Tech industry thought leader turned diversity ally

Facebook’s Rico Mariani (BMath ’88) is taking action on diversity and equity—and he hopes others will follow his example.

A recent gift from Waterloo alumnus Rico Mariani is creating a new scholarship for Black and Indigenous students in the Cheriton School of Computer Science. The gift extends Rico’s commitment to diversity and equity at the University of Waterloo, complementing scholarships to support women in computer science.

A highly-respected veteran of the tech industry, Rico attributes his career success and inspirational allyship to a deep, compassionate and thoughtful engagement with the world around him.  “I let myself be influenced by what’s going on around me, by world events,” says Rico. “I don’t just shrug things off. I think that’s key to making the world a better place.”

A passion for computers

When Rico was in growing up in the early 80s, computers weren’t yet mainstream. His junior high school didn’t even own a computer—instead, the school board loaned an old HP Model 9830A to local schools for brief two-week periods.

Two weeks was enough, however, to get Rico hooked on computer science. He recalls experimenting with the computer while avidly studying flowcharting and BASIC. “I spent the next year writing computer codes on paper that I had no way of running,” says Rico.

Rico attended the University of Waterloo for CS/EEE. A believer that education “is what you make of it,” he was highly involved in extracurriculars throughout his undergraduate degree, assuming numerous roles within the Computer Science Club (CSC), including president. Through the CSC, he built a strong network of friends, the majority of whom he is still in contact with today.

After graduating, Rico joined Microsoft, where a number of his peers from the CSC had already taken jobs. He flourished at Microsoft. His passion for improving software performance earned him the moniker “perf guy” and he gained a following within the industry for his popular blog, which covered topics related to software performance and programming tools. After 29 years at Microsoft, Rico joined Facebook in 2017 as a software engineer.

Addressing lack of diversity in tech

Throughout his years at Microsoft, Rico was aware that there was a problematic lack of diversity in the CS industry, but two events moved him from “ambient sensitivity” to action.

The first was a paper he read during Microsoft’s “Think Week,” an annual event in which Microsoft employees could share essays with Bill Gates and other senior executives. The paper, titled “Girl Geeks,” argued that a lack of sponsorship, as opposed to mentorship, was holding women in CS back. Whereas mentorship involves talking to a colleague, offering them your advice and guidance, sponsorship involves talking about a colleague, usually to other senior leaders in order to advocate on their behalf.

“When I read that paper, I thought, ‘I can totally do this right now,’” says Rico.  “I walked down the hall and asked five women if they wanted me as their sponsor.”

The second event was Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations in support of the HeForShe movement. Rico felt that the speech, which memorably sought to enlist the support of men and boys in the campaign for gender equality, “crystalized something very clearly that I had been struggling to say for 10 years.”

“When I heard the speech, I promised Watson in absentia that I was going to do something about this issue,” says Rico. “I started doubling down on my efforts at Microsoft and I contacted the University of Waterloo shortly thereafter.”

His discussions with Waterloo led to the creation of the Rico Mariani Women in Computer Science Scholarships, which are awarded annually to an outstanding female undergraduate student entering Year One in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science.

While it is not a requirement, many of the scholarship recipients have chosen to contact Rico. Some of them even completed internships at Facebook.

“While they were here, we had regular weekly or bi-weekly meetings and we talked about how things were going and I was able to make their experience a little bit better,” says Rico. “This is my favourite part of the scholarships. I get to see people come through the program and be successful. I have no words to tell you what a joy that is.”

Now, Rico is continuing his support for diversity and equity by creating the Rico Mariani Scholarship for Black and Indigenous Students in Computer Science. The awards were motivated by the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, as well as several moving discussions he has had with BIPOC students about the challenges they face.  

Next, Rico wants to do something for the LGBTQIA+ community. The interest is personal. His daughter is a lesbian, and from hearing her lived experiences as a queer woman, Rico has been inspired to work to create the kind of systemic support for her community that he wishes she’d had.

From caring to doing

Rico hopes his scholarships will inspire others to give too. He believes there are many people out there who, like himself, are “not billionaires,” but care deeply about diversity and equity. They are prevented from acting by misconceptions about how much money is needed or how laborious it is to have an impact.  To this end, he has publicized his gifts on his social networks and blog, even sharing his gift agreements as a way to demystify the process.

 “Maybe just answering a few questions gives a nudge to someone who was already considering something like this, but didn’t know where to start,” says Rico. “Anytime you can lower the activation energy, that’s key. Hopefully, I can move people from caring to doing.”