Attendees expected Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to talk about Azure, CFO Amy Hood to discuss fiscal 2015’s record first-quarter revenue, and board chairman John Thompson to address a whirlwind year that included the hiring of Nadella and layoffs.
But the speakers who dictated the tone of Microsoft’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday weren’t company executives. Instead, a civil-rights activist and a blind woman turned the meeting into a forum about inclusivity in both Microsoft and the technology industry as a whole.
Nadella touched on diversity in his scripted remarks, saying he is committed to making Microsoft “the best place to work for smart, curious people across culture, gender, ethnicity, and lifestyle.” But the discussion began in earnest in the Q-and-A session, which was kicked off by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The civil rights activist began by commending Microsoft on embracing diversity in its highest echelon, citing the company’s female CFO, black board chairman, and India-born CEO. But the good will ended there.
Jackson highlighted Microsoft’s and the tech industry’s unimpressive diversity stats: Microsoft’s workforce is 71 percent male, and 61 percent white. Among 20 tech companies surveyed by Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition, the boards of directors are populated by just three African Americans and one Latino. The numbers aren’t much better in the C suites, where 244 of 307 executives surveyed were male and just nine were African American or Latino.
“The diversity and inclusion data are indisputable and undeniable: The leadership and workforce of the technology industry does not look like America,” Jackson said. He called on Nadella to formally prioritize diversity in the workforce and the board, and to seek out employees in disadvantaged areas that are often overlooked.
“This is a growth industry,” Jackson said after the meeting, “and a company’s growth is inhibited by not seeing the full potential of talent.” He said companies such as Microsoft need to look for talent among historically “locked-out” populations by recruiting communities such as colleges with mostly-black student bodies.
While Jackson called for inclusive hiring, Eleni Teshome, a therapist who lives in Seattle, posed a question about Microsoft’s commitment to those with disabilities. “In most situations, technology is frustrating,” said Teshome, who is blind. “Microsoft can do a lot to make my life easier, and the lives of others to come. … What are you going to do about it?”
Other questions included Microsoft’s stance on LGBTQ employees and educating senior citizens about their products, so Nadella spent much of the morning discussing social topics.
The CEO spoke more sensitively Wednesday than he did in October, when he said women shouldn’t ask for raises. In response to Jackson, he reiterated Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and said the company will continue releasing workforce demographics. Another questioner asked if Microsoft could quantify the economic impact of a diverse workforce, and though he didn’t have numbers, Nadella said products can’t be made for a multicultural customer base without diverse employees.
“When I look the customers we are serving — the diversity, the income streams, the ethnicities, the genders — I don’t believe we can be successful … if we don’t have diversity in the workforce,” he said.
Nadella, whose has two children with disabilities, empathized with Teshome and said Microsoft is focusing on “universal design” so its products can be used by all people right out of the box. He highlighted company research that could help blind people navigate with their smartphone and the company’s efforts to put basic disability capabilities in its core products.
“We want technology to graduate from being a challenge to a great enabler,” he said.
That many of the shareholders’ questions dealt with diversity and inclusivity symbolizes discontent with the industry’s social reputation. Tech companies are said to employ the most innovative people in the world, and overlooked populations are ready for companies in Silicon Valley and Seattle to solve their problems and boost employment efforts.
Teshome, who moved to Seattle from Ethiopia after she lost her vision as a teenager, says tech companies, particularly Microsoft, are in a unique position to help disadvantaged individuals. “Microsoft is the mother of technology,” she said after the meeting. “Every day, life is a challenge. People ask if I’ve adjusted — you can’t adjust. Take this room. I don’t know how to get out. God forbid I go through an emergency exit. So I’m thankful for all the helpful tools I have, but a company like Microsoft can do more.”