Washington Tech Industry Weighs Approaches to Improving Diversity

Seattle and its booming tech industry are grappling with how to ensure that the prosperity being created here can be shared by minority groups that have been under-represented in the field.

A new report—or “playbook”—from the Washington Technology Industry Association indicates widespread concern about the tech industry’s poor showing on diversity, and the racial and economic disparities that result. Meanwhile, Trish Millines Dziko, whose organization has been working for two decades to help students of color gain science, technology, engineering, and math skills in preparation for college and tech careers, sees small companies and startups as promising first steps on the ladder into the industry.

Seattle-connected efforts to grow the ranks of women and people of color in tech have been gaining momentum in recent years. Several were highlighted nicely in a national AP story Friday.

And earlier this month, the WTIA released its playbook, which resulted from a unique tech conference in September that broke attendees into smaller groups focused on defining and solving specific issues related to recruiting technology talent and strengthening “an ecosystem that can support continued growth” in the region. The 35-page document (PDF) is meant to be a baseline for measuring progress and a single repository for the Washington tech industry’s concerns and needs, as well as ideas to address them.

The playbook addresses a wide range of specific topics—from competing with Silicon Valley for talent and startups to improving transportation and Internet connectivity—but equity, diversity, and access were among several broad themes that emerged.

“Every group was concerned by how much some communities in our state are falling behind—whether that’s due to race, class, gender, geography/ location, access to infrastructure, or some combination of the above,” reads a summary of the playbook. “They also wanted to be sure that the ecosystem continues to nurture risk-taking and innovation by creating opportunities for startup jobs, keeping cost of living reasonable, and preserving the diversity of communities. A driving ethos was to close the gaps between groups now rather than see existing divides become further entrenched as we continue to grow.”

The WTIA committed to leading or supporting a “level-playing-field career fair” for employers and schools, large and small. And a team at the conference focused on diversity specifically suggested:

  • Marketing campaigns aimed at industry to highlight the benefits of a diverse workforce, and at students, emphasizing that STEM fields are accessible and cool careers.
  • A “voluntary industry agreement” targeting venture capitalists and other tech funders “who agree to tie their continued financial support of companies to specific diversity criteria.”
  • A mechanism for companies to sponsor individual schools or school districts serving populations under-represented in the tech industry.

This isn’t the first time the tech industry has struggled with the issue, says Dziko, co-founder and executive director of the Technology Access Foundation (TAF), whose programs include a rigorous STEM school called TAF Academy, as well as camps, labs, and support for educators. TAF and the UW Institute for Science + Math Education just won a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to “design and research a curriculum approach that integrates computing and interdisciplinary, project-based STEM learning.”

Dziko is also a WTIA board member and participated in the drafting of the WTIA playbook. I spoke with her in TAF’s beautiful Bethaday Community Learning Space, which floats like a high-tech tree house in Lakewood Park in White Center, before the WTIA playbook was published.

Trish Millines Dziko

Dziko

“When I was working here in the late ’80s and through the mid-’90s, diversity was the big conversation,” says Dziko, who was a Microsoft program manager and senior diversity administrator there before launching TAF in 1996. “But I still think that the tech sector has the same problem it’s always had: short-term thinking. They don’t want to invest in talent early.”

She acknowledges that something new this time around is the business-case being made for a diverse technology workforce—one that better reflects the diversity of users of tech products and the changing demographics of the U.S., which will be majority minority by 2044, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s already the case for kids 5 and younger.

There’s the widely cited McKinsey & Company research from early this year that found: “Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.” Also, First Round Capital reviewed its portfolio after 10 years of investments and found “companies with a female founder performed 63% better than our investments with all-male founding teams.”

Dziko welcomes the renewed focus on diversity in tech, but says executives in the industry need to … Next Page »

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Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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