Technology Inclusion Summit Highlights Need for Diversity in the Workplace

“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance,” said NCT Venture’s Calvin Cooper, quoting diversity and inclusion consultant Vernã Myers.

On Thursday, April 27 a diverse group of experts gathered at the first annual Technology Inclusion Summit presented by i.c.stars Columbus to discuss the lack of “dancing” in the tech world. Through a series of keynote presentations and panel discussions, venture capitalists to diversity advocates discussed how to build diversity and inclusion in the workplace and why it makes good business sense. 

“Diversity isn’t the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do,” said Celena Aponte, director of strategy at the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center.

Aponte cited research that business leaders that are the same ethnicity as their customer are 152 percent more likely to connect. A diverse workforce builds a team of people that bring different experiences to the table; people that see problems differently, see the world differently, and connect to customers differently.

“Seeing the world differently, it’s a gift. Own it,” Aponte continued.

She also referred to oft-cited research that companies with women in leadership positions perform better than those without – a sentiment echoed by panel moderator Charles Hill, director of community outreach at Rev1 Ventures. Hill referred to a McKesson Group study that companies in the top quartile of racial and ethic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns in their industries, and those at the top in gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to see financial returns.

Former international labor rights lawyer and founder of diversity firm Ready Set, Y-Vonne Hutchinson discussed what both employers and job seekers can do to help companies build these stronger, diverse workforces.

Based in the Bay Area, Hutchinson is at the crux of the tech world – and all of the issues that come with it. When one bedroom apartments rent for over $3,000 a month, and $105,000 is considered low-income for a family of four, Hutchinson questions the sustainability of the tech culture in the area. But for the mistakes made in Silicon Valley, it’s not too late for cities like Columbus to learn from them.

Technology has huge problem with diversity and inclusion, Hutchinson explained. Which is a exacerbated when other industries are mirroring these values.

“Tech is influencing the culture of other industries,” Hutchinson pointed out. “People see the values of tech, and who is valued in tech, and they replicate those values to compete for talent.”

Tech is predominately white and male. There’s a low number of women in tech roles, and little diversity when it comes to ethnic minorities, and even across age and socioeconomic status.

“Tech has an extraordinarily high attrition rate amongst groups that are different,” Hutchinson said.

A person of color is three and a half times more likely to leave their company than a white male, and “Women leave tech companies at a rate of 50 percent,” Hutchinson continued. Even for people that get in the door, “The challenge then becomes staying there.” 

Impediments mount against “different.” Often there’s pressure to culturally assimilate and unwritten rules to navigate. Differing communication styles, and even micro-aggressions, like a black woman being asked about her hair, can add up over time.

There’s the pressure of being the first and the only,” Hutchinson says. 

A Harvard Business Review study found that women and minorities are simultaneously expected to do the work of diversity in an organization and penalized for it.

As awareness builds about tech’s diversity problem, Hutchinson points to actions both employers and job seekers can take to close the gap.

When many positions are filled through referrals, “Our networks look a lot like we do,” Hutchinson said – a trend that’s true across groups. For all the talk of Silicon Valley being innovative and risk-taking, employers can be very risk-averse when it comes to hiring individuals outside of a traditional pipeline. 

Pipelines are only part of the problem, though. “You have interviewers and hiring managers who aren’t trained,” Hutchinson said.  

Certain employees may be conducting interviews on an ad hoc basis, not using a standardized set of criteria to assess the talent in front of them, instead relying on gut instinct.

Often your gut tells you to trust people who look like you or who look like what your idea of success is,” Hutchinson explained, making it hard to imagine non-traditional backgrounds in certain roles.

Hutchinson recommended to employers, “Make D&I a core value. D&I touches all parts of the business and it’s really tempting to try to silo it.” 

Fostering diversity and inclusion often falls to the wayside in favor of tasks like building new products or focusing on revenue. In addition to training interviewers, Hutchinson advises that someone should be responsible for the success of diversity and inclusion at an organization. Make it a priority.

For job seekers, “Look at the leadership teams of orgs to really assess what their commitment to diversity and inclusion is,” Hutchinson reccommended. 

While job seekers can do things like expand their networks and hone in on soft skills, they should also look at the company’s resources devoted to job training and support, especially mentorship programs. Mentorship programs are an indicator of success for diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Hutchinson reminds job seekers to become that mentor down the road.

Reaching back once you attain that success is super important, too,” she said.

Seeing models of success from an early age can encourage younger generations that a career in tech or entrepreneurship is possible outside of the expected paths. 

All photos by Keida Mascaro, Keida Mascaro Creative.

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