Diversity & Inclusion
DEI / Women in tech / Workplace culture

Want to revolutionize diversity in tech? Start at the hair salon

Having real conversations about how to diversify tech starts with meeting future technologists of color on their turf, not waiting for them to come to you.

Three young participants at a Geek Squad camp. (Photo by Flickr user Fort Meade, used under a Creative Commons license)

During his Philly Tech Week town hall last month, Mayor Jim Kenney pitched his idea for tackling diversity through a proposed event called the North Star Conference. There aren’t many details available yet, but Kenney wants the focus to be on technologists of color.

There’s certainly a lot of potential and reason for optimism about the North Star Conference, which Kenney says is a reference to Frederick Douglass and his anti-slavery newspaper, but if the mayor wants to be successful in bringing this vision to fruition and diversifying the Philly tech community, we must start getting real about the mechanics of creating diversity.

Transforming the makeup of the tech scene means meeting future technologists before they enter their first coding class. And when reaching out to minority youth, we must meet the kids on their turf.

In the Black community in particular, that means churches, basketball courts and even hair salons and barbershops. However, in meeting youth in these spaces, there should be an acute understanding that a lot of them can’t see the direct or revolutionary connections between technology and their lives. Their dreams may center on being the next Jay Z, helping the 76ers top more than just Twitter rankings, or simply owning their own hair salon. And for Jumoke Dada, founder of Tech Women Network, the latter is very much a tangible part of reality.

When speaking at a NExT Philadelphia event, Dada noted that many of the girls she worked with through her nonprofit aspire to run their own salons. While Dada supports their entrepreneurial spirit, she still pushes her girls further. “Can you build an app that the hair dressers can use to book their system, to get me out faster?” Dada suggested during the panel.

Whether or not you agree that there’s a significant portion of young Black women interested in careers in beauty over coding, Dada’s comments present a challenging question to the realities of diversifying tech. If young Black youth, particularly in low-income areas, only see Black people consistently achieving success in certain areas, whether it be hair, sports, music or even drug-dealing, how can we bring them into technology?

If you listen to upcoming Black media moguls like radio host Charlamagne tha God, we should be telling the youth to “fuck their dreams” and redirect them towards careers in tech instead. But is such a visceral approach realistic for young minority children in Philadelphia? Or should Kenney and other city and tech leaders enlighten minority youth about the myriad of options in pursing tech careers by meeting these young people where their dreams live? Such an approach would undoubtedly require honest conversations about the realistic ways to intersect these industries (preferably the legal ones) with technology — before the mayor’s office sets a date for the North Star Conference.

We’re moving past the time for just ideas about diversifying tech; we need to start pivoting towards realistic strategies, before technology leaves these communities behind.

Now, all the options that will be explored here won’t be applicable to every minority community. But hopefully the effort will start enough conversations to generate some practical solutions. We at Technical.ly aim to do our part. And don’t worry Mayor Kenney, you can thank us later.

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