The greatest obstacle facing New York City's tech founders isn't a dearth of venture capital funding or government tape. Rather, it's their hiring practices that see disproportionately lower numbers of women and people of color.

That's according to Maya Wiley, the civil rights activist and professor of urban planning at the New School. Wiley spoke on a panel at the Northside Festival in Brooklyn earlier this month, where she discussed the possibility for entrepreneurial "moonshots" in the Big Apple, alongside panelists Beth Comstock, a former vice chair at General Electric; Marie Berry, co-founder of the digital agency Chinatown Bureau; Jeremy Goldberg, CTO of the Mayor's Office of New York City; and Jake Horowitz, co-founder of the news site Mic.

"We have to challenge ourselves around race and gender," Wiley said. "If we don't invest in creating sustainable communities, we're losing some of what makes us attractive as a city," she added, noting that despite the Big Apple's relative diversity, people of color still represent only a fraction of the total tech workforce. And as diversity efforts across the industry are stalling--in Silicon Valley, some estimates suggest that the number of black and Latino coders has actually declined, rather than increased--it's advice that entrepreneurs everywhere should take to heart. 

Wiley points to projects such as NYCx Co-Lab, the innovation lab in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where residents work to build solutions to local problems. Since launching last year, NYCx Co-Lab has helped to launch a solar-powered smart waste and recycling system and solar-powered benches that double as charging stations. "We're not doing this together [at present,] and we're going to fail unless we figure out how everyone can be social innovators," Wiley said. "People in underserved communities see themselves as entrepreneurs. The question is: Do others?"

African American women are currently the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs in the U.S., and yet they still own only around 14 percent of all U.S. businesses--and capture less than 1 percent of venture capital funding. In New York City alone, only around 40 percent of the city's tech employees are women--and just one-fifth are people of color, according to the most recently available data from New York's Federal Reserve Bank and the Center for an Urban Future. That's considerably more diverse than Silicon Valley's tech ecosystem, but still a far cry from parity.

Chinatown Bureau's Berry echoed Wiley's call for building a more inclusive tech environment. "From our perspective, it's important to create not just a tech solution for the elite, but to bring innovation to the masses," Berry said at the Northside Festival event. Chinatown Bureau has worked with underserved communities across the five boroughs, building Citi Bike stations, for example. 

Ultimately, all of the panelists agreed that government and local businesses need to collaborate to come up with solutions. "Cities can do a lot when they think creatively about how to spend, and we need to bring that together with the private sector," Wiley said. "It can't just stop with the government."

Published on: Jun 25, 2018