For years, experts and enthusiasts from science fiction writers to university faculty have predicted that robots are an inevitable part of our future. However, with the demographics of the robotics field itself skewing heavily white and male, the industry has yet to catch up with the overall diversity of the modern workforce.
With $6.9 million courtesy of Build Back Better Regional Challenge funding, public-private startup booster InnovatePGH wants to change that with a program called Expanded Pathways to Entrepreneurship.
The goal of the program is fairly simple: to make it easier for women and individuals from marginalized communities interested in the robotics and autonomy industries to enter the field.
“The challenge with robotics that I don’t think anyone in robotics is hiding from at this point, is that it is a highly specialized field that generally requires extreme educational attainment,” Sean Luther, executive director of InnovatePGH, told Technical.ly. “As a result, when you pair that with our systematic marginalization in the tech industry, you end up with robotics companies being founded by the same types of people with the same socioeconomic background over and over again.”
While some of the details are still pending, currently the program — overseen by Luther and Lindsay Powell, director of workforce strategies for InnovatePGH — has the goal of making the paths to these industries less narrow by giving 40 new and existing founders whatever they need to flourish, be it capital, technical assistance, or connections to contacts with experience they can benefit from.
"We're excited to bring more folks to the table to make sure that our partnerships are intentional and are reaching the populations we need to."
“This will really be an opportunity for small, new and existing businesses with founders who identify as BIPOC, identify as women, identify as folks from rural or coal country, be able to participate in the innovation economy in ways that they weren’t before,” Powell said.
While one aspect of Expanded Pathways to Entrepreneurship focuses on assisting founders, the other wing of the project is a robotics fellowship which is being launched in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, Riverside Center for Innovation and the University of Pittsburgh. The fellowship is designed to give participants a subsidized education that Powell says will set them up to be candidates that can fit in at any robotics or automation firm. This new program sits alongside InnovatePGH’s other equity-minded workforce development programs, including the recently launched Innovation District Skills Alliance.
The fellowship isn’t slated to begin taking applications until 2023, but once it does it will be seeking seven fellows with the goal of having a total of 28 fellows in the program’s four-year duration. Once the program is complete, Powell and Luther hope participants of this program will have learned enough to participate in other programs that have received Build Back Better funding, such as Innovation Works’ Robotics Startup Factory.
“We think that our companies who are participating in the program will be able to benefit from the growing number of robotics companies and the connected advanced manufacturing economy that is integrated into the project,” Powell said.
While InnovatePGH continues to crystalize details, this program’s end goal — ensuring that marginalized people can see a way into the robotics field — remains constant. Powell said the organization is excited to do its part to make the field more inclusive.
“Being able to create more room in this growing field is really exciting and having the opportunity to launch this work here in Pittsburgh is exciting,” Powell said. “We’re excited to bring more folks to the table to make sure that our partnerships are intentional and are reaching the populations we need to.”
Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supportedby the Heinz Endowments. -30-