Diversity != Inclusion: Expanding the “diversity in tech” conversation

If you haven’t read an article, attended a panel discussion or at the very least read a tweet on the topic of “diversity in technology” or “diversity in entrepreneurship” in the last year — you’re probably living under a rock. It’s a topic that is now receiving attention from technology companies, non-profits, venture capitalists, reverends, entertainers and more.

Although diversity in tech conversations have driven my work for the last several years, I now believe we've reached a point where that conversation has become stagnant and narrow. Many feel that the focus on pipeline STEM education or major company job placement is key to growing a diverse entrepreneurial and work force but missing in these conversations is the relevance of culturally specific learning, methods of curating inclusive work spaces, practical ways to navigate the psychological toll of being an underrepresented person, and attention to the value of supporting economic ecosystems that financially and structurally support POC communities.

Me mentoring at a Diversity in Tech event -2013

When the “diversity in tech” conversation initially increased momentum, it was inspiring to witness and participate as so much of my life’s work and focus was centered on this very issue. I've been working in technology as a developer for almost 10 years and when I started my career at a Big 4 consulting firm, I was the only Black woman on my entry level team of 30. In my first technology role, I was on teams building enterprise applications for consumer goods conglomerates that generated billions of dollar annually.

It was exciting at first. I built some kick ass applications while also developing management and finance skills. In the eyes of many I had reached some level of status or success. Yet as a Black woman in America, it was impossible for me to convince myself that I was serving my community most efficiently with my work and talent.

Five years after starting my career, I quit my corporate gig to pursue project work in more diverse environments—work that was aligned with the needs of my community. I wasn't solving the problems that were most relevant to me. I was also incredibly lonely with very few internal mentors and peers who didn't constantly challenge my value or worth. There were few professional groups where I found supportive community around more general business challenges — however very few, if any, presented content and resources that were relevant to both my identity as a person of color AND my work as a software engineer.

Me learning .NET @icstarsChicago in 2006.

Thankfully, I had the amazing network of i.c.stars — a technology workforce development model with tremendous efficacy developed by Sandee Kastrul 15 years ago in Chicago. 81% of i.c.stars graduates (95% POC) stay in the tech industry as practitioners 5 years post graduation. The i.c.stars model works because all of the learning is centered around solving business and social problems in the actual communities of the learners. The narrative does not stop with “learn to code → get a job”— interns learn how to translate and map the skills of developing technology systems onto strategies required to change social systems of inequity. The context of the curriculum keeps learners engaged during the intense, immersive technology training.

Organizations such as i.c.stars helped me shift career paths into entrepreneurship by founding a mission based technology consulting firm. Through this endeavor, I’ve played in and help build spaces focused on alternative and entrepreneurial education. I’ve also had the opportunity to participate in and help design incubators, code schools and spaces of experiential and collaborative learning.

I helped Dev Bootcamp launch its Chicago location

As a person of color with several years of both technology and entrepreneurial experience, I fear that for the sake of often well-meaning “national causes/initiatives” we are developing incomplete educational strategies while also telling false narratives with damaging effects.

We have to begin to talk about education that includes instructors, coaches and mentors that share diverse backgrounds and experiences in order to maintain the emotional investment needed for POC to thrive in a learning environment.

It also seems that lately the discussion of tech-heros only includes individuals working in technology support roles. When and where do we ever highlight the work or contributions of ACTUAL software engineers of color? And when we do highlight developers of color, we shouldn’t uphold learning how to program as the ultimate path to success without also developing and supporting the spaces and platforms that showcase the viability of a long-term career in tech. Amplifying the voices and work of individuals of color who are currently navigating the industry as technologists and STEM entrepreneurs, is one way to address this issue.

I also argue that not enough of us are having these honest conversations publicly about what life is currently like for POC technologists and what we can do collectively to improve that reality. By avoiding such candid conversations and focusing solely on how to get more POC working at companies like Facebook, we are doing a disservice to established and aspiring technologists by contributing to misguided “tech education movements”.

Me speaking at a Blerdology event.

An Intro to Rails or Javascript for Beginners course is an amazing gateway into the industry but the support for getting underrepresented groups to thrive in the technology industry can not stop there. How much are we also investing in fostering safe spaces for experienced developers of color to continue to learn and develop their craft without having to constantly deal with the microaggressions of non-inclusive workspaces?

Being a practicing technologist requires continuous, ongoing learning. Even with a solid CS background, you’ll spend every day of your life as a developer/engineer reading documentation, taking tutorials, attending workshops/code retreats, etc — it’s what you have to do to maintain a current and relevant craft.

The vast majority of technology education (physical spaces, curriculum, instructors, etc) is designed by and for younger white males. In the tech industry in particular, the psychological exhaustion with having to assimilate to “bro culture” for the sake of “culture fit” — extends beyond the work environment and into social and educational spaces. Furthermore, real innovation in any field requires social capital and creative collaboration that is heavily influenced by one’s race, gender, socio-economic status.

The work needed to create a level playing field and truly shift the biased social infrastructure we call the tech industry must go beyond panel discussions and weekend hackathons. Safe spaces for POC in tech to thrive and grow must be fostered and supported. This is another reason programs and models developed by and for adult POC technology practitioners must be recognized and supported.

Finally, while providing young people access to STEM education is a critical part of the “diversity in tech problem,” we must also create a pipeline educational curriculum that values the full range of skills needed to build the companies and platforms that are shaping the way we live — specifically in communities of color.

Those of us who are technology entrepreneurs of color, know that areas of expertise like finance, collective economics, policy, international affairs, strategies for overcoming organizational oppression, consumer psychology, etc., are critical to building sustainable organizations. We must develop these skills with as much vigor and enthusiasm if we hope to develop a diverse group of individuals who can fully participate in the innovation economy.

Additionally, conversations on wealth generation associated with careers in tech for POC, must include the voices of individuals and businesses that exists beyond Silicon Valley. We are building thriving companies in tech pockets across the globe whose business models can inspire technologists and creators of color to build meaningful products and solve problems most relevant to the communities in which they live.

Unsatisfied with the lack of inclusionary practices in the emerging landscape of technology and entrepreneurial education spaces — Dr. Kortney Ziegler and I have relaunched BlackStarMedia as an education startup for entrepreneurs and technologists of color.

We began with the development of curriculum for BlackStarLaunch (learnbiz.black) — an online learning platform which includes courses taught by expert instructors of color on entrepreneurship, technology and personal development.

The development of our culturally specific technology curriculum shifted into InclusiveDev — a student resource group for adult technology learners of color. The program offers culturally specific tech workshops, coaching by senior technologists of color, support lunches and weekly virtual mini-conferences with speakers who are POC technologists. We’re piloting the program this winter with Dev Bootcamp’s students of color.

An InclusiveDev coaching session

Our hope is to help expand the current conversation on diversity in technology to include supporting people of color even after they've learned to code.

Follow @BlackStarLaunch on Twitter for updates or email us to share your thoughts on creating inclusive spaces in tech.