A job in tech can mean anything from teaching STEM to working as a software engineer to university research to marketing an app company. But despite the many possibilities that exist in the field, not everyone can imagine themselves there, and the number of Black, brown and women tech workers — while slowly improving — has remained relatively low.
A common critique of local tech ecosystems is that they do not reflect the demographics that make up the general population of the cities where they’re based. Technical.ly convened technologists, tech educators and other RealLIST Connectors from across the mid-Atlantic region this week to discuss what they think it would take to show underrepresented populations, and especially young people, that there’s a space for them in the industry.
Their answers: mentorship; more communication about what tech jobs are available, and how to access those jobs; and pushing a new idea of what a tech worker looks like.
Kenyatta James, program director for Philadelphia Anchors for Growth and Equity at the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, translated that idea to entrepreneurship: In a diverse, city, “if there’s not energy to invest in founders of color, then you’re missing out on most of the potential people that could be founders in the city,” James told Technical.ly during the virtual roundtable conversation. “And it really limits the type of growth that we see and the type of opportunities and scale that our tech can have.”
It’s something Megan Butler thinks about, too. The Pittsburgh director of Venture for America, which recruits recent college grads to work at local startups, recently brought on new members to its regional advisory board who have DEI expertise. They’re working to keep the program as inclusive as possible so its fellows feel they can thrive in the industry.
Wilmington Kitchen Collective’s Katie LeCocq, who oversees the Delaware city’s program for food-based entrepreneurs, noted that bringing more people into tech doesn’t necessarily need to mean training everyone to be a developer. It can start with increased access to technology in general.
“More opportunities for people that are not very tech literate to become so, that are not scary for them to participate in, would be really beautiful,” she said, “because I work with entrepreneurs that are all ages, all backgrounds, and I have been seeing that there’s there’s a reticence to admit that they don’t know something because they’re embarrassed that they’re behind the times and whatnot.”
Some educators think awareness starts in K-12 by letting kids know what careers are out there.
Mary Beth Hertz, a Philly high school teacher, said the city’s school district is focused on career and technical education programs — but those aren’t always useful for kids who don’t know what they want to do yet. She sees the lack of options for kids who don’t know what they want to do as barriers to getting more young people into the tech workforce and representing their city.
Michael Johnson is also a high school teacher as well as the founder of the Philadelphia Robotics Coalition, an organization that brings robotics programming to public schools across the school district. Johnson said students can only choose from the options they know are in front of them.
“I would love to see more opportunities for our students to get plugged in — to meet folks in the tech community, to do summer internships and really get a feel for what that world is like so that they have more options to choose from,” he said. “And then we can also work on preparing them to follow those paths.”
One way Hertz tries to expose her students to future paths is by finding people in careers her students are interested in and inviting them to speak to the class, or even connect with them one on one.
A major obstacle to boosting the number of Black and brown tech workers in the field is the idea that a certain kind of person works in the field. In the absence of mentorship, Temple University management information systems professor Munir Mandviwalla noted that the commonly held idea that tech is only for white men can be off-putting for people who are neither white nor men. He remembered an instance of trying to recruit a young woman to pick a major in his program — but she turned him down, explaining she didn’t want to be “‘a pimply faced, sweaty boy,’ because that’s the vision of tech,” Mandviwalla said.
Outreach, mentorship and modeling what was possible to students is the best way to convince them that the sector can be an inclusive space for them, per the professor: “I think that’s what’s stopping many people from getting into tech, is just [that] the role models don’t exist.”
Jabari Adams, who previously worked as managing director of company relations for a multimarket coding bootcamp, said he was one of those people who wouldn’t have entered the tech industry without someone showing him it was an option, by way of inviting him to apply for his former role.
“Once I came in and realized that I didn’t necessarily have to code in order to be in technology, it completely changed my perspective with the industry, what opportunities the industry can provide,” he said. “Once we’re able to understand all the different skill sets that are able to be transferable to technology, it opens up a whole world of possibilities for folks who never saw themselves in the space.”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 supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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