Schwartz Talks Diversity in Tech & General Assembly’s Growing Clout

The more the innovation community grows, the more diversity will become intrinsic to startups’ development.

That was one of the messages from The Next Web (TNW) Conference USA held this week in New York, where General Assembly CEO and co-founder Jake Schwartz did a fireside chat with TNW editor Natt Garun.

Schwartz said General Assembly, with its classes and growing alumni, is advancing its ambition of educating and building up a community around the world of people who pursue work in the innovation scene and beyond.

General Assembly has some 25,000 alumni, he said, who graduated from courses in design, data, and other aspects of technology. “Over time, we believe this is going to be one of the most powerful professional networks in the world,” Schwartz said. “By the end of next year, we’ll be bigger than Harvard Business School’s entire alumni network.”

General Assembly expanded beyond its first New York location, on Broadway, which he said started off as a space for startups in the city, to sites across the country and overseas.

During the chat, Schwartz weighed in on diversity, community, and culture in the tech scene—from companies to the metropolises they populate. From General Assembly’s perspective, he said, diversity takes on special meaning as the organization runs campuses across international borders. Schwartz said they were proud of the number of women in the engineering classes and efforts to build scholarship funds for underrepresented groups in tech. “We’ve raised far over $1 million for these scholarships,” he said.

Getting the money to back such scholarships is not as arduous as sorting out the way to market those opportunities to underrepresented groups, Schwartz said. It takes a nuanced approach, he said, to connect with folks who have not been part of the tech scene. “We’ve worked with a lot of nonprofits, a lot of community groups to extend our reach to bring more people in,” he said.

General Assembly has also teamed up with Capital One to bring tech training to more people, and is also participating in an initiative launched by the White House to increase tech hires across the country.

Schwartz also added some perspective to the issue of injecting more diversity in startup teams. There is a tendency, Schwartz said, for folks to hire people just like themselves. “It’s a human bias,” he said—one that has to be worked against.

Addressing such behavior, Schwartz said, is not just about satisfying quotas on diversity. Giving in to bias likely means the best person is not being hired to fill the job. In such cases, hiring managers might instead pick someone they believe they can relate to or feel comfortable with—which is not the best strategy for a young company. “If there’s any truth about running a startup and growing a business, it is that pushing yourself and your team out of their comfort zone has got to be daily,” Schwartz said.

Otherwise the company runs the risk of lapsing into a self-reinforcing, self-aggrandizing monoculture where old assumptions are not challenged. “That becomes groupthink and everybody agrees with each other, and you go unquestioning off the cliff just like lemmings,” he said.

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