak English. The world is diverse, so our companies, if they want to be world companies, must be diverse.