Why Making Tech More Inclusive is All About Education

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Lorien Smyer had been a bookkeeper for more than 20 years, but when the record store chain she worked for relocated to Santa Cruz, she decided to explore a new career path.

“I’ve loved everything to do with computers since, I don’t know, 1993,” Smyer said, “but because I’m older, I didn’t want to age out of the industry completely by trying to do the whole four-year thing.”

Smyer began looking into immersive coding programs as an alternative to a traditional university experience. Along the way, she signed up for Women Who Code’s weekly newsletter the Code Review.

“Women Who Code happened to send an email that encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to Galvanize Full Stack,” Smyer said. “I applied, got the scholarship, and here I am.”

Founded as a community group in 2011, Women Who Code is a nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 community members, dedicated to helping women excel in the tech industry.

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Women aren’t a minority. They represent 50 percent of the population, but women are notoriously underrepresented in the tech industry. 57 percent of professional occupations in the 2013 U.S. workforce were held by women, but the number shrinks to only 26 percent for professional computing jobs.

“I see a future where all industries are going to be technology industries,” said Women Who Code CEO Alaina Percival. “Right now we’re looking at the number of engineers the market needs, and that number’s not being met. If women are leaving the tech industry at a rate of 56 percent, then we’re losing women at the point in their careers when they would be able to provide the most value to the industry, the most value to their companies, and most importantly, when they could be a mentor and role model for other women getting started in their careers.”

Take Nike, one of Women Who Code’s sponsors—it’s hiring more than 200 digital positions this year, and that’s a shoe company. So fashion, sports, media, healthcare—all of these industries are now technology industries.

“I think in the coming decade what we’re going to see is that the executives at these organizations will have technical backgrounds,” Percival said. “If women aren’t representative in the tech industry, not only will the tech industry alone need more engineers, women will fall behind in those leadership roles.”

Women Who Code has two main arms of operation. The first organizes technical-focused in-person events such as hackathons, speaking events, and technical trainings aimed at expanding the skillsets of women who are already technically-inclined. These trainings take the form of unstructured study groups, making it easy for participants to practice a new programming language, work on a personal project, or join others’ existing projects.

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The second arm is Women Who Code’s weekly publication the Code Review, aimed at encouraging women to participate in the broader tech community. Through the Code Review, WWCode provides tickets to events such as conferences and hackathons—things that help women build their resumes, connections, and greater network. WWCode gave away more than $100,000 worth of conference tickets in 2014, and has already surpassed that number in this first half of 2015.

The Unknown Unknowns

A few years ago, if you asked Wayne Sutton what the biggest challenge facing minorities in the tech space is, he would have given the same answer most people probably would give—that it’s an uphill battle fighting against the conscious and unconscious biases held by the primarily white, male tech workforce. These are still huge issues, but today Sutton’s answer is different.

“I’ve come to realize that the biggest challenge facing underrepresented entrepreneurs in tech,” Sutton said, “is not knowing what they don’t know.”

What this means is that for someone not familiar with the process of building a product or company, it’s more than just not understanding what a market is in terms of investment opportunities; not understanding the whole language and ecosystem of Silicon Valley; not knowing how to connect with possible co-founders and pitch investors—it’s not even realizing these are things a successful entrepreneur needs to know.

Sutton is the co-founder and general partner of BuildUp, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the mission of creating more successful underrepresented entrepreneur tech founders. It does this through educational workshops, fireside chats and events with investors, a curriculum focus, an online and offline accelerator, and simply by connecting underrepresented entrepreneurs with the greater tech ecosystem.

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“We look at underrepresented entrepreneurs as women, African American, Latino, lgbt, veterans, and those over the age of 35,” Sutton said. “I’ve found the most successful thing that really helps create more successful underrepresented entrepreneurs,” Sutton said, “is education.”

That education breaks down to things like explaining cap tables and convertible notes; learning how to pitch—how to build relationships with individuals and businesses that could help you find co-founders or investors; building and marketing a minimum viable product; and so on—all the things an entrepreneur needs to know in order to bring a company from idea to a successful seed round. In addition to its core pre-accelerator program, which focuses on early-stage, pre-seed companies, Buildup also hosts a series of five-week workshops at Galvanize covering topics such as understanding Uber’s API, design thinking, and how to manage diversity and online abuse.

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Buildup’s community is 60 percent women, mostly African American and Latino. And despite focusing on helping promote underrepresented entrepreneurs, its events and opportunities are open to anyone. Interestingly, Buildup has almost the opposite problem of most tech events—it actually wants more white men to attend.

“We don’t want to say that what we’re teaching is ‘the black way,’ or ‘the minority way,'” Sutton said. “When Steve Blank comes to talk, his information is for every entrepreneur, regardless of color or gender. When DFJ operating partner Heidi Roizen comes to talk—she has the experience as a woman, but she’s giving advice to any entrepreneur.”

A New Kind of Accelerator, A New Kind of Angel

Melinda Epler has spent her career working to enact social change. She has worked as a cultural anthropologist, an artist in New York, a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles, and a consultant for companies with a social environmental mission. After taking a brief stint as chief experience officer at an engineering firm (and encountering a lot of gender biases), Epler decided she wanted to work on the issues around inclusive cultures in STEM.

Epler is the founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, a women-focused accelerator and investment platform. “I always wanted to create an accelerator,” she said, “but I decided to do it only for women because I feel we need more women leaders creating change.”

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While researching the wants and needs of social entrepreneurs, talking with investors, founders, and people running accelerators, Epler found that a lot of women don’t go into accelerator programs because they are often the primary caregivers of their children or parents, and going to a two or three month program, possibly across the country, simply isn’t possible. She also found that women tend to wait longer than men to leave their regular source of income and dive fully into their entrepreneurship endeavour.

“The traditional accelerator system leaves out a lot of women,” Epler said. “So we’re building it online, and that’s really allowed more women access to the support entrepreneurs need.”

This is the first half of Change Catalyst: a six month online accelerator program for women who want to create social and environmental change with their businesses. The program is open to social enterprises that have at least one woman in leadership, so while the companies may have male co-founders, it will be a woman going through the program.

The second half of Change Catalyst ties into a common thread it shares with Buildup—they both realize the importance of change and diversity at all levels of the tech ecosystem.

“We know it’s going to take a new set of diverse angel investors to help move the needle forward,” Sutton said. To that end, both Buildup and Change Catalyst are creating workshops, curriculum, and mentorship programs to help educate people on angel investing.

For Buildup’s part, this takes the form of a “how to be an angel investor” workshop focused on getting high net-worth minority individuals such as athletes and entertainers involved in tech investment. Change Catalyst, on the other hand, focuses on educating women investors.

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“There’s some pretty significant gender biases that happen in the VC space, so it’s really difficult for a woman to rise up in that arena,” Epler said. Take the recent Ellen Pao trial—though it ended in a not-guilty verdict for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the trial shined a public light on many of the ingrained conscious and unconscious biases that make it difficult for women to be successful or even survive in venture capital. 10 percent of decision-makers at venture capital firms were women in 1999—today that number has shrunk to 6 percent.

Venture capital is a difficult industry to break into in general, but Epler says these sorts of biases—the “old boy’s network” effect—makes it especially difficult for women. As such, Epler says it’s easier to focus on the angel side of investing first. Change Catalyst is creating a mentorship program and curriculum to help women understand impact investing, as well as develop a platform where women can discover vetted social entrepreneurs for potential investment.

“In order to create your own portfolio, I’ve found that you do need help,” Epler said. “You need advice, you need someone to bounce ideas off of, you need someone who understands where you’re going. It’s a tough space.”

A Fully Inclusive Pipeline

From entrepreneurs with ideas to investors making those ideas happen to the developers bringing them to life, every stage of the tech ecosystem has been dominated by the straight, white male majority. Diversity and inclusion-focused organizations like Women Who Code, Buildup, and Change Catalyst have made great strides, but there’s a lot more to be done, and it will take a concerted effort across all fronts to effectively move the needle.

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It all comes back to education. Just as entrepreneurs can’t learn skills they don’t know they need to know, people can’t strive for social change if they don’t realize there’s a problem. To that same end, if not for Women Who Code, Lorien Smyer may never have realized that after 20 years as a bookkeeper she could make a career change into programming.

“It’s great when you have people who care to tap in,” Sutton said. “You might not be an actual minority yourself, but you still care about the issues. We know how important it is to have allies. It’s going to take everybody at the table—allies from all races, all genders—to solve this problem. We want to partner with other individuals and organizations that do care, and that I feel like is what we’re doing with Galvanize.”

Want to help make a change in tech? Join us next month for the Tech Inclusion conference at our San Francisco campus for workshops, panels, and fireside chats about diversity in tech.

Register for Tech Inclusion Now