Jesse Jackson has called on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to turn over his company's diversity data.(Photo: Money Sharma, AFP/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO — Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson is calling on Uber to release its employee demographics and join the fight to "change the face of technology."
In a letter to CEO Travis Kalanick obtained by USA TODAY, Jackson urged the ride-hailing company to report its diversity data by mid-February.
"Silicon Valley and the tech industry, at your best, can be a tremendously positive change agent for the world," Jackson, president and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, wrote to Kalanick on Thursday. "At your worst, you can institutionalize old patterns of exclusion and de facto segregation."
Jackson's request came as Uber tapped Bernard C. Coleman III, chief diversity officer for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, to take charge of its diversity efforts. Coleman, who is African American, was the first chief diversity officer for a presidential campaign. He is one of a growing number of prominent figures to aid the tech industry in building more diverse staffs and more inclusive workplaces.
"Diversity is crucial in recruiting and retaining the best talent," Liane Hornsey, Uber's chief human resources officer said in a statement. Coleman will build the "right programs and teams that make Uber a great place to work."
Jackson has set his sights on Uber, which at $68 billion, is the world's most richly valued private technology company. It's also one of the few holdouts, resisting calls to disclose the demographics of its workforce even as Google, Apple and Facebook as well as fellow start-ups such as Airbnb and Pinterest have made the data available to the public.
Uber's past refusals to release its demographics are in keeping with its brash corporate character. Its ambition is to upend industries and challenge regulators, most recently in California where it had to halt a self-driving car pilot in San Francisco.
In a statement to USA TODAY, Uber struck a more conciliatory tone. "We appreciate the attention and focus Rev. Jackson brings to these issues and look forward to continuing our discussions with the RainbowPUSH Coalition," the company said.
The letter to Kalanick is part of Jackson's campaign to accelerate the hiring of African Americans and Latinos in the tech industry. Since 2014, tech companies have been reporting the demographics of their workers and have made public commitments to increase the diversity of their workforces. Yet progress has been slow.
Jackson says he wants Uber to disclose the racial and gender make-up of its workforce including its board of directors and executives as well as the demographic data that federal contractors must file with the government but are not required to publicly disclose. He's also asking for the number of hires Uber made between 2014 and 2016 and the percentage who were African American or Latino. Details on the company's diversity and inclusion policies and practices were also among his requests.
Diversity has taken on growing urgency in the tech industry, especially in its power center of Silicon Valley. Tech companies here, staffed mostly by white and Asian men, fear they will lose touch with the diverse nation — and world — that form their consumer base as demographics rapidly shift. At the same time, women and minorities are being shut out of one of the fastest-growing, highest-paying sectors of the American economy.
Uber, which lets people summon rides at the touch of a smartphone button, has said little publicly about its stance on the diversity of its workforce.
Jesse Jackson is calling on Uber to release its diversity data. (Photo: Drew Angerer, Getty Images)
That has raised concerns as Uber prepares to expand its San Francisco headquarters by bringing thousands of employees to Oakland in early 2018, making Uber one of the city's largest employers.
While the industry has created high-paying jobs for many, those are rarely held by African Americans and Latinos, who make up more than half of Oakland residents.
In Oakland, one of the nation's most diverse cities, Jackson says he would like to see Uber hire local workers and businesses and invest in the community including the Oakland Unified School District. He also warned Uber to "take great care not to be disruptive and accelerate displacement and gentrification."
"It is significant that Uber has chosen to base your headquarters here," Jackson wrote to Kalanick. "It’s even more important that Uber build a company that reflects the multi-racial, multi-cultural character of Oakland and the East Bay community, and its tradition of advocating for racial equality and economic justice."
Coleman will be tasked with helping Uber build a workforce that reflects the consumers it wants to win over, just as he built a diverse political staff for Clinton to appeal to the nation's changing demographics. Here, however, the challenge will be tougher and on a much larger scale.
Uber and other Silicon Valley companies grow rapidly, picking up new hires from founders' and employees' social and professional connections. Uber, founded in March 2009, already has thousands of employees.
During the campaign, Coleman told the Huffington Post that he resisted the temptation when hiring quickly to only bring in people you know, putting in place more deliberate hiring practices.
Read more USA TODAY coverage of diversity and inclusion in tech here.