Diversity in technology
When I stay “startup founder,” what comes to mind? A 24 year old white male in a hoodie, no kids, and no responsibilities, right? That’s what comes to mind for most, and it’s a challenge for the industry to improve diversity. While some like Jesse Jackson believe minorities have been “locked out” of the industry (and is even speaking on the topic at SXSW Interactive this spring), others believe getting young girls and minorities interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career paths has been a challenge as our culture pushes girls to play with Barbies and boys to play with Legos.
Regardless of the reasons, diversity is a challenge in the tech startup world, and the hoodie-wearing young white guy remains the default representative of the sector, by no fault of his own. I’ve never sat in on any Advisory Board meetings discussing how to keep women and minorities out, in fact, every single time, it is the opposite, yet a lack of diversity remains despite efforts of many to change that.
SXSWi doing their part, hosting diversity mixers
One of the companies putting their money where their mouth is, is South By Southwest Interactive in Austin, where we are headquartered. They’ve long had a commitment to diversity, in fact, when people submit panels to be voted on prior to topics being chosen for each conference, the team utilizes what they call a V-O-W-E-L scale of basic diversity principles (Variety, Opinion, Women, Ethnicity, and Location). They note, “To be clear, our commitment to diversity is a commitment to a smarter community – different kinds of people bring different ways of thinking to the table. Hearing these different ways of thinking help make everyone smarter.”
In that spirit, they are hosting their first ever SXSW Interactive Black Tech Community Meet Up tonight, and their first ever SXSW Interactive Latino Tech Community Meet Up next week.
The Greater Austin Black Chamber stated, “The SXSW Interactive Festival is strongly committed to fostering more diversity in the digital landscape. This commitment stems from the belief that more diversity leads to more creativity — and that more creativity leads to more innovation.”
“The heart of innovation is being open to all possibilities.”
Sharon Mays, Principal at M City Marketing tells us, “As the tech industry continues to grow, the lack of diversity has become an unignorable problem. On the West coast there are issues with misogyny, the “boys club” atmosphere, and other gender-based problems. For Austin it’s a bit different because the city itself, not just the tech industry, is not seen as ethnically diverse. Especially when it comes to Black people. The tech industry contributes heavily to the Austin economy. The perception that Austin is not inclusionary to all races is hurting our community. If we want our city to continue to be a competitive market for tech jobs, then we need to attract the best and the brightest workforce. And that requires casting a really wide net.”
Mays adds, “Events like this mixer encourage minority groups to be a part of SXSW and know that their input and expertise is a welcome addition to the conversations that will be had during the conference. One of the great things about SXSW is that it turns a spotlight on all of the awesome things that are going on in Austin. People leave the conference with a great impression of what life in like in this city.
I think it’s important that we make sure that we are sending the message that Austin is a city that welcomes and values everyone, and that the opportunities available in this city are available to everyone. The heart of innovation is being open to all possibilities.”
Putting their money where their mouth is
As further evidence of the organization putting their money where their mouth is, in 2012, SXSW established a “Community Fund” through “Communities Foundation of Texas” to support local and national organizations and award grants to the winners of several awards, for example, the Dewey Winburne Community Service Awards (honoring “Digital Do-Gooders”), and one look at the list proves they are rewarding more than just the young hoodie-wearing kids.
We may not all agree on why a lack of diversity exists in our industry, nor may we agree on how or why it should be improved, but it is not a myth, and what is needed is for more organizations to do their part to take on the challenge, just as Southby has.