DEI / Events

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 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.”

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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