Silicon Valley Meets at Facebook Campus to Recruit LGBT Students

2/1/13Follow @wroush

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said many times that the company’s mission is to make the world more open and connected. Usually, the connections Facebook fosters are purely virtual, but this weekend the company is getting real, hosting a gathering for almost 200 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) college students at its Menlo Park, CA, headquarters.

It’s the second year of the Out for Undergraduate Technology Conference (OUTC). Out for Undergrad, the non-profit organization behind the recruiting event, provides travel scholarships to bring science, technology, engineering, and math majors to Silicon Valley for two days of introductions to executives from leading startups and technology companies.

“These are students who come from traditional STEM backgrounds who also happen to share a bond when it comes to their gender and sexual identity,” says Dale Dwelle, a recruiter at Facebook who is also associate director of the conference. Finding a job in the technology industry can be challenging enough, Dwelle says; young LGBT people entering the workforce face additional uncertainties about whether they’ll be welcomed. “We need to think about letting these students know that they’re not alone. There are others out there who have been able to navigate these channels.”

Conference events will include sessions on LGBT issues in the workplace, as well as more classic topics like networking, pitching investors, and surviving job interviews. The program’s sponsor list includes Facebook, StackOverlow, Yahoo, Fog Creek Software, Square, Box, Twitter, Uber, Netflix, Opower, SAP, Microsoft, Airbnb, Pivotal Labs, NetApp, EMC, CapGemin, eBay, Ubisoft, EA, LinkedIn, Palantir, Pandora, Yelp, Accenture, Salesforce.com, and VMware, and Groupon.

College students met with company executives and venture investors at the 2012 Out for Undergradate Technology Conference.

Many of these companies will send recruiters to the “career fair” portion of the event. “We have done all the heavy lifting for our sponsors and gone to campuses across the country to find the best and brightest LGBT undergraduates interested in computer science careers,” says Michael Ruderman, executive director of OUTC and a student at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

Important tech firms in Silicon Valley are so deluged with applications from top-performing college grads that, on one level, you’d think they wouldn’t need to go out of their way to cultivate connections with LGBT students, or any other subgroup. But that would be wrong, says Evan Wittenberg, chief people officer at Box.

“Diversity helps you get the wisdom of crowds,” says Wittenberg. “If everybody you hire is from Harvard, is that really a crowd, or is that a bunch of people who all think alike? We have all kinds of customers, and if we were all the same we wouldn’t understand their needs.”

Ruderman and executives at both Box and Facebook also say they want prospective tech-company employees to feel that they shouldn’t have to check their sexual identities at the door.

One of the big questions from attendees at last year’s OUTC event was “how much can I express myself and be myself” inside a Silicon Valley company, says Kenny Mendes, director of recruiting at Box. “What is the culture like? That is the biggest thing they are trying to find out.”

“I think as a student it’s very easy to be open about your sexuality or gender identity on your college campus,” adds Ruderman. “Not knowing what the professional world will be like, it might be really scary to consider being as open in a corporate setting as you are at your university. Our hope for these students is that they realize they can be their true selves everywhere in their lives.”

That’s good for both employees and their companies, Ruderman says. He cites a 2011 Harvard Business Review study showing that closeted LGBT employees are less likely to be promoted, more likely to feel isolated, and more likely to leave their jobs early.

Admission to OUTC is competitive: this weekend’s attendees had to submit resumes and transcripts and answer extensive questions about their personal interests and career plans. (More than 400 students applied for 170 slots, according to Dwelle.)

Because of that pre-filtering, the OUTC event would be a good recruiting mechanism for the sponsoring companies even in the absence of any LGBT theme, says Mendez. “If you have a chance to connect with some of the brightest students in the country, it would be foolish not to participate,” he says. “But even more, a lot of these students are volunteers and show initiative beyond just going to a good school and having a nice background. It was a no-brainer for Box to participate.”

Several participants in last year’s conference went on to do internships at Facebook, Dwelle says.

This year’s participants will get to hear a keynote speech from Maveron partner Amy Errett. Other speakers include Fog Creek Software founder Joel Spolsky, Andreessen Horowitz partner Brian Cho, and NEA partner Patrick Chung.

Out for Undergrad also organizes the 10-year-old Out for Undergraduate Business Conference, hosted annually by JP Morgan in New York City. That event is designed for students interested in the financial and consulting industries, and now boasts a large community of alumni who can help LGBT students find internships and job openings, according to Dwelle.

“We’ll be able to catch up here shortly,” he says.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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