Like any decent researcher, I started prepping for this article by gathering data to show the problem: that a lack of diversity plagues technology companies and startups in the Triangle and across the country.
But the truth is, you’ve seen that data. You don’t need to see another infographic to know that there are far too few women and people of color working in startups, founding companies, and sitting in their executive suites or boardrooms—you’ve already seen what that looks like in person. Nor do you need proof of the abysmal number of female and minority venture capitalists and angel investors in the field because you’ve noticed the lack of diversity when you’ve interacted with them.
You’ve also seen the data on the benefits of improving diversity in our workforce—more diverse companies outperform those which are not diverse. You’ve heard the US is becoming more diverse even if our technology workforce isn’t, and the economists voice their concerns about the issues that arise when such a large part of the population is left out of the tech sector. Chiefly, if we continue at this rate, there will not be enough talent to fill the inevitable vacancies the baby boomers will leave when they retire, much less to keep up with the new jobs startups and tech companies create.
With all this data, why is the diversity problem still a problem?
The truth is, I don’t know. But I have two theories. First, the diversity problem is multi-faceted and has been created by a multitude of factors over the years. In other words it’s hard and takes multiple players from both sides—the unrepresented minority and the overrepresented majority—who are dedicated to working towards change for things to actually change. And second, diversity or the lack thereof has been discussed so much that it’s almost been reduced to a buzzword or a trend, which results in lack-luster responses to the problem, and programs with reduced efficacy.
But diversity isn’t a buzzword or a trend. And just because it is hard to overcome, doesn’t mean we should shy away from tackling the issue.
Here in the Triangle, American Underground is rejecting the rhetoric and stepping up to the challenge to create a more diverse startup ecosystem on its campuses and throughout the Triangle at large through a new partnership with CODE2040 and Google for Entrepreneurs. The program, called the CODE2040 residency, is intended to find new ways to embrace, promote and sustain diversity within the tech hub and its member companies with help from an entrepreneur in residence (EIR) who is also dedicated to changing the diversity equation.
That EIR is Talib Graves-Manns and his mission is to “examine the existing eco-system and provide ways to complement and enhance that work through lenses that include those who are traditionally underrepresented.” He shares his background in the video below (beginning at 39:30).
When it officially launches nationwide in 2016, the platform will be more robust and interactive, with TV shows, games, music, books and activities featuring characters from a wide spectrum of cultures. While in beta, the team is gathering feedback from users on their experience and preferences to guide future decisions on programming, design and form (app, website, network) the platform will take.
RainbowMe has and will continue to acquire content through various distribution companies from across the world, though it’ll create some original content as it grows.
Funded by friends and family to date, RainbowMe will launch a crowdfunding campaign later this year and then raise a series A round. The team plans to have a carnival-style launch party, and is already forming strategic partnerships with companies like Gerber, which will be an integral part of helping the team get their product to the market.
Though still in its early stages, the founders goals for the company are lofty—they hope one day their users will have a better frame of reference from which to connect to other cultures and people of different backgrounds because they “grew up watching RainbowMe.”
Averhart says Graves-Manns’ work will be an “extension of the good work and innovation that goes on (at the Underground) daily.” He will be fully integrated into the American Underground team, and will receive support from the other staff members “around every diversity initiative and program that he champions.” He’ll also have access to the Underground’s members who can collaborate and offer feedback throughout the process, as well as the partnership networks at all three American Underground campuses.
Graves-Manns was fresh on the job—just two days in—when I first spoke to him about the programming he planned to implement as American Underground’s new EIR. He doesn’t have any set programs planned as of yet, but says he takes a collaborative approach to everything and will work with the American Underground team to both pull in new community members and push out new programming that will increase diversity in the Underground and the surrounding community.
For example, he hopes to attract underrepresented communities to the startup scene through upcoming events like the Innovate your Cool Event featuring serial entrepreneur and national Diversity in Tech speaker Wayne Sutton on April 25th and the Triangle Startup Weekend: Trailblazers May 29-31.
Regardless of what form the future programing takes, we can expect it to build from or foster the creation of three key elements Graves-Mann identifies—based on his experience—as essential for building a diverse organization and workforce. They are as follows:
First, leaders can’t just support diversity initiatives, they have to embrace, live and apply diversity to their lives and decisions affecting the organization. They have to be 100 percent on board with improving diversity and be willing to be held accountable.
Second, there should be awareness built and discussions held on diversity’s impact on businesses potential success as well as how it impacts the employees’ morale and their ability to contribute to the organization.
And finally, it is important to identify advocates and sponsors within the organization who can support, commend, and advocate the ideas and work of their underrepresented peers or subordinates.
If Graves-Mann is able to implement these key elements into the forthcoming programming, we can expect it to do more than just feed the diversity buzzword machine.
Indeed, all parties—CODE2040, American Underground and Graves-Manns are not only excited about the partnership, they see it as an opportunity as Averhart says to, “create the model and set the standard,” for diversifying startup ecosystems. And with an EIR who doesn’t forsee any challenges, “only opportunities,” a new standard might be the end result of the partnership and a new beginning for the Triangle.