Life’s like that: if you open your eyes and ears, you’ll learn something. Everyone has a unique perspective that should be valued and heard. Although the voices of the women in tech are getting louder, the women of color in the field are just beginning their ascent. And their future looks bright thanks to the indomitable spirit and efforts of numerous local Latina and Black leaders.
People can have empathy and understanding of other people’s lives and situations, but no two experiences are truly alike. Of course, we can relate to some of the events that others have endured, but we can’t fully comprehend with absolute certainty how the subjects feel because we haven’t lived it ourselves. The women of color speaking out on diversity and inclusion at the Tech Week round table shared their truth. In so doing, their experiences challenged us to think about what it must be like to feel excluded or different on a daily basis. For those of us that haven’t had the same experiences, we owe it to them – and to ourselves – to listen and learn.
Yes, Newark has a Tech Week
Newark Tech Week (NTW) is orchestrated by CITI Medina, an exemplary standout in event planning. NTW is more than a series of meetups, celebrations of women in tech, city-wide discussions, town hall meetings, expos, networking mixers with entrepreneurs behind innovative startups, and gaming experiences – it’s a movement.
Spurred by NJ Governor Murphy’s call to action for a “stronger and fairer” state, the initiative aims to uplift the city of Newark and disrupt the tech scene. Ultimately, the city known for its grit in the industrial sector aims to transform itself into the most diverse source for tech talent.
Hence, uniting a group of dynamic women in tech for a Tech Week round table discussion in Newark last week was no accident. It was a deliberate and poignant opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the local women of color who have rallied in tech, despite the meager access to funding and gross investment disparity. On average, a woman of color raises $36,000 for her startup. In contrast, a Caucasian man raises an average of $1.3 million. We can’t overlook how these women in tech have excelled in spite of the bias (unconscious as well as learned) plus opposition they have faced in their personal and professional journeys.
Black female entrepreneurs are the emerging leaders
According to the #ProjectDiane report released by Digital Undivided, black female entrepreneurs are the fastest-growing group in the category of startups. Even more impressive is that the 1.5 million businesses in the US-owned by black women are collectively generating more than $44 billion in revenues. We sat down in the newly minted space occupied by Digital Undivided for a meaningful round table discussion brilliantly organized by CITI Medina as part of New Jersey’s TechWeek celebrations.
Moderated by Darlene Gillard-Jones, co-founder of Digital Undivided, the group gathered for conversation around diversity and inclusion for women in tech. Panelists included Jazlyn Carvajal, co-founder of SOYD (Stay On Your Daily); Akosua Ayim, Interim CEO of =SPACE, Dannéa DeLisser, Communications Manager at Panasonic; Lindsey Holmes, CEO of Usable Tech Co.; Tai Cooper, VP of Policy and Communications at NJEDA and Grit Daily. There was a lot to be said: too much to be covered here but we have showcased many of the insightful and thoughtful responses.
Insights on how men can help women
Gillard-Jones posed the question, “How can male allies help the women they work with?” She opened the floor by reminding men to “check their privilege” referencing it as a potential “blind spot that men need to be cognizant of and navigate around.” Carvajal then suggested that men simply listen to what their female colleagues are saying. “If a woman brings up a good idea that you agree with, help her implement it and be sure to give her credit for the idea.” Cooper encouraged men to be more observant, specifically to “take a look around the room if it’s homogenous, speak up and advocate to bring some women into the room so that they can be heard.”
Women should never be discounted
A lot of head nodding resulted when the following question was asked, “Can anyone recall a time when you were discounted because you were a woman?” Ayim, a young CEO, spoke of how she is regularly discounted for her age, gender and ethnicity. “Being in a room with potential investors should be enough on its own to prove that you are worthy to be at the table and should not be discounted. Many men react negatively if they perceive you to be too young.”
“When I’m involved in a meeting or discussion where I’m discounted, I expand my inner circle of trusted people and talk to them to brainstorm on how to overcome such negativity. It’s important to build yourself back up after you’ve been taken down.” From here, the conversation evolved into a theme commonly expressed as part of #metoo where women aren’t valued to be part of the executive conversation in the board room but are somehow always invited up to the hotel room of male executives.
Expanding the definition of diversity
All panelists were agreed that the definition of diversity was too narrow, often limited to gender and color whereas it should be expanded to be inclusive of age, socio-economic status, education, geography, religion, business field, and role plus so many other categories. Holmes stated, “Diversity needs to go beyond quotas and the number in the room. Real diversity needs to be measured by and reflected in business performance and values. Most importantly, it needs to be about listening to the people in the room.”
Next, she pointed out the utility of social media and how it can be used effectively to keep everyone honest. Holmes then highlighted a recent example where Kim Kardashian, in a Glamour magazine spread, claimed that she was creating a fashion movement with her “feather braids” which are otherwise known as “box braids,” a hairstyle that nearly every black girl has worn for centuries. Collectively, the African-American community was swift to react. Kardashian’s braids were not a fashion statement: they were an example of cultural appropriation.
Women in tech and artificial intelligence
All women in tech have a role in AI. Whether it is coding or developing the data and/or models to train the machine-learning code on, women’s participation should be welcomed. Particularly with respect to which data are including in the training sets and regarding the ethics of including or excluding data based on whatever criteria are established to do so. Ayim highlighted how pattern recognition is inherently bias. “If all that you see around you are white men, you’ll learn to select for white men rather than think about seeking the opinions of others.”
Insights on how women push through the tough times
“First, we must all hold ourselves accountable before we can hold others accountable.” Cooper explained her “kitchen cabinet” concept whereby she has “mentors, girlfriends, classmates from childhood, co-workers and all sorts of people” in her cabinet that keep her on her path and hold her accountable. “These are the people that support me, check-in with me, love me and hold me up. They give me the clarity of mind to walk into the boardroom.” Similarly, Holmes highlighted the importance of not only having an inner-circle but occasionally recasting it. “Routinely curate your circle to ensure that it is serving your need. If it, s/he is no longer serving you, release it.”
Carvajal continued on the theme of community. “Being a Latina, I was often alone in my STEM classes. Latinas are only 1.9% of the tech workforce so it made sense for me to create a group where Latinas could unite as a community and share their experiences.” Ayim retreats to music, sometimes playing her guitar for as long as five hours at a time to fully immerse herself in her escape.
DeLisser cited the importance of good mental health. “Check in with yourself. Set your intention daily. You are here to fulfill a purpose and ensure that you are doing something of value. Create some headspace (in fact, I use an app by the same name). It reminds me to step away from my computer, get off my phone and just pause until my brain is clear and settled.” She went on to add, “Sit in your purpose.” The other participants affirmed themselves with their individual mantras which centered on common themes such as “age is a number” and self-love.
It was a tremendous experience to sit amongst the women in tech who were empowering themselves and each other. Finally, as an appropriate footnote, all of the panelists participating in the roundtable discussion sported fabulous footwear. Who said that women in tech can’t be innovative, smart and fashionable?