Championing diversity in UK tech
One of the things that really intrigues me in the professional world is how much resistance people have to affinity networks. For the purpose of explanation, affinity networks are networks that cater for the specific needs and voice of groups. Sometimes minority groups representing ability, race, orientation. For other times majority, the most popular one’s being women groups.
Such groups are set up for a number of reasons. Within large organisations, they are formed as part of diversity and inclusion strategies to be able to hear often underrepresented voices. Other times they are organisations who work alongside big organisations to affect change. Take the 30% Club. A network created in the UK in 2010 with a goal of achieving a minimum of 30% women on FTSE-100 boards. Or take the numerous LGBT networks who work in partnership with Stonewall to campaigns for the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across Britain.
Having had the honour to speak at, but mostly listen to the voices from a number of affinity networks, I am always alarmed by those who will push back against such networks. They call them divisive. Accuse them of creating division or being less diverse. Yet so many ignore that not only are these networks created to address the lack of representation in the workplace but that they also provide a platform for the members to speak freely or sound out amongst like-minded colleagues on issues they otherwise struggle to in their workplace.
So when I was asked to be one of the founder members of UKBlackTech, a network aiming to highlight and champion the voices of existing educators, entrepreneurs, employees and innovators from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in the UK, I jumped at the chance.
The picture above was taken at the launch event of UKBlackTech. Twelve of us are founding members. Pictured are Me, Phil Benson, Dionne Condor-Farrell, Julian Hall, Rashada Harry, Yinka Ewuola, Imran Adan, Abrar Akhtar, Alex Addae-Brobbey, Dara Kirton and Mark Martin. Missing from this pic, but very present, is Ola Otaiku. We bring a combined wealth of experience and variety to this network, as engineers, developers, entrepreneurs, educators and innovators. The handsome white dude is Rob Friend, Global Head of Sell-side & Research Workflow at Bloomberg LP. Bloomberg hosted and sponsored this first event for the network.
I do a lot of work in the tech space, as a speaker, mentor, advisor and pitch coach and more often than not I found myself to be the only brown face in the room. Talking to a number of my other brown friends in the space this was a shared story. As developers, entrepreneurs, educators, analysts the story was the same. Sometimes that can be lonely.
In addition, we realised that whilst there is diverse talent in tech the few role models and names that often came up were outliers. I know of senior BME staff at Microsoft, Google and a number of banks, but on the whole, the network was quite thin. UKBlackTech was formed as part of a remit to challenge this. Raising the profile of many unsung heroes.
I love my job and part of my remit is to show younger people that there are pathways into industries such as technology. I fell into tech from my first career in accounting and have been smitten ever since. From artificial intelligence to zip drives, I am fascinated by how technology affects us and how for many economically challenged communities it can be a massive step up for social mobility and economic freedom. And yet for all the years I have been involved in STEM advocacy the majority of role models in programmes I have witnessed or took part in have not had many examples who looked like me.
Heck, it was only two years ago that I first heard the story behind the film Hidden Figures and the contribution they made to the moon landing. How the heck does NASA or any related agencies play down such a pivotal role? As well read as I am off the top of my head I would mention Mae Jemison as the first black female rocket scientist if any kids (or adults) asked.
Being part of a network that highlights the stories of black and minority doesn’t take away from the mainstream. Rather it addresses a need many media outlets note is missing. Where are the success stories of educators and entrepreneurs from the black community?
I can think of two business award events I have hosted where the organisers have said they would love to know where more black and minority companies were. I could easily mention a few I knew but such a network allows for the promotion and platform for many others too.
Black users have adopted many social platforms. From Hi5 to Myspace to Instagram to Facebook, and of course Black Twitter. And yet many of these companies have made huge mistakes because they have not had employees on board who represent that huge user base.
Take for example the shortcomings in facial recognition recognising darker faces.
Who can forget the Snapchat faux pas with the Bob Marley filter?
These may seem insignifcant to those not affected by this but ignoring or even offending large swathes of your user base can so easily be avoided if you actually thought strategically about how you could embrace the diversity of said group by employing or working with members of your demographic.
Of course, the talent pipeline for many of the major companies is incredibly competitive. Reducing it to a conversation about race is self-defeating. That, however, does not mean that getting companies to look wider than the narrow pool they take from at the minute should not be a conversation.
I am incredibly inspired by US tech titans like Ursula Burns, Tristan Walker and my major inspiration of being a VC one day, Arlan Hamilton. Theses luminaries get major press coverage and show the variety of what can be brought to the tech table. This is what we have set out to do at UKBlackTech.
There are many of black and minority students who have a passion for technology. Who want to see the stories shared to students who want to get into STEM wider than the current narrow narrative. At the launch, we had an 8yr old who has his own robotics company, a 12 yr old providing fintech solutions to young entrepreneurs and a 9 yr old foodtech entrepreneur. These are but a few of many examples UKBlackTech will be highlighting.
There are black and minority founders who want to start and run their own business but have problems getting past the first post of angels or other investors who don’t quite get it yet. Conversely, such founders don’t know how to approach or communicate to investors. UKBlackTech provides guidance to where they can access funding, learn the rules of pitching and learn about organisations they usually don’t know or hear about.
UKBlackTech aims to make sure our story is heard as part of the overall tech narrative. The fact that we even have to raise this as an issue is telling.
Of course, there will be objectors, who react negatively to such initiatives. Those who will look to pick holes and see division and view this as some kind of politically correct initative. The last year has taught me that there are a hell of a lot more people who hold this kind of view. But that’s ok. We have a plan. It is a 100 year plan as inspired by the excellence that is BMW. We are willing to talk but just as important to listen.
If the name or vision or purpose of UKBlackTech makes you feel uncomfortable that’s OK. Many of us deal with this discomfort daily being ever so careful to watch how we speak, how we style our hair, carefully checking our assertiveness so it’s not interpreted as anger. Changing our “exotic names” to more anglicised ones just to get an interview. Managing the cognitive balance of double consciousness to survive in a world where many are thriving.
UKBlackTech is passionate about addressing some of the shortcomings of a lack of diverse voices in the tech space and we invite you on this journey with us.
If you are BME professional in the tech sector please complete our survey.
And we have a podcast series called DCoded. Our first episode is and interview with the visionary behind UKBlackTech, Mark Martin
I am happy to answer any polite questions in the comments section or you can email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org to see how you can be involved.