11 Tech Leaders on How to Bolster Diversity in Philly Tech

They shared their thoughts on tech’s diversity problem at the inaugural Philly Startup Leaders Diversity Dinner.

Photo by Fabiola Cineas

Photo by Fabiola Cineas

It’s no secret that the tech industry has a diversity problem. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that several Silicon Valley tech companies — Twitter, Pinterest, Salesforce, and EBay — have delayed releasing their annual diversity reports because they’re not interested in showcasing their racial and gender breakdown. Rather than put the data out there, they say, they want to focus on how to move the data in the right direction because there’s more work to be done. The companies that have reported their numbers show marginal improvement.

In Philadelphia, it’s currently unclear where companies stand on diversity — there’s no concerted effort to assess the scene. But attendance and conversation at Wednesday evening’s first-ever Diversity Dinner, hosted by Philly Startup Leaders in partnership with Mogulette, proves that Philly’s tech community needs to be more representative of diverse groups. Attendees made arguments for gender diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, and diversity in terms of sexual orientation. There was also a call to be more inclusive of veterans and people with disabilities. “This room mirrors the kind of diversity tech companies should aspire to,” said Brigitte Daniel Corbin, executive vice president of Wilco Electronics System and founder of Mogulette, the organization that’s getting more women of color into tech.

Mayor Kenney told the audience of more than 100 at BOK that “Diversity is Philadelphia’s greatest asset. Diversity is not just the fair thing to do, but it’s a good business practice.” Councilman Allan Domb, who called himself an ally of the tech community, also addressed the crowd and emphasized the need to “support diversity in the tech community in every way possible.”

And how do we do that? Eleven tech leaders at the dinner weighed in:

Miguel Perez
Cofounder, Wonder Bot
“Move to the hood. You can’t fix diversity with some program. It’s weird to me to think of diversity as some kind of business initiative. It’s about exposing yourself to diverse groups of people. Stop going to gentrified neighborhoods. For example, the city rebranded North 3rd street to N3rd Street. But that street goes all the way up to into Kensington. Companies should move further north on that street. I promise there are super-friendly people up there.”

Yifan Liu
Founder, Wise Meetup
Investor, Osage Partners
“A first step is to really start educating employees on diversity and pushing your staff to keep an open mind. This can go a long way during the hiring process. More openness can help us break down our preconceived notions. And there are a lot of new startups around to help companies do this work. Trans Café, for example, offers services and products to help educate businesses on people who identify as transgender.”

Ernie Holtzheimer
Associate, Montgomery McCracken
“Philly tech companies should help to raise awareness of tech at Philly’s public schools. We should work to promote programs like Coded by Kids and continue to push for computer science for kids at a younger age. Also, I wear hearing aids, and that’s a different aspect of diversity. We should also raise awareness about people with disabilities in tech.”

Brock Weatherup
President, Philly Startup Leaders
CEO, Petcoach
“The leadership of tech companies and organizations needs to show up. This can’t change overnight, because the infrastructure isn’t there, but events like this push people to awareness and to take proactive steps. With Founder Factory, for example, we tried to create a diverse group of speakers. I think we did well with the male and female representation, but we failed when it came to ethnic diversity and other forms of diversity, too.”

Jason Bannon
Director, Marketing and Communications, Ben Franklin Technology Partners
“As a corporate citizen or tech company, being involved with philanthropy isn’t enough. Diversifying your workforce is something you have to do. It’s not a choice. And what we’re seeing is that talent of different backgrounds is leaving the region. So one step we are trying to take at Ben Franklin is an initiative called Best for PHL. This tool will help tech companies quantify their impact and move in better directions. So if a company is interested in improving their gender diversity, for example, they can use this online tool to keep track of their growth.”

Brigitte Daniel Corbin
EVP, Wilco Electronics System
“To diversify their talent pipeline, companies should tap into organizations such as Mogulette, PSL, and StartupPHL. These organizations represent an entryway to that diverse pipeline. In Philly there are a lot of people doing a lot of good work, but we’re not connecting the dots. The city needs to commission an in-depth analysis of what diversity actually looks like at tech companies. We need to have the metrics to know where we stand.”

Chris Wink
Cofounder and Editorial Director, Technically Philly
“Companies should prioritize their candidate pipeline and not prioritize a quota. In the past, we’ve gotten down to three to five finalists and we’ve had to stop our hiring because the batch of finalists wasn’t representative of a variety of people. So that meant we didn’t have the right pipeline. Don’t be afraid to halt hiring. It takes a lot of effort in the beginning. With our team of 25 now, we have 13 women, and 12 people of color. And we also have the network effect now—our events, work, and sphere are now more diverse than ever.”

Tiffanie Stanard
CEO, Stimulus
“Diversity and inclusion starts with leadership. If your leadership isn’t diverse, you’re going to have trouble bringing more diversity in. And it may also be hard to retain that talent.”

Evan Harden
Personal Trainer, Sculpt Fitness Studio
Participant in PSL’s Entrepreneur Bootcamp
“Create a job corps, like listing for coding classes. If people have easy access to coding classes, they’ll get the skills they need to work at tech companies. Coding should be advertised like a trade, and this can help to expand the pool of people who have these skills. And tech companies will have no excuses for why they’re not hiring.”

Kahiga Tiagha
Co-Founder, The ITEM
“At the ITEM we are making a concerted effort to highlight diverse techies. Tech is Philadelphia’s fastest-growing sector, so we’re trying to leverage tech to train people to compete in the tech space. We’re helping diverse techies network, and we’re also training them and helping them through the hiring process. And once they’re hired we need companies to create deliberate mentoring in the workplace. No matter who you are, there’s always a steep learning curve in tech. So we need people to opt into the mentorship. It’s not something that should be imposed.”

Jonathon Jackson
Cofounder, Blavity
“Leaders need to take a step back and examine their current sphere of consciousness. Before they try and bring people of diverse backgrounds into their workplace, they need to chill for a second and determine whether they know anything about the kinds of people that they’re trying to bring into their organization. Switch up what you read, for example. If you haven’t read “The Case for Reparations,” go read it. It’s good. Make a syllabus for yourself and learn about whom you’re looking to hire.”

Follow @fabiolacineas on Twitter.