Entrepreneurs Share How and Why to Increase Diversity in Tech

Change seems inevitable for the technology scene as more voices take up the cause of gender and ethnic diversity—but numerous hurdles persist.

Predicting what New York’s tech scene will look like in 2020 was the focus of a panel chat during the Internet Week New York conference last week. Much of the conversation though centered on breaking up the homogeneity commonly seen in today’s innovation community.

The panel—comprised of Nathalie Molina Niño, co-founder of Entrepreneurs@Athena; Anthony Frasier, co-founder of The Phat Startup; Katharine Zaleski, co-founder and president of PowerToFly; and Kristen Titus, founding director of NYC’s Tech Talent Pipeline—essentially said it will take more than a few hires to make good on diversity efforts; attitudes need to evolve as well.

For instance, there can be undue pressure on minorities and women to be better than the work environments they go into, said Molina Niño. “As a woman, and a person of color, you can’t just become the culture that’s around you,” she said. “You have to top it; you have to do better; you have to be perfect.”

While a male colleague’s tantrums during company meetings were tolerated, but Molina Niño said she had to always remain level-headed.

She has been pushing for more gender diversity through Entrepreneurs@Athena, which is a project at Barnard College to help women entrepreneurs and to support woman-led startups. Molina Niño started a program for women to learn to code. She also asked incubators and accelerators to recruit classes made up of at least 30 percent women.

Making connections with mentors, potential hires, co-founders, and others can help entrepreneurs develop their ideas, but not everyone finds peers they can relate to. “Unfortunately, people of color aren’t included in those networks,” said Frasier.

Anthony Frasier, co-founder of The Phat Startup (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

Anthony Frasier of The Phat Startup (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth).

The Phat Startup, which blends hip hop and startup cultures, aims to make entrepreneurship more open to all communities, he said. Frasier hosts events across the country with speakers who share their experiences as minority entrepreneurs. He also works with companies such as Audible, Phone.com, and Panasonic to help them diversify their employee base.

Recruitment is the top challenge that many companies face, Titus said. Demand is clearly there. Some companies are hiring 15 new people every Monday, she said. But then there are companies that only recruit job candidates from three or four choice colleges. “I know companies that have never hired any individual they didn’t already know,” she said.

NYC’s Tech Talent Pipeline, Titus said, announced a new program last week focused on out-of-school, out-of-work youths—18- to 26-year-olds without a college degree. “We’re giving them five months of intensive training and connections to paid internships at companies such as BuzzFeed and The New York Times,” she said.

Bringing diversity to hiring can mean looking beyond a company’s headquarters city, according to PowerToFly’s Zaleski. She said while many people from diverse backgrounds are versed in technology, not everyone is located in areas like Silicon Valley or big city hubs, such as New York. “It’s prohibitively expensive to live here,” she said. “Often people move out, especially women when they start to have families.”

PowerToFly helps women find jobs they can do remotely in a variety of industries.

Katharine Zaleski, co-founder of PowerToFly (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

Katharine Zaleski of PowerToFly (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth).

At the moment, tech jobs in general are not getting filled fast enough, Zaleski said, and that can stifle growth for companies and the economy as a whole. Embracing diversity could change that. “There’s a huge talent war in New York,” she said. “Instead of spending six months looking for that ‘perfect person,’ why not open your search parameters and allow someone to work from home who’s just as good and doesn’t live in New York?”

This can lead to what she called “diversity of thought” and a better understanding of different geographic markets. “There’s just no way that someone in Palo Alto, who went an Ivy League school, is going to know exactly how to expand in China or Japan,” she said.

PowerToFly learned that lesson as well, after making a hire in Russia that led to the discovery that Russian women rarely post on or read Facebook, preferring European social network VK.com instead. “That is a huge market for us,” Zaleski said. “If we had hired just New York-based people, it would have paralyzed the company at every step.”

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