Jesse Jackson Tours Silicon Valley

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich left, stands beside Rev. Jesse Jackson prior to speaking at the PUSHTech2020 Summit Wednesday, May 6, 2015, in San Francisco. Jackson and his Rainbow Push organization are holding the summit as part of a year-old campaign to pressure tech companies into hiring and promoting more minorities and women. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Last week, the Reverend Jesse Jackson talked to Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, who had announced the company’s progress in making its workforce more diverse with new hires and other initiatives. Then, without skipping a beat, Jackson asked, “What about the board?”

Krzanich said he didn’t control the board. So Jackson asked when their terms are up.

The crowd laughed.

It was Jackson being both the validator, raising Intel’s profile as a company committed to diversity, and the outsider, asking the uncomfortable questions, writes the San Jose Mercury News.

15 years after his last trip to Silicon Valley to push the tech industry on diversity, Jesse Jackson, 73, is finding this audience more receptive.

Why is this? He has changed. Silicon Valley has changed.

Back then, Jackson met with CEOs such as Steve Jobs. Hewlett-Packard committed to giving his organization, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, equipment for its new Silicon Valley office.

But then Jackson seized on the metaphor of “the digital divide” to describe the lack of diversity at tech firms. (That seemed a little off, since it had been a term used for describing children who didn’t have access to computers.)

At that time, it was relatively easy for tech leaders to push Jackson away, arguing that Silicon Valley was far from the “good old boys clubs” Jackson had been attacking as part of his Wall Street Project.

The valley saw itself then as a unique, multicultural meritocracy where the only thing that mattered was knowledge and a can-do spirit, not what school you attended, whom you knew or what you looked like.

Joanne Jacobs, a columnist in the Mercury News, wrote in April 1999 that Jackson overlooked what made Silicon Valley unique. “To use an overworked phrase, he doesn’t get it,” she said.

Then the boom turned to bust, and so did Jackson’s efforts to push tech on diversity.

More than a year ago, Jackson returned, writes the San Jose Mercury News. ┬áHe began drawing much from the same playbook from 15 years ago — buying up tech company shares, attending shareholder meetings, holding rallies and landing meetings with CEOs.

This time, Jackson seized on a simple idea: Asking the companies to disclose their workforce demographics, something many had resisted doing for years.

He also promised to take “action” if a company didn’t respond to him, evoking the memory of economic boycotts he threatened against Toyota and others.

His arrival back in Silicon Valley coincided with another period of prosperity, but now the tech industry is more confident of its economic, social, cultural and political stature. Meanwhile, as Jackson began his campaign, protesters were disrupting shuttle buses, raising concerns about gentrification and income inequality.

“Companies have moved out of this monochromatic cul-de-sac to a fuller engagement with rising America,” said Van Jones, a former White House environmental adviser, co-founder of #yeswecode and a CNN commentator. “He has been able to make the case that has been really galvanizing. At some point, you have to give the guy credit.”