Disrupt Indy: Can Data Forge the Path to Inclusive Tech Ecosystems?

U.S. tech startups and investment firms have long been thought of as the domain of white men—because historically, they have been.

Although that may be changing as more big tech corporations are pressured to release their diversity statistics and change hiring policies, one only needs to look at the statistics to confirm that women, members of the LGBTQ community, and people of color are still not connecting to tech jobs and investment at anywhere close to the same rates as their white male peers.

It’s a stark disconnect in a culture that imagines itself championing the best ideas and smartest founders, regardless of race and gender. The ongoing lack of inclusion makes even less sense given the enormous buying power  that underrepresented groups have in the tech marketplace. Studies show diversity is crucial to business success, yet the chilling effect of confirmation bias continues, especially when it comes to which startup ideas get funded. Why is it still so hard for minority groups to get a seat at the table?

Kelli Jones, co-founder and CEO of Be Nimble, a social enterprise advancing diversity in tech, feels it’s time to gather Indianapolis’s fast-growing tech community, have these uncomfortable conversations, and educate innovators about the business sense of inclusion. Jones has organized an event called Disrupt Indy: Midwest Diversity in Tech Conference, a event “for thought leaders, innovators, educators, venture capitalists, and techies to unpack the diversity problem and create solutions” that increase the number of women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community working in tech. Disrupt Indy runs over three days starting Aug. 2; click here for tickets.

“I’m approaching the topic with a different perspective,” she says. “I don’t look at it as a matter of quotas, but of market representation and innovation. If your target market is an entire swath of people in the United States, you should have people at the table that represent that entire swath. Research bears that out. I’m a black woman, so my perspective might be completely different than my counterpart’s. If you think of it more like a business model, it changes the tone and takes the fear out of it.”

Jones is an Indiana native who lived in New York City and Los Angeles, working in business development and marketing for a number of companies before returning home to join Indy’s growing tech sector. Upon arrival, she was impressed by the community’s openness and initiatives to increase the number of women in the sector. “There’s a huge focus here on women in tech, but at the same time, I saw a gap between the number of women and people of color,” Jones recalls. “Because of how Indianapolis embraced women in tech, I thought it was the perfect time for a bigger conversation about diversity. I want to be a catalyst for change, but the first step is bringing everyone together.”

However, Jones doesn’t just want to talk about diversity—she wants to walk away from the conference with a plan of action. Disrupt Indy will examine the issue as it relates to three main topics, Jones says: boosting computer science and coding education for K-12 students; increasing the pool of qualified, diverse job candidates; and encouraging entrepreneurship by incubating and scaling new startups led by people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. The ultimate goal of Disrupt Indy, she adds, is to be able to replicate it in other cities grappling with inclusion.

“Indianapolis has great infrastructure for this conference, along with companies and people who are open,” Jones says. “Everyone is still trying to figure it out, whether it’s here or Silicon Valley.”

Jones is encouraged by the spate of black women recently hired in at huge West Coast tech companies in the wake of diversity reports being made public. “To see that is really great. Here [in Indianapolis], it’s not really discussed so openly. It’s easy to focus on women in tech because there are a lot of women here willing to push the envelope. It just takes someone to raise their hand and say, ‘What are we doing for people of color and other minorities? Where are the mentors? Where are the founders that look like me?’ Well, we’re going to have a whole panel of local founders that are people of color.”

One of the conference’s speakers is Fabian Elliott, CEO of Black Tech Mecca, a Chicago-based nonprofit think tank  that uses data to “identify challenges impacting how black tech practitioners engage with their local tech ecosystems, crafting solutions to fill its gaps and spearhead change.” Elliott is also a technology consultant for Google and one of Black Enterprise magazine’s “100 Men of Distinction.”

Black Tech Mecca has created a framework to assess individual cities and black tech ecosystems via 13 indicators, including density of black-owned companies; strong connections between black technologists, their projects, and resources; a collaborative, risk-taking culture with plenty of networking opportunities; variety and availability of black mentors; amount of money being invested in black entrepreneurs and their companies; “race-neutral” policies and procedures, and evidence that black entrepreneurs are equally benefitting from them; and evidence of black technologists moving up the career ladder.

In February, the organization released its inaugural research report detailing the 13-point index and other findings. In September, Elliott will release a second report that applies that framework to measure the health of Chicago’s black tech ecosystem. His plan is to do a series of similar reports for other U.S. cities; Indianapolis, he says, is high on his list of places to study next.

“In our research, we didn’t find any a-ha or gotcha moments,” Elliott says. “Most of it comes down to underrepresentation or misrepresentation. If we apply the framework, it helps to better prioritize what will make the greatest impact. The real magic isn’t necessarily in the raw data, but how to make it actionable within the framework.”

Black Tech Mecca’s overarching goal, according to its website, is to create places where people of color are “empowered to leverage technology, to shape their future with their own hands and contribute unique value to the technological revolution taking place. These places are rich with access, connections, collaboration, and value our contribution as consumers and producers.”

That’s what really sticks in Elliott’s craw: why, when black people are so influential in pop culture and such enthusiastic consumers of technology—one could argue that few people knew what the point of microblogging was until so-called Black Twitter turned it into a comedic art form—are they consistently shut out of the opportunity to create and grow tech startups? It’s definitely not for lack of ideas, he adds.

“No one is taking a deep look at cultivating a whole city or ecosystem,” he says. “That’s what I’ll be talking about at Disrupt Indy—how to grow the black tech ecosystem from a quantitative and programmatic perspective.”

The inspiration for Black Tech Mecca came out of Elliott’s experiences working at Google. (Google is one of the organization’s research sponsors.) It was there that Elliott was able to use data to improve the lives of black workers, he says.

“It made we wonder how a similar data-driven approach could be applied to cities,” Elliott says. “With all diversity-in-tech initiatives, data was being underutilized, and nobody was keeping score. That sprung us into action to create a framework for measurement.”

Elliott says he hasn’t yet had a chance to formally present Black Tech Mecca’s research findings to Google. “I think that will be an interesting conversation,” he says.

Felecia Hatcher, founder and CEO of Code Fever Miami and Black Tech Week, knows firsthand the challenge of building a thriving, diverse tech ecosystem. She’ll be on hand at Disrupt Indy to discuss her work, which began four years ago when she opened a coding school for Miami’s black and Caribbean community. “Miami is a very interesting example because people think of it as a diverse city,” she explains. “But it’s diverse in its people, not its institutions. There were no co-working spaces in these neighborhoods where you could see startup founders collaborating, and it’s really easy to be dismissive of something if you can’t see it.”

Storytelling, she says, is just as important to creating an inclusive ecosystem as funding and mentorship. “You need media and platforms to tell your stories over and over—what you’re doing and how you’re contributing. It helps raise the profile.”

In Miami, Hatcher created a venture capitalist-in-residence program to contend with the “huge problem” of a lack of startup funding for minority entrepreneurs, she says. “There was no fund dedicated to entrepreneurs of color, so we brought in leading Silicon Valley investors for one month, and that was a gamechanger,” she adds. With a dash of FOMO and a hint of shame, local investors were inspired to start supporting homegrown early-stage companies after they saw their Bay Area peers put some skin in the game.

“The VC-in-residence program helps two-fold: It has an impact on startup founders, and it gives a kick in the ass to the entire ecosystem,” she says. “If you bring in someone they respect, it holds VCs accountable.”

The program, launched earlier this year, has been such a success in Miami that it’s moving to Kansas City next, Hatcher says.

There’s an important distinction to be made when it comes to doing this kind of ecosystem-building work, she notes. “The hard part of the conversation is, I don’t think every founder of color should be responsible for doing this work. Let entrepreneurs be entrepreneurs and community organizers be advocates. The work startup founders do helps advocates get resources and respect.”

Her advice to minority entrepreneurs: “Show up and show out. Be unapologetically who you are and show up to everything possible, because that’s where the resources are. Evangelize for your brand and what you’re building—your product doesn’t have to be perfect for you to start making those connections.”

Her advice to non-minority allies who want to help build a more inclusive tech ecosystem is to get in where you fit in. “That thing you won a gold medal in, do that,” she says. “If you’re a lawyer, every startup needs legal advice.”

Whatever path to inclusion the tech industry decides to take, it had better take it quickly. As Hatcher points out, there’s a big demographic change on the horizon that will see white people become the minority population in the United States.

“Everything you build has to be culturally relevant or you’re going to be out of business in a few years,” Hatcher warns tech companies. “Investing in people of color is not charity, it’s a smart business decision. Investing in products that meet the needs of people of color will give you a much bigger pool of customers than if you do the opposite. If we had invested in jitney drivers, maybe we’d have had Uber 15 years sooner.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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