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Apr 9 2015   8:10AM GMT

EMC in an Unfamiliar Role: Gay Activist

Sharon Fisher Sharon Fisher Profile: Sharon Fisher

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EMC
Isilon
Pivotal

When you think of EMC, the first word that comes to mind is not typically “activist,” and particularly not “gay activist.” Nonetheless, the Hopkinton, Mass. -based storage company was among the first to leap up and express its opposition to Indiana’s recent so-called Religious Freedom Reform Act. And it put its money where its mouth was, not only pulling out of the IndyBigData conference as a sponsor but taking its subsidiaries Pivotal and Isilon with it.

The conference, to be held in Indianapolis on May 7, is intended to provide a space where data experts and vendors discuss how to turn the ever-growing amounts of stuff generated by users online into businesses, writes Business Insider.

“We had three booths there, and we’re pulling everything,” EMC President Jeremy Burton told Re/code. “I think [salesforce.com founder, chairman, and CEO Marc] Benioff deserves the credit for calling attention to this, and when I circulated info about this law to our executive team, we decided we wanted to find a way to add our voice to this.”

This and similar economic pressures from other companies, particularly in the computer industry, led the state to revise the bill to forbid residents from discriminating against people based on their orientation or gender identity in the name of religious freedom.  With those changes, EMC and Pivotal, along with a number of other technology companies, consented to return as sponsors of IndyBigData. (Amazon Web Services appears to have not as yet returned, though Oracle is again listed as a sponsor, however.)

“Now that the law has been changed, a bunch of sponsors have returned to the event. Cloudera, HortonWorks, Information Builders, Platfora, EMC, Pivotal and Isolan — firms that help enterprises store, manage and analyze data — are back,” writes Ad Age.

This is not the first time such bills have cropped up, but the response to Indiana was more vehement than against other states. Arkansas was in line to pass a similar bill but modified it after the reaction to Indiana. Arizona passed a similar bill through its legislature last year, but Republican Governor Jan Brewer vetoed it due to business backlash. Georgia’s legislature tabled a similar bill after it was amended to forbid anti-gay discrimination after concerns over a similar business response (though it’s expected to be reintroduced next year). North Carolina, home of Research Triangle Park, is still considering similar (and some say worse) legislation but it is on hold for now. Republican Michigan governor Rick Snyder has already promised to veto such legislation should it come to his desk. On the other hand, Mississippi passed such legislation a year ago with little fanfare and little anti-gay fallout thus far, and Utah passed a bill that both religious people and gays appeared to be okay with.

Part of it is simply changing times. 89 percent of Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and 66 percent prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, compared with 61 percent and 3 percent, respectively, in 2002, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2015 Corporate Equality Index, writes MetroWeekly’s Justin Snow.

The interesting, and commendable, thing about EMC’s actions is that it’s not generally on the list when one thinks about activist high-tech companies. It doesn’t have a ‎Director of Product Management, Civic Innovation and Social Impact like Google does (or, er, used to). It doesn’t have a high-profile openly gay executive like Apple’s Tim Cook. And it’s not based in a gay Mecca such as San Francisco.

Not to say that EMC wasn’t criticized for its actions.

“So many of the newly energized boycotters have no problem whatsoever doing business in countries whose governments promote and even carry out mind-boggling discrimination against LGBT people,” writes Eric Convey, web editor for Boston Business Journal. “EMC derives about 28.6 percent of its revenue from a region that includes the Middle East and Africa and 13.1 percent from what’s listed as the ‘Asia Pacific’ region. EMC’s website lists a contact in Lagos, Nigeria, where execution of gay people is allowed in some circumstances.”

Similarly, Bloomberg’s Katie Benner notes that the tech companies didn’t speak up about the various racial issues going on in the U.S. for the past several months, and pointed out tech’s dismal record in promoting minorities and women.

“I’ve met scores of gay people in tech — engineers, public-relations people, designers, product heads and investors,” she writes. “But I have met exactly three black entrepreneurs and probably four black employees at tech companies and venture firms. Plenty of other social movements have received attention during the past year, including those springing from the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of the police and the appalling stories about sexual violence on college and university campuses. Tech companies didn’t protest police brutality en masse and we didn’t see letter-writing campaigns expressing concerns about the criminal justice system. Nor did we see tech leaders pow-wow with the heads of colleges such as Stanford and Harvard, which feed students into the tech industry, to figure out how to make campuses safer for women. To the contrary, the tech industry has clumsily grappled with questions about gender discrimination — most visibly amid the high-profile sex discrimination battle between Ellen Pao and the venture firm where she used to work, Kleiner Perkins. There is a notable dearth of black and Hispanic tech employees.”

This all raises the question – is a company not allowed to take a stand against something unless it takes a stand against everything? Even if the actions are in a country outside the U.S.? Do we want a company that’s doing the right thing – even if it’s “finally” – to feel that no good deed goes unpunished? Or do we thank them, and then ask them to expand their newfound enlightenment to other areas?

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