Disrupt Indy: Can Data Forge the Path to Inclusive Tech Ecosystems?

U.S. tech startups and investment firms have long been thought of as the domain of white men—because historically, they have been.

Although that may be changing as more big tech corporations are pressured to release their diversity statistics and change hiring policies, one only needs to look at the statistics to confirm that women, members of the LGBTQ community, and people of color are still not connecting to tech jobs and investment at anywhere close to the same rates as their white male peers.

It’s a stark disconnect in a culture that imagines itself championing the best ideas and smartest founders, regardless of race and gender. The ongoing lack of inclusion makes even less sense given the enormous buying power  that underrepresented groups have in the tech marketplace. Studies show diversity is crucial to business success, yet the chilling effect of confirmation bias continues, especially when it comes to which startup ideas get funded. Why is it still so hard for minority groups to get a seat at the table?

Kelli Jones, co-founder and CEO of Be Nimble, a social enterprise advancing diversity in tech, feels it’s time to gather Indianapolis’s fast-growing tech community, have these uncomfortable conversations, and educate innovators about the business sense of inclusion. Jones has organized an event called Disrupt Indy: Midwest Diversity in Tech Conference, a event “for thought leaders, innovators, educators, venture capitalists, and techies to unpack the diversity problem and create solutions” that increase the number of women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community working in tech. Disrupt Indy runs over three days starting Aug. 2; click here for tickets.

“I’m approaching the topic with a different perspective,” she says. “I don’t look at it as a matter of quotas, but of market representation and innovation. If your target market is an entire swath of people in the United States, you should have people at the table that represent that entire swath. Research bears that out. I’m a black woman, so my perspective might be completely different than my counterpart’s. If you think of it more like a business model, it changes the tone and takes the fear out of it.”

Jones is an Indiana native who lived in New York City and Los Angeles, working in business development and marketing for a number of companies before returning home to join Indy’s growing tech sector. Upon arrival, she was impressed by the community’s openness and initiatives to increase the number of women in the sector. “There’s a huge focus here on women in tech, but at the same time, I saw a gap between the number of women and people of color,” Jones recalls. “Because of how Indianapolis embraced women in tech, I thought it was the perfect time for a bigger conversation about diversity. I want to be a catalyst for change, but the first step is bringing everyone together.”

However, Jones doesn’t just want to talk about diversity—she wants to walk away from the conference with a plan of action. Disrupt Indy will examine the issue as it relates to three main topics, Jones says: boosting computer science and coding education for K-12 students; increasing the pool of qualified, diverse job candidates; and encouraging entrepreneurship by incubating and scaling new startups led by people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. The ultimate goal of Disrupt Indy, she adds, is to be able to replicate it in other cities grappling with inclusion.

“Indianapolis has great infrastructure for this conference, along with companies and people who are open,” Jones says. “Everyone is still trying to figure it out, whether it’s here or Silicon Valley.”

Jones is encouraged by the spate of black women recently hired in at huge West Coast tech companies in the wake of diversity reports being made public. “To see that is really great. Here [in Indianapolis], it’s not really discussed so openly. It’s easy to focus on women in tech because there are a lot of women here willing to push the envelope. It just takes someone to raise their hand and say, ‘What are we doing for people of color and other minorities? Where are the mentors? Where are the founders that look like … Next Page »

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