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Dec. 14, 2020 8:32 pm

Pittsburgh doesn’t know how to leverage its Black tech talent. Could startup growth fix that?

It’s something of a chicken-and-egg problem: How do you create a diverse tech ecosystem without a diverse tech ecosystem?
For Deonna Johnson, getting behind on the IT tickets that her workplace expected her to complete not only cost her a job, but propelled her to leave Pittsburgh’s tech industry altogether.

The 34-year-old cloud security engineer said the trouble began during a contract with PPG Industries last year, where she had been working as an entry level IT security analyst. She and another new contractor had been getting behind on tickets that outlined certain computer software issues, and it felt like a simple lack of on-the-job training.

But it soon became clear to Johnson that something more systemic was at play. She was the only Black woman in her department and had no mentors or peers that looked like her. It left her feeling isolated, unsupported and ultimately unable to ask for help. In the end, she was not given the additional training that she said she was promised, and instead was let go.

“I hate to say it, but I felt like they really were waiting to see me fail,” Johnson recounted. “These companies should know what we go through. … They have a reputation, but you have to realize that if you’re hiring Blacks, make them feel welcome, make them feel appreciated, because if you don’t, they’re going to leave.”

PPG declined to comment on this specific case, noting that it is a matter of policy not to discuss personnel matters, and stating that the company believes “that diverse teams perform better, and in the basic values of human dignity, equality, and inclusion.”

Johnson’s story may deal with isolation, but by no means is it an isolated story. As Pittsburgh’s tech industry continues to flourish, the city’s 65,000 Black people are left wondering where they fit into the equation. Tired of pressing for workforce inclusion and seeing the same few Black faces on panels and on boards, some of these Black tech workers have fled the city for opportunities in more diverse markets.

Local nonprofit and entrepreneurial community leaders say that part of the problem is the nature of Pittsburgh’s population, which has been historically segregated due to redlining of Black neighborhoods. Opportunity in tech is among a host of areas of society where systemic racism has created disparities.

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An answer to this dilemma could lie with the new tech firms being created each year, leaders said. Pittsburgh is home to a powerful startup machine, with nearly 600 unique firms attracting almost $3 billion in funding over the past decade, according to Innovation Works, a North Side-based seed investor.

As those companies prosper and scale, the thinking goes, so will their ability to hire more diverse talent. But what about the talent that’s already here?

Elevating local talent

Mark Thomas, who is president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (PRA), the city’s economic development organization, said the ecosystem’s tech talent problem starts at the base. Many of the largest tech markets in the country, like Austin and Atlanta, not only have a more diverse population than Pittsburgh, but the very nature of what those hubs produce could not be more disparate.

In those cities, there is a consumer-based focus. Austin has deep roots with AT&T, and Atlanta is connected to the email marketing company Mailchimp, for instance. Pittsburgh, by contrast, is a market intimately intertwined with university research and development in areas like voice recognition, autonomous vehicles and robotics, meaning most startups’ first hires are linked to the sciences, Thomas said.

Academia is known to have a diversity problem, which then bleeds into spinoff companies. According to 2019 workforce data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 8.7% of those employed in computer and mathematical occupations are Black nationwide.

Meanwhile, 22% of Pittsburgh’s population is Black, according to a 2019 city report on inequality across gender and race. The PRA says that it doesn’t have specific data on Black tech workers in Pittsburgh, yet, but that the number is likely not representative of the overall Black population.

To bridge that gap, it’s necessary to build better and more diverse on-ramps for local Black talent, according to Alison Treaster, senior director of talent for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, an affiliate of the PRA: “We want to create conditions to elevate local talent and to help them to thrive,” she said, “as well as grow talent from outside.”

So in 2019, the Allegheny Conference launched a new initiative called the Pittsburgh Passport, which brought together college students from across the 10-county region to connect them with local employment opportunities. It not only included students from the major universities like Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, but state schools like Slippery Rock and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and trade schools like Rosedale Technical College and Pittsburgh Technical College, increasing the chances that the program would touch diverse populations and nontraditional college students.

Over the summer, the program began to bear fruit. Over 40% of the 1,700 participants were students of color, Treaster said, which is a much higher proportion than local demographics show for the population as a whole.

Making diversity intentional

When it comes to Pittsburgh’s Black tech talent, the issue is more complex than just a simple pipeline problem, said Kelley Benson, director of human resources and inclusion at Innovation Works, which runs the city’s most well-known accelerators, AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear.

“Everyone is talking about the pipeline and building that pipeline and finding Black talent … but when you’re building your pipeline, you may be more easily accessible to Black talent, but is that talent going to feel inclusive when they come here?” she said, giving voice to Johnson’s struggle in working for PPG.

In a statement to Technical.ly regarding Johnson’s story, PPG said, “we strive to provide employees and contractors with the tools they need to succeed, including learning and development opportunities such as personalized performance and learning plans, extensive on-the-job training, ongoing formal and informal feedback, world-class online training, coaching, and mentoring.”

At Innovation Works, Benson acts as a consultant to the organization’s portfolio companies, helping startups to shape better strategies for diversity and inclusion. In many cases, she said, these young companies may have only two or three people on their teams at the get-go. So they may have a knee-jerk reaction to hire their fellow CMU students. That approach is pretty common, but it’s not necessarily conducive to, or intentional about, diversity. (Black students make up a tiny percentage of the CMU student body.)

Benson put it succinctly: “You can’t have the opportunity to give someone a seat at the table if you don’t pull up the chair.”

When she starts asking founders what they actually want their culture to look like, Benson said she notices their guards go up, as she is a Black woman talking to predominantly white men. But soon the dialogue opens up as they discuss the brand’s vision, and she can meet them somewhere in the middle to explain that diversity and inclusion is not only the right thing to do, but it will help to grow the business and make money.

There’s data behind this advice. According to 2015 research from McKinsey, the New York-based management consulting firm, “companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.”

Still, startups don’t have the same resources as huge enterprises, and often reject corporate frames of thinking, too. So HR training materials on topics like intentional inclusion and bystander intervention might not be accessible. After all, it can cost upward of $2,000 to bring in an expert consultant to talk to your staff about those issues.

There are free ways to be intentional about diversity in your hiring practices, Benson said. For open positions, it can be helpful to look outside your own network and get in touch with local and national professional groups that are already in place, including organizations like Black Tech Nation, Women in Bio and WIT PGH.

The entrepreneur’s burden

In practice, much of the onus to create diversity within Pittsburgh’s tech sector does fall on startups. Or, at least the entrepreneurs at their helm — specifically, Black founders. While corporate enterprises have the cash to instigate change in the workplace, they’re known for being more cautious and moving slowly. Scrappy startups, by contrast, are known for moving fast and breaking things.

Jim Gibbs, who is cofounder and CEO of Meter Feeder, a Braddock-based software company focused on parking, said that the conversation among Black tech workers in Pittsburgh has turned away from how to push companies into being more inclusive, to how Black people can raise funding themselves. The thought goes: If Black people can build companies and scale, eventually they’ll be able to hire more Black talent.

“We’re tired of trying to force inclusion. … If Google and Uber and all of these other people don’t see that my friends are amazing, if I can do something crazy like raise a bunch of money and hire developers, I gladly will,” he said. “So that’s essentially where the focus has turned to.”

“Why don’t the people who actually have the network raise the money so that we can hire folks and continue innovating?”

Thomas, of the PRA, echoed a similar sentiment, noting that now that Pittsburgh is beginning to build a “critical mass” of tech companies, the market will have more leverage to draw in more non-white employees.

“Only now do I think that we’re at the point where we can scale companies to build that diversity,” Thomas said, citing the excitement building around Duolingo, the East Liberty-based language learning company that became Pittsburgh’s first “unicorn” startup last December with a $1.5 billion valuation.

Right now, though, there are few of these major success stories, which leads to the same few diverse voices making it onto panels or boards of other local companies. Gibbs said he’s been asked to serve on at least eight boards, and he’s flattered, but is just “one person who runs a startup and has five boys.”

Benson said there is a more productive way to leverage the Black talent that you know, along with their networks. Companies could reach out to someone like Gibbs to see who he may know that could be a good fit for a new role. And that person could provide an introduction to another Black software engineer or roboticist, and so on.

Still, old fears die hard.

“We used to always make the joke that when you worked someplace and you saw another Black person get hired, you assumed they were about to fire you,” Gibbs said with a laugh. “It’s funny because it’s true.”

As the butt of the joke, Johnson knows this reality all too well. These days, she’s taken her expertise to Sacramento, and she has no plans to come back to Pittsburgh.

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