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Addressing Diversity in Austin Tech

At the end of September, I had the opportunity to participate in the Diversity In The Startup and Tech Industry Summit hosted by the University of Texas Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship, Growth and Renewal. I was part of a panel moderated by Preston James II with Barbary Brunner of Austin Technology Council, Charlie Jackson of Diversity Fund, and Dawn Jones of Intel.

Those of you that know me personally know that I’m pretty selective about participating in these sorts of events. Very often, these panels are simply preaching to the choir. This event, however, seemed like the perfect opportunity to directly influence leaders in Austin to address and improve diversity and inclusion in my home city.  I couldn’t pass it up!

The conversation was wide-ranging, insightful and intentionally featured a number of different perspectives. One of the most illuminating portions of the panel was when each of us shared our thoughts on what diversity and inclusion is and why it’s important. I’ve paraphrased the way my colleagues on the panel approached this issue.

Barbary Brunner:

Diversity is in support of product development. We need people to help create the products that are consumers or future consumers of the product.  

Charlie Jackson:

Diversity is about ensuring that there is equality where it should be. Example: Schools in Tarrytown versus the East Side. Tarrytown has a multi-million dollar tech budget for Casis Elementary endowed or supported by the parents. Schools on the East Side have nothing.

Dawn Jones:

Diversity is the right thing to do from a corporate responsibility perspective and is about innovation.

Lisa Mink:

Diversity is the makeup of similarities and differences that exist within a group or organization.  Diversity and inclusion as a practice is the intentional management of differences. Bringing in more difference where and when it is needed and managing the difference that already exists or is created. Diversity is the mix; inclusion is managing the mix.

I was impressed by how responsive and interactive the audience was. The attendees were a mix of UT MBA students and community leaders. To see how deeply these leaders and future leaders were invested in diversity and inclusion in the Austin tech scene was tremendously edifying and exciting.

We spent some time talking about sphere of influence. You can worry about changing an entire system/norm/culture/corporation/institution but that takes time (a lot of time). Consider thinking about what you can influence every day (being an entrepreneur, promoting equality, influencing one person versus an entire world). As I’ve written before, change comes from within.

This excellent audience provided some excellent questions. I’ve picked out a few that stood out to me and that I feel like every leader can benefit from.

How do we have a transparent, safe conversation about the realities and challenges of D&I so we can decide together what solutions make sense?

We all have hidden biases. They’re from a lifetime of experiences that have shaped our beliefs on age, gender, race, religion, social status, etc. These form our likes and dislikes and our judgements of people and groups. Knowing that, let’s acknowledge that this is a similarity we all have. Let’s open a dialogue on how we come together to work and live together with both our similarities and our differences.

The race relation issues that exist today are painful to see and are still so significant.  What more can we be doing that we aren’t?

How we wish we all had the answers. When I feel that something is large and overwhelming, I try to remind myself of this: “Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world. In fact it is the only thing that ever has.” This is a famous and accurate quote by Margaret Mead. I know change starts from very small conversations held among people who care.

I’m a Hispanic female professor. In academia, I feel that you need to be completely homogenous and conforming to a “right” standard. I’m also constantly being asked to be the voice/face/representative of my demographic. Neither feels right. Your thoughts?

Asking you to represent your entire demographic is stereotyping and it’s a great opportunity for you to bring these concerns forward to key influencers and decision makers, and to have a dialogue about how better solutions can be found. A lot of activities are very well intentioned but sometimes people don’t grasp how it’s perceived, and it falls upon us to educate them about a more impactful way for inclusion. Perhaps suggest a moderated forum to open the dialogue around academia and valuing diversity.

What more should academia be doing to increase D&I?  

First, you must acknowledging that there is an issue and make bringing attention and intention to D&I being a priority.

Taking a look at the succession planning of academic leadership and tenure approval processes will require an intentional lens of diversity. The National Association of Land Grant Universities is including a panel on diversity in this year’s annual meeting agenda where this exact topic is to be discussed. I feel honored to be a part of the dialogue.

What should we expect corporations to be responsible for in the community – supporting schools on the East Side for example?

Many corporations are active in the communities in which they are based. Most have corporate responsibility objectives that are aligned with the goal of the business. We can’t expect corporations to step in just because our society or government has left a void.

Why aren’t we as an industry making more inroads in diversity and inclusion?

We are making inroads. Just not as fast and tangibly as any of us would like to see. There are multiple dimensions of diversity. Making significant progress on any one of these will require all of us being a part of the solution.

Overall, it was a great panel and I’m very grateful to the University of Texas for inviting me to participate. This week, I’ll be participating in another diversity event in Austin, the Women’s Fund of Central Texas Keyholder 2016. I hope some of you can make it!