Let’s be honest, 2020 has been ... humbling. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the tech industry has faced a reckoning. Our workforce isn’t diverse enough, the digital divide is wider than many would have liked to admit, and it’s become increasingly apparent that some of the industry’s most revolutionary technology is doing more harm than good.
But, to quote psychologist Nathaniel Branden, the first step toward change is awareness. While it may not have been comfortable or easy, this year has made us aware that we have a long way to go. It has also inspired promising efforts to help us get there faster.
Based on our reporting from every major tech hub across the country, we have identified seven themes that are emerging from this time of uncertainty and change, and shared how those themes are playing out from coast to coast.
Ways tech is changing for the better in 2020
- Bridging the digital divide.
- Phasing out facial recognition tech.
- Giving women a seat at the table.
- Making the industry more LGBTQ+ friendly.
- Taking on systemic racism from the inside.
- Holding Big Tech accountable.
- Taking matters into their own hands.
Bridging the Digital Divide
The pandemic has forced much of the country inside and online, proving things like Wi-Fi and computers aren’t a luxury anymore, they’re a necessity.
Meanwhile, in America, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that about one-third of kids living in households earning less than $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home; that number drops to 6 percent for households earning $75,000 or more.
This digital divide is particularly pronounced in Black and Latinx households with school-age children. About 25 percent of Black teens surveyed reported that they “often or sometimes” could not do homework due to lack of reliable access to a computer or internet, compared to 17 percent of Latinx teens and 13 percent of white teens.
This issue isn’t new — in fact, it’s been festering for years — and it’s expected to get worse if something isn’t done. A recent report from Deutsche Bank predicts that the further digitization of education and work will leave 76 percent of Black workers and 62 percent of Latinx workers either shut out or underprepared for 86 percent of jobs in this country by 2045.
“[We need to see] our communities — particularly communities that have traditionally been marginalized — not as someone that needs a handout, but rather a wealth of talent and capacity to be able to help those companies grow.”
To date, no equitable solution has been offered. But that’s beginning to change as organizations from both the public and private sectors attempt to tackle the problem.
For instance, Chicago Public Schools made history in June when it announced that more than 100,000 of its students would receive high-speed internet over the next four years, a push described as the largest, longest-term effort by any city to close the digital divide.
Meanwhile, community leaders in the Bronx, NYC’s poorest borough, launched the Bronx Community Relief Effort. As of July, they’ve distributed $14 million in micro-grants for small businesses and nonprofits, as well as 15,000 Chromebooks and Wi-Fi devices to schools there. A similar program was launched in LA, where local nonprofit human-I-T distributed hundreds of recycled Chromebooks to low-income students around the city.
A larger, more comprehensive initiative was launched in Seattle. The city’s Office of Economic Development partnered with a handful of organizations to provide not only laptops and broadband to low-income residents, but also online jobs training. So far, 100 percent of the program’s participants are people of color. The goal, said Ryan Davis of the Seattle Jobs Initiative, is to nurture Seattle’s home-grown talent.
“As our tech sector continues to grow and blossom, we need to turn our backyard into the first recruiting ground for the technology companies,” Davis told Built In when the program launched in July. “[We need to see] our communities — particularly communities that have traditionally been marginalized — not as someone that needs a handout, but rather a wealth of talent and capacity to be able to help those companies grow.”
Phasing Out Facial Recognition Tech
There’s no denying that technology has done a lot of good. However, it’s become clear that it is capable of doing quite a bit of harm as well, especially when it comes to facial recognition technology and its use in surveillance. Time and again, we’ve seen that, when this technology falls into the hands of law enforcement, it can lead to false arrests, wrongful deportations of immigrants and a general over-policing that disproportionately affects minority communities.
“The tech itself falls short, it is not a reliable source of identification in any situation right now and, because it’s so premature and a tech used so widely, it’s an alarming thing,” Deb Raji, a technology fellow at the NYC-based AI Now Institute, told Built In in June. “We don’t know enough about facial recognition. We just know it doesn’t work and you’re already using it for a vulnerable population. I think that it just needs to be put on pause.”
That is exactly what Amazon has decided to do. In June, the company announced it would halt police use of its facial recognition software Rekognition for a year. Around the same time IBM CEO Arvind Krishna published a letter to Congress claiming the company is ending its facial recognition program and, going forward, would not condone the use of any facial recognition technology to be used for “mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with [its] values.” Although Microsoft claims its own facial recognition tech has never been sold to law enforcement, the company also vowed that it wouldn’t until there is a federal law put in place to regulate its use.
At the same time, other folks in the tech sector are coming up with various ways to counteract existing technology. For instance, Scott Urban’s company Reflektacles has been selling anti-facial recognition eyewear for years, and sales have been increasing lately. More recently, a group of researchers at the University of Chicago developed a free photo-editing tool called Fawkes, which effectively “cloaks” images and tricks facial recognition software into seeing someone who isn’t actually there in the photo.
The tool has since gone viral on Hacker News. As of August, it has garnered more than 100,000 downloads, with one of the researchers Emily Wenger telling Built In that, “finally” the public is realizing that facial recognition technology “has more negative consequences than we initially anticipated.”
For good measure, several local governments in places like San Francisco and NYC have passed legislation to either regulate police use of facial recognition tech or ban it altogether. Back in June, Boston became the largest city on the East Coast to bar its government from using facial recognition tech at all, including its police department, acknowledging the technology’s “discriminatory tendencies.”
Giving Women a Seat at the Table
The pandemic has not made it easy to be a working woman, especially if you’re a woman of color.
Data published by the United States Department of Labor in March said that 60 percent of those laid off during the first wave of the pandemic were women, with Black and Latinx women experiencing job loss at a higher rate than their white counterparts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Plus, as children are forced to stay home from school, the burden of juggling work with caregiving has largely fallen to women, which can negatively impact their careers.
“With coronavirus, we obviously had this very, very rapid shift where schools and daycares closed, and so all the kids were home,” Colleen Curtis, the chief community officer of The Mom Project, told Built In in July. “We found that, disproportionately, women are taking on a bulk of the caretaking, a bulk of the homeschooling. What does that do to their careers long-term as they start to look at coming out of the pandemic and returning to work?”
So, the Chicago-based talent marketplace geared toward women announced it will be launching a new platform that current and prospective mothers can use to support one another during each stage of their career. In addition, the company just launched a nonprofit arm that will provide tech scholarships to 10,000 women of color.
The problems women are facing in the midst of the pandemic aren’t new though. Lack of funding and support are things that have held women entrepreneurs back for decades.
In 1972, Katherine Graham was appointed the CEO of the Washington Post’s parent company, becoming the first-ever woman CEO to run a Fortune 500 company. Now, nearly 50 years later, just 37 women lead Fortune 500 companies. What’s more, women founders get just 2 percent of venture capital dollars. The number is even lower if you’re a woman of color.
To help level the playing, Austin entrepreneur Anna Robinson founded Ceresa, a leadership training platform that aims to increase corporate representation of underrepresented communities, particularly women. The company raised $1 million of fresh funding in August, which it will use to market its ninth month of virtual training.
In Chicago, First Women’s Bank was greenlighted last month, becoming the first bank built by and for women in the city. The hope, said the bank’s director of access, Abigail Scanlan, is to create an “opportunity for women entrepreneurs to unite, build support, and create a community where we can close the gender gap in accessing capital for women-owned small businesses.” Dough, a Boston startup with a similar goal, launched in September, providing an online marketplace where consumers can find hundreds of items made exclusively by women-owned businesses.
Fortunately, existing women-led companies have made some important strides this year. For one, Seattle-based DefinedCrowd received the largest Series B round for a woman-founded AI company in the country. Also, Colorado-based insurtech startup Vertafore was acquired for a reported $5.35 billion.
Fertility and women’s health companies — particularly those led by women — have had a moment, too, with startups like Carrot, Kindbody, Tia and Maven landing tens of millions of dollars in fresh funding this year.
The road doesn’t get much easier for the women who have managed to become industry leaders though.
Women and non-binary tech experts are consistently underrepresented at conferences and in the media, which sends the message that there are none out there or that their perspective matters less than their male counterparts. San Francisco-based All Raise is looking to change that with its new Visionary Voices speakers bureau, a database of female and non-binary tech founders, funders and operators that event organizers, journalists or just curious individuals can use to access diverse tech experts.
“We really want this to be something that allows us to link arms and say together that we all care about this issue, we all want to make sure the sources we interview and the speakers we present represent a diverse range of life experiences and backgrounds,” Steffi Wu, All Raise’s director of communications, told Built In when Visionary Voices launched in September. “Diversity really should be a shared goal.”
Making the Industry More LGBTQ-Friendly
While breaking into and succeeding in the tech industry has proven difficult for women and people of color, the road is especially challenging for the LGBTQ+ community, particularly trans folks.
The National Center for Transgender Equity has found that one in four trans people lose their jobs due to prejudice. Factors like hiring discrimination, harassment and even physical or sexual violence on the job are common, especially for transgender people of color. Major companies including Dell, Google and Amazon all have had controversies of their own involving the discrimination of trans and other LGBTQ+ employees, proving the tech industry is not immune to this reality.
To help make the future generations of the tech industry more welcoming, Intuit announced in June that it teamed up with the GenderCool Project, an organization that educates the world about trans and non-binary kids through its team of child “champions,” to create a new mentorship program meant specifically for transgender youth.
The goal, said Intuit’s global Pride chair Cherise Slover, is to not just promote workplace diversity and provide an educational experience to kids, but also “lead the way for other companies so they too can initiate meaningful and tangible programs to support the LGBTQ+ community.”
Eventually, this program and others that follow could foster LGBTQ-founded companies that are as successful as Plume, a Denver-based startup that provides remote hormone replacement therapy consultations and prescriptions to transgender people. In just four months since its launch, the company had already managed to expand into 12 states.
Plume was co-founded by a trans woman. Plus, nearly 80 percent of its clinical team and more than half of its business team are transgender. In an interview with Built In, founders Jerrica Kirkley and Matthew Wetschler attributed the company’s early success to its inclusive design and diverse team.
“As you’re starting a company, if you start it with a more diverse viewpoint and with a more diverse founding team, you just build better products and better companies.”
This year several other successful LGBTQ-led companies have also taken steps to improve the diversity, equity and inclusion of both their workplace and user base.
For popular gay dating app Grindr, this took the form of removing the ethnicity filter from its list of dating preference options. When the company announced this news in June, a spokesperson from the LA-based company told Built In via email that this change is permanent and that Grindr will “continue to fight racism ... both through dialogue with our community and a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech on our platform.”
Meanwhile, HackOut, an Austin-based hackathon geared specifically toward aspiring LGBTQ+ tech entrepreneurs — and the only event of its kind in the country — committed to explicit diversity goals for the first time this year.
“The whole focus of the event is to help LGBTQ people found companies. To start up and start out,” event organizer Taylor McClasin told Built In in August. “As you’re starting a company, if you start it with a more diverse viewpoint and with a more diverse founding team, you just build better products and better companies.”
Taking on Systemic Racism From the Inside
These efforts aren’t exclusive to LGBTQ+ tech professionals. The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the ensuing protests around the world prompted many major companies to express their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The list includes Bumble, Airbnb and Microsoft to name a few. Plus, in June, nearly 400 companies made Juneteenth an official paid holiday thanks to the work of Oakland-based collective Hella Creative and their #HellaJuneteenth social media push.
While most large companies have simply put out statements expressing solidarity, several have taken specific actions to help correct the systemically racist system they’ve helped perpetuate.
For instance, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian resigned from the company’s board, requesting his seat be filled by a Black candidate. Less than a week later, Reddit honored his wish and appointed Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel, who said he was “excited to help provide advice and guidance as Reddit continues to grow and tackle the challenges of bringing community and belonging to a broader audience.”
“When I think about what the tech ecosystem as a whole could be doing better for Black entrepreneurs, the thinking always comes down to money.... That’s the thing that allows businesses to take risks and what has driven large outcomes in the past.”
In Colorado, similar to the HackOut event, Denver Startup Week required all participating panels to feature gender and racial diversity in an effort to promote a more diverse workforce. This will be a requirement for future conferences too.
Meanwhile, Google created a new accelerator program to help Black-founded startups raise Series A rounds. Chicago-based professional networking startup 4Degrees was the first to be admitted.
“I think [Google’s] belief is that there is a large venture-scale opportunity here and that they want to be a part of it,” co-founder and CEO Ablorde Ashigbi told Built In when the announcement was made in July. “When I think about what the tech ecosystem as a whole could be doing better for Black entrepreneurs, the thinking always comes down to money.... That’s the thing that allows businesses to take risks and what has driven large outcomes in the past.”
Indeed, lack of access to VC funding has proven to be a major hurdle for entrepreneurs of color. Research shows that only 1 percent of VC-funded founders are Black, and only 0.2 percent are Black women. Part of this divide can be attributed to the fact that VC firms themselves tend to not employ very many Black people. To change that, Colorado-based Matchstick Ventures made a commitment to invest more money in minority-led startups and add more Black people to the companies and boardrooms it plays a role in.
Similarly, Valence, an LA-based Black professional networking startup founded by entrepreneur Kobie Fuller, launched its own funding network. The company is bringing in 27 investment firms with more than $60 billion in combined assets to provide free mentorship and pitch advice to Black entrepreneurs.
Looking beyond funding, companies feel improving minority representation will be key in ensuring the tech industry is a more inclusive one down the road. Play NYC, for example, highlighted the work of five Black game developers from around the country at its annual expo in August in an effort to diversify an industry largely dominated by white men the world over.
Out west, Boulder-based software development startup Techtonic pledged to hire 100 Black and Latinx people through its paid apprenticeship program. The goal, said CEO Heather Terenzio, is to find talent outside of the traditional university computer science departments, which often don’t have a lot of minority students graduating from them.
“Somebody has got to do something,” Terenzio told Built In when the program was announced in July, “We can’t just keep talking about it. We have to start making an impact in a real way with real people.”
Holding Big Tech Accountable
Many Black tech professionals have been quick to note, however, that it is easy for white executives at large tech companies to claim they support a more diverse and equitable workforce. Following through on those promises is a completely different story.
That’s why Sherrell Dorsey, a Seattle native and founder of tech diversity publication The Plug, began compiling a database of tech companies and CEOs who have made public statements about racial injustice.
“Historically, tech companies have not spoken up about racial justice issues. As I started to see some CEOs take a stand, like Box and Twitter, I wanted to take a look at who was — and who wasn’t — making a statement,” Dorsey told Built In when the list was first published in June. “I wanted to provide transparency and accountability between what companies were saying and what they were actually practicing when it comes to hiring Black workers on their teams.”
Despite years of pledges and statements from industry leaders vowing to improve their diversity, very little progress has been made on this front. In fact, many of the industry’s largest companies still have very few Black and Latinx employees. This has prompted viral movements like #ShutDownSTEM, a global protest in which thousands of professionals in the STEM fields paused research, classes and meetings to honor the past and present Black contributors in science, tech, engineering and mathematics.
To help the tech industry change course, San Francisco-based HR platform Eskalera launched a new feature that helps businesses improve their diversity and inclusion efforts, providing them with real-time data analytics and actionable steps intended to improve their approach to diversity.
Dr. Tolonda Tolbert, the company’s co-founder and head of strategy and culture, says this tool is useful for fostering an inclusive workplace culture and holding executives who claim diversity is important to them accountable.
“The commitment, right, it cannot be window dressing. It cannot be one and done. It must be something that an organization is long term committed to and is very intentional about,” Tolbert told Built In when the feature launched in June. “This has been a space where people like to, you know, talk the talk, but not walk the walk. We’re trying to make sure that both people at leadership level and the individual level have the tools to walk the walk.”
Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands
Meanwhile, other entrepreneurs of color are taking matters into their own hands to make the tech industry more inclusive, with or without big companies’ help.
One key area is money. It’s very difficult to make a dream a reality without funding, yet just 1 percent of venture capital funding goes to Black-led businesses and just 1 percent of Black-owned businesses manage to get a bank loan in their first year of business, according to the Brookings Institute. This inevitably makes it more difficult for these companies to succeed. And, at the end of the day, of the approximately 2,800 companies traded on the New York Stock Exchange, only a handful are Black-owned.
That’s why investor Bill Ellison teamed up with lawyer Joe Cecala to create the Dream Exchange, the nation’s first Black-owned stock exchange. Based out of Chicago, the exchange aims to list smaller companies that want to go public, especially if they are minority-owned.
The Dream Exchange is set to launch in 2021 and, until then, offers free assistance to businesses trying to connect with investors.
“There are a lot of small, minority businesses that want to see an opportunity for how they can participate and grow their company. We want them to be very successful,” Ellison told Built In when the exchange was announced in August. “By being successful, they’re going to create a lot of jobs for a lot of people, a lot of communities, and we’d love to see that.”
So far there appears to be a hunger for this kind of resource. During this year’s Juneteenth Holiday, the stocks of several Black-owned companies surged after investors used this method to support Black-owned businesses.
For folks who want to support these businesses in a different way, Boston founder Kristina Liburd launched the Black Startup Collective, a public directory of Black entrepreneurs made by and for the community. Right now the page serves just as an informational tool, but down the road Liburd says she wants it to be a sort of “Wakanda 2.0,” a place where Black professionals can forge meaningful connections with each other.
“As a startup founder myself, I am usually the only Black person in the room. Sometimes that kind of connection doesn’t necessarily happen with other Black founders,” Liburd told Built In when the collective launched in June. “If I can know that there are other Black founders who are operating in this space, I would love to work with them because my aim is to give them that opportunity, give them the space to flourish.”
Indeed, an industry that is largely dominated by white men has meant women and people of color have had to carve out spaces for themselves. However, Black entrepreneurs Edith Cooper and Jordan Taylor, who also happen to be mother and daughter, founded a different kind of networking platform. One where anyone can participate regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, age or job title.
Their company, Medley, is meant to provide a space where individuality is fostered and open discussion is encouraged.
“There’s benefits of having a space where you can be with your more demographically defined communities. But we also think that there needs to be a space where you can gain from other people’s perspectives,” Cooper told Built In when the platform launched in July. “It’s so important for people to own their individual responsibility, to learn and grow with and through other people.”
These efforts aren’t exclusive to long-time entrepreneurs like Liburd, Ellison, Cooper and Taylor. The events that have unfolded in 2020 have also inspired the next generation of tech professionals of color to take steps in ensuring the industry is a more inclusive one tomorrow.
“Without that vision, without seeing someone who looks like you, who is successful in a certain space, you’re not going to want to try it,” Brock told Built In in a July interview. “That’s why there’s so many Black and brown kids who want to become basketball players, rappers, athletes. It’s because there’s so many examples that show them, ‘Hey, it’s possible for me to go out there and actually have a shot at being successful.’”
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Gordon Gottsegen, Nona Tepper and Jeremy Porr contributed reporting to this piece.