Coalition pushes for diversity in tech fields

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Detroit — When Angel Gambino was developing her technology startup, she was focused on cultivating relationships and finding talent.

What she got, as well, was a diverse workforce that sprang up naturally.

"It's making diversity not an objective, but just who we are," said Gambino, founder and CEO of The Alchemists Collective in Detroit. "When we think about diversity, we need to just be the thing we are trying to create."

When it comes to the technology industry, statistics find that diversity may not come about naturally. That's what the Rainbow PUSH Coalition wants to change.

On Monday, the coalition, founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, hosted the Rainbow PUSH Tech 2020 Detroit forum to focus on diversity in the industry. The "Dream Makers, Risk Takers and Money Makers" forum included panel discussions from leading entrepreneurs and a conversation with Jackson.

Last year, Rainbow PUSH worked to get more than two dozen leading technology companies to release diversity data. The numbers showed that women, African-Americans and Latinos were underrepresented.

Jackson has been holding a series of forums, along with Google and other partners, to discuss ways to bridge the gap. The forums highlight the need for more diverse fields of investors to spread opportunities.

"There is no talent shortage or opportunity shortage," said Jackson, before the event. "If we were to devote the same amount of time to apps and code as we do to basketball, we would be great."

According to a study by the National Science Foundation released this year, 73 percent of those employed in science and engineering jobs are white. African-Americans account for 6 percent, Latinos 8 percent, and Asians 10 percent.

The gap was closer between men and women, according to the study, with women holding 46 percent of science and engineering jobs. The study used 2012 Census data.

It's also more difficult for women and minority-owned startups to find investors. In 2014, women-owned ventures accounted for 36 percent of all entrepreneurs who sought angel investment, but just 15 percent of those who received funding, according to the Center for Venture Research at the University of New Hampshire.

For minority-owned firms, 24 percent sought angel investment; 16 percent received it.

Having more diverse investors means more opportunity, said Hank Williams, CEO of Kloudco, a cloud-based information management system.

"There is a cultural tie, where a person can relate to them," said Williams, who also founded the nonprofit Platform to promote diversity in the tech industry. "But there's also a practical thing of having someone who can really understand the product."

That is part of Jill Ford's vision for the city. She works as Mayor Mike Duggan's head of innovation and entrepreneurship. She said there are minority-run industries in Detroit that could expand nationally with an infusion of technology and funding.

"We can make minorities a center of gravity and that can position to let us own industries that are relevant to minorities," she said.

The rise of Detroit as a center for social enterprise could give the city a bigger impact than Silicon Valley, said Gambino.

"That diversity of thought, which comes from diverse communities, can create fundamentally new ways of doing business," she said.