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Aug. 31, 2020, 12:08 p.m. EDT

The tech industry has a ‘moral imperative’ to take action on inequity, new Silicon Valley leader says

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By Levi Sumagaysay

Ahmad Thomas is stepping into the CEO role at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group during a pandemic, a backlash against the tech industry and a reckoning on race and inequality across the nation.

It might be the perfect time for him to show what the first Black chief executive of the SVLG — and only the fourth CEO in the influential group’s history — can do.

“Maybe, just maybe, I’m the guy,” Thomas, who was most recently a Barclays /zigman2/quotes/206581728/composite BCS -1.54% investment banker, told MarketWatch in an interview. He spoke about what he brings to his position at SVLG, the policy-advocacy group founded by Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, which now has more than 350 member companies that include some of the biggest names in tech and business.

Thomas also addressed questions about how the tech industry can help close racial and wealth gaps that are particularly pronounced in the valley, where 13% of households hold more than 75% of the region’s wealth, according to the Silicon Valley Index .

This interview, the latest installment of The Value Gap , has been edited for length and clarity.

MarketWatch: You’re the first African-American CEO of SVLG. Can you talk about the significance of that during this time?

Thomas: I’m California-born and raised, a small-town kid from Lompoc who grew up in a military family. My dad is a Vietnam vet, Air Force vet; my mom a retired RN. She’s from the Caribbean, a West Indian from Trinidad [and] Tobago, and my dad is from rural Alabama. He was born and raised in the segregated South.

My family obviously had a different set of life experiences than me; I’ve been so fortunate in many ways. It has really imbued in me [a] sense of identity, purpose, and I hope a real sense of authenticity in understanding what it feels like to be on the outside looking in to opportunity, prosperity and success. As a small-town guy, I’m here in the tech capital, and I still sometimes feel like a fish out of water seeing the magnitude of opportunity that we have here. It’s incredible.

I went to Cornell and studied business and government, where I met my wife, and then grad school for public policy at the London School of Economics, then straight out of grad school to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office.

Sen. Feinstein has been the largest and most profound influence in my professional life and career. I became a senior member of her staff during the Great Recession. The confidence she had in me, whatever she saw in me — if you think about a Black executive and the type of deep confidence you need to put yourself out there, for these types of positions, you have to believe you can do it and believe you belong. I can’t say enough about her.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been working at Barclays. My role has been focused on public-sector and social-impact banking, first leading Silicon Valley and California coverage, and then most recently our social-impact work on the West Coast. I have a background that is unique, clearly a set of unique experiences as a Black American is part of this. I’m also a business executive, which might not be typical for a position like this. But I have cross-functional expertise, which is understanding politics and policy.

What drew me to this role is the moment that is unique, and I believe an opportunity that is very limited. Our companies must capitalize on this, from a business standpoint, for revenue, for competitiveness, and also there’s a moral imperative. We’re working on innovative proposals and ideas, steps our member companies can collaborate on and take to drive change. We have more than 350 of the biggest and most influential companies not just in Silicon Valley but the world — if we get 116 (about a third) of them to get on board with the type of change we’re talking about, it is going to change corporate culture in America.

And that’s why I left a very comfortable investment-banking job to make the transition.

MarketWatch: For years, Silicon Valley tech companies have said they’re committed to diversity in their workforces. But as we know, the changes they’ve made have been incremental, and the numbers show it. How can SVLG help?

Thomas: We have a moment of moral reckoning in this country. [Democratic vice presidential nominee] Sen. Kamala Harris has spoken to this. A realization of the many inequities in our society. I believe there is a finite window to act. The theme is moving with alacrity, a sense of urgency, because all I know is what I’ve seen with my two eyes. I’m not young. If these moments are not capitalized upon, we revert to the status quo. We cannot allow this moment of reckoning in our country to pass without taking action.

Again, there’s a moral imperative. But I’m here to ensure the competitiveness and strong business climate in our region and the success of our member companies. I’m a revenue-oriented business person. It’s critical to the bottom lines of my companies to lead and excel in this area.

What’s different today? We have two things to do: We need to hire more Black executives and employees, from the C-suite down. We need to fund Black entrepreneurs. The same holds for Latinx and Native Americans.

I’m fortunate to be dealt a very strong hand of very influential executives. So as we think through solutions, we are starting top-down at the executive level because that’s where we have access and ability to move with alacrity to see change.

I was very blunt and direct with Jed York [the incoming chair of SVLG and owner of the San Francisco 49ers] when he asked me my thoughts on diversity. I was heartened and very pleasantly surprised that I did not need the numbers, data and supporting information that I had at my fingertips to make my case about why it’s necessary. Because he asked me, “How do we do it? I’m on board.”

As I talked to other members of the board, the question was not why, how, “well, let’s write some letters and in three years come back to this” or something.

/zigman2/quotes/206581728/composite
US : U.S.: NYSE
$ 5.74
-0.09 -1.54%
Volume: 4.75M
Oct. 26, 2020 4:00p
P/E Ratio
N/A
Dividend Yield
2.51%
Market Cap
$25.23 billion
Rev. per Employee
$458,292
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