Mark Zuckerberg Should Really Listen to His Own Harvard Commencement Speech

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Twelve years after dropping out of Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg returned to campus—a few years older, a few commas richer—and delivered a commencement speech that expressed a radically different vision of his purpose in life from the one he spelled out in instant messages sent from the dorm room where it all started. The Facebook founder’s address started boilerplate enough, with Zuckerberg centering his talk around the importance of purpose, which, for him, is the nonthreatening concept of “connecting the world,” his longtime hobbyhorse. He urged the graduating class not to underestimate the impact of small actions and importance of working towards a greater good.

But then Zuckerberg ventured out of his comfort zone. He made a few somber acknowledgments about the fear of technology and economic inequality, hitting on themes that would feel at home at any fireside chat in the South Bay, a region that has learned, post-election, it must start acknowledging its shortcomings. (Though, typically in a way that mostly speaks to and serves its own interests.) “Let’s face it,” he said. “There is something wrong with our system when I can leave here and make billions of dollars in 10 years while millions of students can’t afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business.” Zuckerberg alluded to this inequality again at the end of speech, when he told the story of having breakfast with a former student he had tutored at the Boys and Girls Club in East Menlo Park years ago.

Zuckerberg taught a class there, and one day, he recounted, he had asked his pupils about college. The student had raised his hand to say he wasn’t sure if he could go because he is undocumented. Flash forward to the breakfast. The occasion for the meal was the now-high school senior’s birthday, and Zuckerberg asked him what present he wanted. The student mentioned watching those around him struggle and asked for a book on social justice. Telling this story on stage, Zuckerberg got choked up. “I was blown away. Here’s a young guy who has every reason to be cynical. He didn’t know if the country he calls home—the only one he’s known—would deny him his dream of going to college. But he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. He wasn’t even thinking of himself. He has a greater sense of purpose, and he’s going to bring people along with him,” said Zuckerberg. “But if a high school senior who doesn’t know what the future holds can do his part to move the world forward, then we owe it to the world to do our part too.”

Zuckerberg has mentioned this student in public speeches for years, crediting this one heart-breaking interaction as catalyzing his interest in immigration issues. There’s just one problem with this touching follow-up about the young man’s selflessness. If the student managed to keep himself safe from deportation, get accepted to college, and then graduate, chances are slim that he or many of his classmates could find work at Zuckerberg’s own company. In response to questions from WIRED, Facebook said it could not share the ethnicity of the student for his safety, however 82 percent of the kids in the regional Boys and Girls Club where Zuckerberg taught are Latino.

In its latest diversity report from 2016, Facebook said that four percent of its U.S. based employees are Hispanic and two percent were black. Those depressing statistics—at a company that wants to provide the social infrastructure for the entire globe—are the exact same percentages Facebook reported in 2014, the first year it disclosed the diversity of its workforce. (Tech companies fought hard for years to keep this information concealed.) During that same time period, Facebook has increased the percentage of female employees from a humiliating 15 percent in 2014 to 33 percent in 2016. But in terms of underrepresented minorities, during that same time period, senior leadership experienced a slight dip in diversity ratios. Facebook’s leadership is now three percent Hispanic and one percent black, down from four percent Hispanic and two percent black in 2014.

Next year’s results are on track to improve, but not by much. In its 2016 diversity report, Facebook noted that five percent of new senior leadership hires are Hispanic and nine percent are black.

Before Zuckerberg got to the podium, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust gave a thoughtful and nuanced commencement address about free speech, in which she mentioned that half of Harvard’s student body are female and 60 percent are able to attend because of financial aid, powerful numbers that illustrate how backward Zuckerberg’s company is compared to even the stodgy institution he left behind.

Silicon Valley tech companies are notorious for hiring practices that have made their workforce overwhelming young white and Asian men. However, even among this cohort, Facebook has been singled out. In January, Bloomberg reported that a small committee of high-ranking engineers with veto power were holding Facebook back from its diversity goals. Recruiters were incentivized to bring in “diversity candidates” with a double point system, but many stopped trying after those same candidates were blocked by this group of 20 or 30 engineering leaders.

Facebook’s hiring process may be less world-changing than some of the other topics Zuckerberg threw out on stage, like universal basic income, ending poverty, or curing all disease, but he repeatedly returned to the that idea progress does not happen all at once. “Change starts local. Even global changes start small—with people like us,” Zuckerberg told the thousands of students watching him from under umbrellas or rain-dappled ponchos at Harvard and the millions more who viewed the Facebook live-stream of his speech.

After watching the address, I was reminded of something Ellen Pao told me earlier this year during an interview about Zuckerberg’s carefully orchestrated political makeover. Pao, who has become a prominent advocate for diversity and inclusion since losing her lawsuit for gender discrimination against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, argued that Zuckerberg’s new do-gooder crusade has skipped over the simplest solution. In order to change the entire tech industry, “He doesn’t even have to do anything outside of making Facebook inclusive,” Pao had said. “They admire him, they will copy him, they will change because of him.” She’s right. In speeches like the one today on campus, or the copy of the speech posted immediately after on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg is able to set the agenda for the industry over which he reigns.

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