Field notes from the most diverse tech conference on the planet

[Editor: This kicks off a series of on-going guest posts from Katherine Krajnak, who works on Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Portland Development Commission.]

“If you’re building a social tech company and you aren’t paying attention to Black women, you’re stupid.”

That statement by Kathryn Finney, speaking on , “Why Black Women are Awesome,” is underscored by the facts: more than 40 percent of all tweets are by African Americans; Black women spend more on mobile technology than any other demographic; the number of Black women entrepreneurs is on the rise. Between 1997 and 2013, the number of Black women-owned firms increased by 258% while all women-owned firms increased by 59%. Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram all have a strong user base of African American women.

Kathryn is cofounder of Digital Undivided, an organization dedicated to increasing the pipeline of female African American tech entrepreneurs. As I listened to Kathryn at Digital Undivided’s annual conference in early October, I discovered a movement gaining traction on a national scale. Keynoted by the likes of MC Hammer (a successful tech investor) and FCC Chair Mignon Clyburn, the conference was complemented by an impressive roster of investors, startup founders and a who’s who of the national tech startup scene—Google Ventures, Andreesen Horowitz, Microsoft, Facebook, Techstars, and Wired. The lack of African American and Latino representation in tech is not a new issue, and in the past several years top notch organizations addressing this issue and led by people of color have arrived on the scene, such as CODE 2040, Black Girls Code, NewMe Accelerator, Digital Undivided, and iUrban Teen Tech (based here in metro Portland).

The network that Kathryn has built for Digital Undivided is a machine for churning out top tech talent. The pitch competition featured four extremely talented women and the winner, Nicole Sanchez, delivered one of the most polished pitches I have ever seen. Nicole, a Harvard MBA, decided to leave her well-paying corporate job to pursue her startup after Kathryn met her at SXSW and said, “You should start a startup.” So she did.

In an interview with Black Enterprise, Kathryn emphasized, “This is not an event where we come to talk about why we’re not there. We all know we’re not there…but this is really a conference about okay, now what do we do? What’s next? What are the action steps?”

I found that Kathryn’s philosophy carried over to other organizations I met at the conference that also focus on increasing the pipeline for minorities in tech. CODE 2040 recruits talented minority computer science college students from all over the country and places them in internships in top Silicon Valley tech firms. Host companies appreciate the rigorous filtering process, which results in consistently high-performing interns.

Last year CODE 2040 received 400 applications and chose 18 fellows; this year they expect 1,000 applications and expect to place 40 fellows. CODE 2040’s numbers reflect Kathryn’s: 42 percent of the country in 2040 will be Black or Latino; 1 in 14 tech jobs in the Silicon Valley are held by Black or Latino workers; at our current graduation rates, 1 million tech jobs will go unfilled by the year 2020.

Having trouble finding good developers, anyone?

What does this mean for Portland? A lot. Today about a quarter of Portland’s population is non-white; 45 percent of the students in Portland Public Schools are non-white. Like the rest of the country, Portland’s future workforce will look very different from today’s workforce. If we want to grow Portland into a great city for technology and innovation, diversity has to be part of the equation. As a community we need to ask ourselves the question, “What would it look like if we grew a tech startup scene that was inclusive of all genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds?” At PDC, we believe the result could be a game-changer for Portland’s economy.

My colleagues and I at PDC are working on several partnership based projects and initiatives to be rolled out next year to tackle this very issue. In particular, our Startup PDX Challenge 2.0 will focus on inclusive innovation, targeting women and minority entrepreneurs. If you are passionate about this issue and want to get more involved, please contact me. Let’s start the conversation to break down these barriers.

Katherine Krajnak has been a project manager at the Portland Development Commission (PDC) for more than four years, and most recently managed the Startup PDX Challenge and the Produce Row initiative in the Central Eastside. Her current work at PDC involves projects and initiatives to bolster Portland’s high-growth entrepreneurs across industry and throughout the city. She has been a resident of Portland for more than nine years and is a 10+ year rocker veteran of music scenes in Berlin and Portland.

(Image courtesy The AutoMotovated Cyclist. Used under Creative Commons.)

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