Silicon Valley has long been lauded as a meritocracy that values achievement and hard work. In many ways, tech has been seen as a place of inclusion, where cool is determined by what you do instead of how you look.
But the tech space has a long way to go in creating a truly inclusive environment. And one of tech's fastest growing minorities--black women--is uniquely positioned to provide an endless pool of talent, innovation, and insight.
Black women consume significant amounts of digital media. We're frequently the early adopters for new software and hardware. Essence magazine's 2008 research found that five times as many black women--36 percent--use cell phones for three or more hours per day.The study asserts that black women are more likely than other female consumers to spend time using technology and the Internet as tools of empowerment and self-expression. This level of usage creates a familiarity and understanding of technology and its many use cases that can be ideal for all kinds of businesses.
A recent Pew study revealed that blacks "over-index" on Twitter and Instagram. Couple our consumption of digital media and use of technology with our growing interest in the business of tech and start-ups, and you have a unique opportunity for businesses that value innovation and diversity.
Still, the challenges of creating space for black women in tech run deeper than just changing hiring practices. Here are a few key areas thought leaders have identified:
Education: The Pipeline Problem
Education seems to be the most promising means of both increasing the number of black women active in tech. With a paucity of black women choosing to major in computer science and related studies, there has to be more done to encourage black girls to see themselves as producers in addition to being consumers.
Sian Morson, the CEO and founder of Kollective Mobile, an Oakland-based premiere mobile agency, says black girls need to see examples of careers in tech to expand their concept of what's possible.
"It's important for those of us who are in tech to reach back and encourage and mentor young girls," she says. "If they don't see successful women of color in technology, then they won't consider it to be a viable career option."
Mira Lowe, senior editor for features at CNN Digital, agrees that education is imperative. "More girls and women need to be encouraged to pursue interests and careers in digital," she says. "If women are not engaging in the technology world, they will ultimately not be contributing to the world at large."
This need is the driving force behind Black Girls CODE, an organization founded by Kimberly Bryant, a technical project manager based in San Francisco. She acknowledges the issue of visibility and agrees that girls need the appropriate training and exposure to develop a passion for technology as well as its possibilities.
"There is definitely a very serious pipeline issue. The K-12 infrastructure does not currently provide adequate access to training in computer science," she says. "Once we can better feed the tech pipeline with women and other diverse candidates, we can begin to move the needle and change the face of tech as these students move on to attend college, pursue careers in tech, and eventually become the tech leaders, builders, and mentors for the next generation."
Visibility: The Unicorn Problem
While grooming black girls to take their rightful roles in tech addresses the future, there's also the present issue of expanding the visibility of the women who are already making waves in technology fields. Morson points out the perception issue for black women in tech.
"Although we exist, and there are more of us than ever before, I think that we're not seen because it's a perception problem," she says. "We're perceived as 'unicorns.'"
Instead of being perceived as anomalies, black women should be seen as any other minority in tech: an individual interested in using pixels and code to make the world a better place.
Bryant encourages women to not be afraid of standing out: "We have to let folks know we are in the room. This means finding opportunities to highlight your skills and abilities, become a thought leader in your field, step out and build your own company, and get involved in the open source community."
Peer Mentorship: Making the Right Connections
Bryant's assessment also highlights the need for more connections and visibility among women working in the digital space. For black women interested in pursuing a career in tech, Lowe recommends surrounding yourself with people who are as passionate about technology as you are.
"Don't be afraid to be 'the only.' Don't be afraid to fail. Immerse yourself in digital and learn as much as you can. Network with people in the field. Develop and preserve your digital footprint. Believe that you can make a digital difference."
Morson encourages black women to pursue their dreams with urgency. "Go for it! Now is the time. We're really at a critical time in history, I believe. This is a time of tremendous opportunity, and that includes black women."
What We, as Founders, Can Bring to the Table
So how can your company contribute to a more diverse workforce and enjoy the benefits of diversity?
Make diversity a priority, not a buzz word. The Center for American Progress notes that businesses that recruit from a diverse workforce are better able to find the best and the brightest talent needed to compete in an increasingly competitive economy. As businesses integrate a blend of various experiences and backgrounds, they yield the creativity necessary for competing in a global economy. Inclusion is not just a word to toss around in an annual report; it's a way of doing business that produces tangible benefits.
Avoid classifications based solely on race or gender. As ironic as it may seem given the topic of this article, it's important to avoid creating an environment that singles black women out as "the only." Instead, they, like other team members, should be acknowledged and rewarded based on the company's performance standards. As black women are considered valuable contributors in the tech, the awkwardness of being one of few in the room slowly dissipates.
Support organizations that contribute to the growing presence of black women in tech. Organizations like Black Girls CODE, NewMe Accelerator, and CODE2040 are providing opportunities for black women (and men, too!) of varying ages to fulfill their potential as future tech leaders. From volunteering your time as a mentor to sponsoring events, there are many ways to contribute. Reach out to their directors with a description of your strengths and offer your support.
Lisa Nicole Bell is an entrepreneur, executive producer, and media personality. Lisa is the founder and CEO of Inspired Life Media Group where she and her team meld art, social change, and commerce to create economically viable media properties.
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