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Panel shares actionable steps to increase tech diversity

Megan Holmes

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Left to right: Joe Hodges of Care Valet; Crystal Barnes of Nielsen/Nielsen Foundation; Lakshmi Shenoy of the Innovation Hub at Channelside Bay Plaza; Lamont Robinson of Nielsen; and Tony Gray of SOF Technology Association.
Tampa Bay Wave and the Nielsen Foundation are teaming up to bring diversity to the startup world. Their partnership is a first-of-its-kind initiative to specifically target diverse startups for accelerators services. To kick off their accelerator, Tampa Bay Wave hosted a Tech Diversity Panel Tuesday at Rooftop 220 in Tampa.
 
Tampa Bay Wave defines diverse startups as 51 percent minority, woman, LGBT or veteran-owned. The panel included diverse players in the Tampa Bay tech scene: Joe Hodges of Care Valet; Crystal Barnes of Nielsen/Nielsen Foundation; Lakshmi Shenoy of the Innovation Hub at Channelside Bay Plaza; Lamont Robinson of Nielsen; and Tony Gray of SOF Technology Association.
 
Moderator Ernest Hooper of the Tampa Bay Times posed diversity-related questions to the panelists, focused on where Tampa Bay (and specifically the tech industry) is today, and actionable steps to get to a more diverse tech workforce and supply chain.
 
Q: Where we are today in terms of diversity?
 
A: “I couldn’t answer this question without talking about measurement,” said Barnes. In her role at Nielsen, Barnes is constantly thinking about measurement and its role in tracking progress. “We are aware that there is an issue and that’s step number one,” she said.  “Openness and transparency are there,” The next step, Barnes said, is evolution – establishing the diversity infrastructure so needed in the space.
 
Q: How do we make things better?
 
A: Opportunities like the Diversity Tech Accelerator, said Joe Hodges. We need “partners who lift and extend a hand up,” he explained. Lakshmi Shenoy agreed, but argued that we can’t attain diversity if some populations are unaware of the opportunities that are out there. “If we just focus on point of entry to workforce, we miss critical developmental years,” said Shenoy. She argued that the easiest way to expose kids to opportunity is through STEM offerings in schools, and showing kids that business owners can and do look like them. “If kids don’t see opportunities, they don’t know opportunities exist for them,” Shenoy said.
 
Q: Actionable ways to bring diversity to the tech industry?
 
All too often, we leave panels feeling energized and ready to make change, but nothing happens. “I call this the Greenhouse Effect,” said Hooper. “Oopen the doors and all of the warm and positive energy escapes.” Action is critical to success.
 
A: According to Tony Gray, we in the Tampa Bay Area have an oft-overlooked buyer to the tune of $10 billion, with mandated set-asides for diverse suppliers. The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. They have multimillion dollar budgets for early stage research and development opportunities. “The U.S. government is a tremendous source of seed-capital for a very diverse community,” said Gray. He cited places like Silicon Valley that started with military capital during the space race. He believes Tampa Bay has a similar opportunity.
 
“Get certified,” said Lamont Robinson. There are a number of support organizations for minority, women, LGBT and veteran-owned businesses, including the National Minority Supplier Development CouncilWomen’s Business Enterprise National CouncilNational Veteran Business Development Council and the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. 
 
Barnes warned: “Be aware of the biases that exist in the procurement process.” She acknowledged that many companies now engage in unconscious bias training, and argued that confronting bias with intentionality is the only way to ensure diversity.

“It’s all about access to opportunity,” said Barnes. Diversifying scope means being innovative in creating pipeline, changing the way you go through the process of creating supplier or hiring pipelines.

Meet the Tech Diversity Accelerator’s first cohort:

SynsorMed

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