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Startup Week panel: Tampa Bay can outshine Silicon Valley when it comes to diversity

Margie Manning



Tammy Charles (left), founder and chief strategist, TMC Strategies, moderated the diversity panel at Startup Week. Panelists were: Nestor Ortiz, Nikki Ross Inda, Lorena Rivas Hardwick, Cesar Hernandez and Cornelius Demps.

A more diverse technology sector could give Tampa Bay a boost that would help it surge ahead of better-known tech hubs, said Cesar Hernandez, founder and managing director of Omni Public.

Hernandez was among the panelists who took part in a discussion on the untapped power of diversity on Monday, as Startup Week Tampa Bay got underway in St. Petersburg.

“Everyone looks at Silicon Valley and Singapore and Dubai and London and even Hudson Yards and asks, ‘How do we mirror those areas?’” Hernandez said. “You know what those areas don’t do well? They don’t include their diverse populations.”

Less than 3 percent of venture capital goes to women entrepreneurs, and an even smaller percentage to minorities, according to studies Hernandez cited.

“That is something that the most technologically-advanced areas have not gotten right. That’s something we can get correct, because what makes this country great is diversity of thought,” Hernandez said. “What we need to do is not look like Silicon Valley, but look at what they don’t do right, and be able to use technology as a great equalizer and we could actually leapfrog them.”

Diversity and inclusion initiatives — which can take in racial, ethic, gender and age distinctions — need to go beyond lip service, panelists said.

“Diversity is inviting people to the ball. Inclusion is asking them to dance,” said Cornelius “CC” Demps, an associate attorney with Smoak Chistolini & Barnett in Tampa.

That means organizations that serve low-income communities or communities of color should give members of those communities a voice, said Nestor Ortiz, CEO of 16 Point Compass, a consulting firm. “Tokenism sucks,” Ortiz said. “Don’t do that.”

He cited one group he worked with that provided services based on what the leadership of the service organization thought was needed.

“It felt like a huge wall between the people providing services and support and the community they were hoping to serve. That was a failure on the part of the organization,” Ortiz said. “I started noticing that difference and trying to inform it. I try to let people know you should really look to have at least some of your constituents in a leadership role, or at least give them a voice … Don’t just give them a seat at the table. Give them the mic too. If you’re not listening to the communities you are hoping to serve, then are you really serving those communities?”

It’s also important to be intentional about diversity programs, said Nikki Ross Inda, a public relations coordinator at Moffitt Cancer Center who founded Moffitt’s Healthy KIDZ program, which brings age diversity to Moffitt’s service lineup.

“The best advice a friend gave me was to be a squeaky wheel,” Inda said. “Whatever it is you are fighting for, a job that you are trying to target, do what it takes. I never was disrespectful but I certainly was a squeaky wheel, and because of that I had full support from the CEO down for the program.”

Demps agreed that being outspoken was key for minorities seeking to move into leadership roles.

“Talk to people who are in positions of authority, people who make the decisions. And also have the courage to say, ‘I have good ideas, other people have good ideas as well, we might be able to be in positions of leadership.’ If the path you are taking to move up to leadership is not available you may have to make your own path,” he said.

Start small and start local, said Lorena Rivas Hardwick, a legislative aide for Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez.

“You can’t change the world until you start changing the street you live on, the neighborhood you are, the community and eventually, the city, the region, and the state,” Hardwick said.

Startup Week events will shift to Tampa on Wednesday and continue through Friday.

You can see the schedule here.

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