To Harlem and Beyond: Coaxing Tech to See Opportunity in Diversity

It is safe to say the conversation on diversity in tech needs to move beyond citing ratios on ethnicity and gender to discussions on tangible action.

Late last month, one such effort took form with the arrival of the first class of cofound/harlem, which is billed as the first tech accelerator for this New York neighborhood. “Harlem is a hub that offers a lot more opportunities than challenges,” says John Henry, co-founder and director of strategy for cofound/harlem.

Various efforts are trying to move the needle on diversity. Culture Shift Labs, an advisory firm and think tank in Branchburg, NJ, is working on a software service intended to help companies more readily find potential tech hires across a broad spectrum of candidates. “Growth and innovation is the output of diversity and inclusion,” says Andrea Hoffman, founder of Culture Shift Labs.

The advent of cofound/harlem is one push to show that potential for growth. Six companies—chosen from within New York, across the country, and overseas—were picked for the inaugural class, says Henry (pictured).

The plan is for each class of cofound/harlem to run for nine months, rather than the three-month stretch most accelerator programs run for, he says. The startups get rent-free office space, and though the accelerator does not take equity, it does make a firm request. “The one thing we ask of these companies is they make a commitment to headquarter back in Harlem,” Henry says.

In addition to the office space to work out of, Google employees are among the mentors for the accelerator. “We also have mentors from The New York Times, MSNBC, startups like Boxee,” Henry says.

There have been prior attempts at creating a tech hub in Harlem. One of them, IncubateNYC, started off with the intent to be a tech incubator for the neighborhood, and then its mission expanded beyond Harlem—but it seems to have folded with little fanfare.

Henry says cofound/harlem adopted a different strategy from other efforts in Harlem, some of which he says focused on race and ethnicity or requiring the companies to be from the area. “We think that approach was stifling the innovation here in Harlem,” he says.

So cofound/harlem looked primarily for companies that want to put down roots in the neighborhood. That drew startups from as far away as Argentina to come to the accelerator. The first class includes Perqy, which lets employers offer discounts and benefits to their employees, and Bandhub, an online platform that lets musicians find others to play with around the world.

Henry is looking to not only bring more tech companies to Harlem, he also wants to change the dynamics that surround the innovation sector. “Can success be measured in ways such as integration into the community?” he asks.

And that is where the challenge may rest. He notes that the goal of hiring locally for the startups at his accelerator will require offering training to the neighborhood. Looking to bridge that skills gap, he says graduates of the accelerator will teach seminars and workshops for the community.

It is not just about getting training to the community though. Henry wants to change the way others view this neighborhood. “People, from outside, still perceive Harlem as dangerous and negative,” he says.

There has been development in the area, such as the expansion of nearby Columbia University, more Wi-Fi access being set up across the city, and more co-working spaces popping up in the community, which he says shows some of the promise of Harlem participating more in New York’s tech evolution. However, substantial change has remained elusive. “There wasn’t yet a single company to show for all this activity,” he says.

The struggle of changing attitudes about Harlem echoes across other efforts in diversity. Hoffman’s Culture Shift Labs, for instance, helps companies find overlooked sources of opportunity. Decision makers at companies, she says, are often heads-down doing their jobs and are not specialists in reaching niche segments of the population. That can mean missing out on potential hires for tech jobs. “People don’t realize the vast number of people of color doing amazing things because they’re not focused on it,” she says.

Culture Shift Labs has been developing Katapult, a business model and metrics tool for diversity and inclusion, Hoffman says. It is too early to go into details, but she says Katapult will be a software-driven way to assess and improve the hiring process. “Never again will corporations be able to say, ‘We don’t know where to find any women, women engineers, blacks that develop fintech, whatever it is,” she says.

Diversity hires could also boost the competitiveness of the U.S. on the global market, Hoffman says. “There’s a talent shortage in this country,” she says. “Every company is asking how they can become the employer of choice.” And given that shortage, she says if employers do not explore every avenue for potential hires from within the U.S., it will lead to more overseas outsourcing. “I think a lot of companies are looking for solutions, but don’t know where to look,” Hoffman says.

For his part, Henry says more companies should want to operate out of Harlem and have the chance to test their products across many different demographics, including the young professionals who call the neighborhood home.

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