'Lack of diversity hurts everyone' in the tech community - Technical.ly Philly

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May 16, 2016 10:50 am

‘Lack of diversity hurts everyone’ in the tech community

That's what developer Courtney Wilburn said during a panel at #techInColor’s annual Philly Tech Week event, where technologists and entrepreneurs who are underrepresented in the tech sector shared their experiences.

Left to right: Dan Rhoton, Justin Connor and Gabrielle Lee of Hopeworks 'N Camden, in a panel hosted by Derrick Pitts.

(Photo by Albert Hong)

As an eighth grader who loved science, Derrick Pitts took a summer enrichment program at Strawberry Mansion Junior High School when other kids were outside, because, as he said, “it gave me more.”

“In eighth grade, you don’t go to summer schools — you go because you failed something,” said Pitts, now the chief astronomer and planetarium programs director at the Franklin Institute.

The lack of opportunities to engage in science and technology during Pitts’ youth was one of the reasons why he took part as a panel moderator for #techInColor’s annual Philly Tech Week 2016 presented by Comcast event at First Round Capital, “Success Hacks: Paving Your Own Way in Tech.”

#techInColor was founded in 2014 to celebrate the diversity of the Philly tech scene.

A collection of some key themes for #techInColor's Philly Tech Week 2016 event, -Success Hacks- Paving Your Own Way in Tech.-

A collection of some key themes for #techInColor’s Philly Tech Week 2016 event. (Photo by Albert Hong)

Partnering with youth nonprofit organization Hopeworks ‘N Camden, the diversity-in-tech event opened up with Pitts sitting down and speaking with Dan Rhoton, executive director of Hopeworks, and two trainees at the organization, Gabrielle Lee and Justin Connor.

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Both Lee and Connor are studying technology at Camden County Community College and want to work in the tech industry in some way or another (they took part in Camden’s first hackathon last year hosted by Hopeworks). But Lee mentioned the fear she initially had as a woman who wanted to work in the video game industry. After a few changes of majors and a lot of support from Hopeworks, she felt reinvigorated to pursue tech and give back to her community.

“Just because I’m a woman, that doesn’t mean I can’t do the things I know I want to do, doesn’t mean I can’t teach others and help them,” said Lee, who is now delving into web design. “I want these young girls to become women confident in technology.”

That perseverance is what Pitts saw to be so valuable for anyone, especially people of color, to have when “doing what you want to do.”

Ather Sharif (left), Tiffanie Standard, Dan Rhoton, Courtney Wilburn and Felix Addison were part of a panel of technologists talking about their stories in the tech industry.

Left to right: Ather Sharif, Tiffanie Standard, Dan Rhoton, Courtney Wilburn and Felix Addison were part of a panel of technologists talking about their stories in the tech industry. (Photo by Albert Hong)

Felix Addison, COO and vice president of Temple grad-founded Whose Your Landlord, shared his company’s experiences of persevering, during the second panel with local technologists. He talked about the difficulties of meeting with investors, getting funding and being taken seriously as as person of color.

Tiffanie Stanard, founder and CEO of Prestige Concepts and wearable tech company We are MENT (who spoke at another diversity-focused event that week), talked about the dangers of insensitivity when it comes to diversity — like when she was asked by someone if her company was making wearables for black people.

Courtney Wilburn, developer at O3 World, added that Philly’s tech community is actually one of few in the country that isn’t losing a large number of black and Latino college graduates, which presents “an opportunity to capitalize on that diversity.”

“Lack of diversity hurts everyone,” Wilburn said.

She made a similar point at the mayoral town hall earlier during the week.

Ather Sharif, founder of accessibility-focused consultancy EvoXLabs who just started working at Comcast, is proud of Philly’s “small, intimate community” with its “common sense,” and he believes local companies have “started to realize the importance of having a diverse skill set, a diverse background.”

Following up on their event last year, the organizers of #techInColor listened to what people wanted the most — mentoring — and implemented breakout sessions midway through the event, where folks like Bernardo Margulis, principal at This Makes Me Happy, and David Dylan Thomas, senior content strategist at EPAM, talked to groups about “Balancing Multiple Endeavors” and “How Content Can Grow Your Audience.”

“We are creating more diverse people in this field — that’s all I want from this organization,” said co-organizer Tracy Levesque, who helped put together the event with co-organizers Jodie Riccelli, Kevin Curtis Taylor, Beth Blinebury and Monica Peters.

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