At Black & Brown Founders, a fed-up entrepreneur makes a call to action - Technical.ly Philly

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Oct. 12, 2017 12:49 pm

At Black & Brown Founders, a fed-up entrepreneur makes a call to action

Things got tense at the Tuesday event after Tayyib Smith voiced his criticism of Philly Startup Leaders' Diversity Dinner.

A memorable panel.

(Photo by Darren Buckner)

Black & Brown Founders — the West Coast–born event series on entrepreneurs of color — gathered 135 tech community members at Quorum Tuesday.

A three-hour video recap of the event is being passed around the backchannels of Philly tech. What’s causing the virality? All signs point to the latter portion of the video: a seemingly innocuous panel called “How to plug into Philadelphia’s tech ecosystem” featuring Tayyib Smith, cofounder of Little Giant Creative and the Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship, Webjunto’s Liz Brown and Philly Startup Leaders’ Yuval Yarden, moderated by Comcast exec Antonio Williams.

The debate got awkward. Here are three main takeaways, with cue’d up links so you can follow along.

An exhausted challenge to PSL

“When you gather a bunch of marginalized people to talk about diversity there’s something that is exhausting and a bit dehumanizing about that,” Smith said, in reference to Philly Startup Leaders’ Diversity Dinner, held last year for the first time and happening again on Oct. 25.

The entrepreneur pointed out a major flaw in the event’s setup. One that might just be stretched to Philly tech as a whole:

“My problem with the event last year is that we had 350, 400 people in a gymnasium stuck at tables,” Smith said. “The Mayor spoke, two councilpeople spoke, you had news cameras there and there was so many people talking about the positive things that are happening the Philadelphia community that we only had like 15 minutes to actually talk to the people at the dinner. I basically felt like I was on their menu. Most of the times at diversity dinners and discussions I feel like I’m on the menu.”

We went to Smith for clarification on what he meant by “on the menu.” Here’s what he told Technical.ly on Thursday:

“‘On the menu’ means I find it dehumanizing to continued to be invited by white led organizations to talk diversity when they do not have genuine commitment to making transformative change, so when I’m asked to attend a dinner, I feel like I am on the menu to be consumed for enjoyment.”

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Smith, who’s has consistently been calling out systemic inequality in the business community and beyond, went on:

“My whole life has been about carrying this,” Smith said. “It’s not about people’s feelings. Black and Brown people have been marginalized out of so many industries within my lifetime and since the inception of this country. It’s not about how people feel, it’s not about discussion, it’s about transformation and change. We need a Marshall plan, we need a new New Deal.”

(Smith’s exhaustion reminds us of GreenLight Fund exec Omar Woodard, who said there was “no time” to wait for results in the fight against systemic inequality.) 

A leader in distress

Per the video, Yarden’s response to Smith’s challenge came from a place of emotion.

“Right now in this conversation I feel really uncomfortable, because this is really difficult,” said Yarden in tears. “It’s extremely difficult because with everything I do to be helpful, the response is that I don’t get it.”

Yarden, 26, told the room that making a community stronger would take time, and made an ask for the community to get involved with the nonprofit’s efforts by volunteering and voicing concerns.

Yarden could not immediately be reached for further comment on the discussion.

A roadmap from a POC technologist

Liz Brown is Webjunto’s co-CEO. Her startup was recently recognized as Philly’s most diverse startup at this year’s Timmy Awards.

“There are plenty people of color and women and LGBT community who are trying to break into the tech community but people won’t give them a damn opportunity,” the entrepreneur said. “The team is nothing without diversity.”

Brown said being diverse is not something that can be taught, and that despite people asking her for a grand plan to boost diversity, the solution starts by having the right disposition and taking action to that effect.

“We’re just a reflection of who we want to be,” she said.

Here’s the full vid, clocking in at close to three hours:

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Roberto Torres

Roberto Torres became Technical.ly Lead Philly Reporter in May 2016. Prior, he was a freelance contributor to Technical.ly and Al Dia News. The native Venezuelan moved to Philadelphia in 2015 after reporting on research at his alma mater, the University of Zulia. Whenever he's not fencing deadlines, he can be found standing in line at Overbrook Pizza in West Philly, running Netflix/Hulu marathons with his wife or reading news from Venezuela.

  • Ned Barrett

    Interesting article. Food for thought!

  • Marting King

    You’re a POS Smith – how about you try and enact change in the community instead of attacking those who are brave enough to work their butt off trying to initiate change. Cowards throw stones at the efforts of others without taking action themselves; it’s even more cowardly hiding behind a social issue to appear on a “moral high ground” as you criticize the efforts of others. Your slanderous comments are a cancer to the community – dare I say Donald Trump-esque? Do something original instead of attacking the efforts of others – don’t create problems where they don’t exist, offer up solutions.

    • Dimka Mati Braswell

      That’s just it, Smith and others has done what he could within the limits of being marginalized out of the tech industry in Philly. Talking diversity without little to action within the industry has been ongoing for decades in Philly. Folks are tired of being marginalized and treated as such.

      • Marting King

        Has anyone considered that he might be marginalized due to the way he acts? This video shows him bullying someone who is obviously trying to do her best to grow the Philly tech scene with absolutely no intentions of marginalizing anyone. He’s an a-hole hiding behind the veil of racial injustice. By the way, he himself is “talking diversity without little to action” – do something other than criticize others and the situation. And speaking of marginalized, are women in tech not also a marginalized demographic? He’s bullying a woman, discrediting her efforts and being applauded for doing so – do you not see the irony there? I think it’s time people realize he’s a POS, NOT a leader

    • Tran Hoang An

      Can you claim to know all what Smith does? How do you know that his words here are empty, without any action behind them?

  • TM Greene

    So many things wrong with this…
    1. Rude behavior by Tayyib towards a woman trying her best to help, however ridiculous her efforts may be
    2. Inviting a Yuval to speak on panel about black and brown inclusion in the first place
    3. Expecting to hear some life altering wisdom from a panel consisting of people with limited life experience, and from what I can tell, next to no real accomplishments
    4. A moderator who did nothing to steer the conversation away from spiraling out of control

    • I agree on all points besides #3. What is really unfortunate is that each of us could have contributed a lot of value to the original topic of discussion. The actual panel topic wasn’t about providing “life altering wisdom” (no offense meant by the quotes); It was about how to get involved in Philly’s tech scene. Yes there are several other really kickass, accomplished people of color in the Philly tech scene, but I’m also not sure what type of accomplishments or experience level you were hoping for in a panel at a smaller scale and early-stage event. I’d also like to point out that Comcast actually organized this particular panel. I really feel for the founder and organizers of the Black and Brown Founders Project, who did an amazing job with the event overall and then had to deal with issues in the one part of the event that they did not organize. It’s unfortunate that are actually a lot of facts and a backstory missing here (in this article and in the videos) and so there’s a lot of room for people to make quick assumptions about what went wrong with this panel..

      • Marting King

        As a leader within the Philadelphia founders scene, is there anything you plan on doing to curb the dogmatic dialogue displayed by your fellow panelist? Is there any statement you’d like to make regarding his behavior as opposed to simply saying “I agree” with someone else’s thoughts and opinions?

        • Hey Marting, of course I have my own thoughts. I had made a couple of statements, but they are not represented in this article. Just as I had mentioned during the panel I do agree with many of Tayyib’s concerns, and I had just weeks before expressed similar concerns directly to PSL. I do not however agree with how both Tayyib and Yuval went about the panel discussion. Clearly the body language that Tayyib presented was disrespectful, they both spoke over each other at times, and clearly Tony could have done some more research before choosing to invite Yuval to speak on behalf of the tech scene to an audience of black and brown founders. The video really speaks for itself in this regard, so I don’t feel very inclined to say much else. I’m very much in processing mode, but very open to further discussion on the issues represented in the article and in these comments. Aside from that, I’m personally going to continue doing everything that I can to support the tech community and to foster diversity. If you, or anyone else, have any advice, ideas, or recommendations on things that I myself or my company, Webjunto, can do to better support transformative change, please feel free to be in touch with me.

          • Marting King

            Are women in technology, and women leaders for businesses in general, not also a marginalized demographic?

          • Of course we are!

          • Marting King

            So it’s an attack from one marginalized group to another – how is he in any way justified in his reasoning for doing that; his thoughts are spreading like cancer with each and every article his black/brown friends write, which are ultimately to the detriment of another marginalized group. Is there a reason you’re not standing up for one cause just as strongly as the other? If you were in Yuval’s position, would you hope that someone helped stand up for you instead of essentially saying “both were at fault”?

          • Unfortunately the audio on the video versus is not clear and doesn’t provide the same context to someone having sat in the front row of the discussion. Again, I support some of the points Tayyib was making, but not how he presented them, and I support the efforts that Yuval had been making to receive my concerns and feedback in regards to the diversity dinner. Choosing sides beyond that is not something that I’m interested in. Perspective is everything.. and I’m a multiracial woman caught in the conversation of black and brown vs white and female.

          • Marting King

            So Yuval gets fired as a result of Tayyib’s attack and your/others lack of spine, logic and reasoning; I hope the divisive dogma you and others within your community support takes a back seat to the underlying racial injustice that actually needs to be addressed here. In the meantime, I find your lack of leadership shocking – you’re a sheep to the black Donald trump that is Tayyib Smith

          • Try not to make so many assumptions so quickly without having all of the facts. If you or anyone else would like to know more about what I am doing to support diversity and inclusion in the startup and tech communities, I highly encourage you to follow me on social media. I’m not here to argue with anyone. I wish nothing but the best for Yuval – she is an awesome person who has given a lot to the startup community and will likely continue to do so. In fact, I wish nothing but the best for everyone.

          • Marting King

            You go ahead and use this opportunity to self promote – this is the closest to any limelight you’ll get by just being a follower

  • lindsaytabas

    This is purely anecdotal because it’s just my story: For 2.5 months, I looked around Philadelphia for help with my business. I posted on Temple’s site, I shared with PSL, and I sent direct links to about 30 people I know. I specifically sent my message to a prominent black/brown member of the community who had expressed frustration (to me) about the lack of opportunities for minorities. I asked him specifically for help, for contacts, for interested parties, etc. I received no response. I figured it was because he was busy and gets way too many emails. >> I will keep asking people to “dance” because I believe this is really important, but know that it takes two to tango. >> While I’m here, I love making valuable introductions. If you feel the same way, and believe you could have helped me in this example situation, please reach out. I’d love to know you.

    • Hey Lindsay, feel free to shoot me a message. Happy to offer advice and help make some connections.

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