How can Cincinnati’s tech scene be more diverse?

How can Cincinnati’s tech scene be more diverse?

A collection of Cincinnati entrepreneurs and technology industry workers want to diversify the ranks of the region’s startup community.

Early-stage talks are happening to expand Over-the-Rhine-based nonprofit Mortar to include either a tech accelerator or serve as a bridge to existing accelerator programs. Launched in 2014, the organization provides training to help minority or low-income residents become entrepreneurs.

Once the initiative, now called Mortar Beta, settles on its mission later this year, plan supporters say operating support could come from sources including the city of Cincinnati and startup development group Cintrifuse.

The proposal is one step in a series of initiatives planned to address diversity and inclusion in the tech field, said Candice Peters, one of the organizers behind the Black Founders Network and founder of Downtown-based startup Hello Parent. The group plans to host a forum in Over-the-Rhine Feb. 25 for the community to talk about the importance of diversity within Cincinnati’s startup ecosystem.

“There’s this niche of the tech community that’s been very dominated by white entrepreneurs,” said William Thomas II, one of the founders of Mortar. “We have a chance here with the broad breadth of expertise in our city to make sure it’s a more inclusive environment. It would be awesome five years from now to say, if you’re a minority entrepreneur, Cincinnati is the place to be.”

And it appears leaders within #StartupCincy may be ready to support the group’s efforts.

Cintrifuse is the region’s convener of high-potential, venture-backable startups. CEO Wendy Lea said although Cincinnati’s startup ecosystem is growing, there are opportunities to ensure it reflects the community it serves. She said Cintrifuse is working to follow the example set by Mayor John Cranley and other Cincinnati region leaders who are placing increased emphasis on ensuring there’s access to economic opportunity for a wide range of people.

“There is room for entities that are explicitly inclusive,” Lea said. “Now that we see there’s an accelerator platform, let’s be more specific to the needs of our community to improve ourselves.”

Thirty-four percent of the 225 startups registered with Cintrifuse as of Dec. 31 had founders who were women or racial or ethnic minorities.

The Southwest Ohio region leads the state in terms of the percentage of minority- and woman-owned tech firms who obtain support services from groups backed by Ohio Third Frontier, the state program designed to support tech sector. Between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2015, 24 percent of the Southwest Ohio firms that obtained venture capital funding had founders who were a racial or ethnic minority, which was the highest among the state’s five regions, according to Ohio Third Frontier data. Over that same period, six percent of the firms who obtained funding had female founders, which was the lowest percentage among the five regions.

But if Mortar Beta is launched, advocates said it won’t be time for a victory lap.

Longer-range efforts include:

Convincing more minorities and women to study computer science or tech related fields before and after high school.
Getting more women into leadership positions within technology companies.
Ensuring founders of minority-owned firms have the opportunity to get critical venture capital money to grow.

Building a game plan for change

*The Black Founders Network was the brainchild of Peters in 2015. The group’s first meeting happened in June. After having several discussions about the lack of diversity within the tech community, they decided to do something about it and find support among other industry participants.

“Being the first is flattering, but being the only wasn’t something I wanted to be,” Peters said about the sparse number of minority and female founders of tech companies in the region.

Peters said there was a conscious decision for the group, now totaling more than 30 people, to do more than “preach to the choir.” They decided to plan how they could make changes within #StartupCincy.

The group’s first big idea: Begin working to ensure innovators with great ideas can get funding.

About a decade ago, tech accelerators were few and far between and operators of those programs wanted to attract anyone with an idea. Now that hundreds of these programs exist, Lea of Cintrifuse said there’s room in Cincinnati to attract a more diverse group of founders.

If Mortar were to launch a new program focused on minority or women founders, it could compete with accelerators such as the Brandery, Ocean or UpTech for talent and financial support. Creating a pre-accelerator program could help identify founders who need training before they are picked to enter existing programs.

But in order to field candidates for those programs, minorities and heads of accelerator programs will have to establish relationships outside of their traditional networks, said Darrin Redus, the new head of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s Minority Business Accelerator.

“Organizations charged with accelerating tech businesses have to continue to proactively reach out to historically disconnected communities,” Redus said, adding that efforts should include sharing stories through a variety of media platforms and enlisting support from a diverse group of partners.

Organizations like The Brandery have become increasingly proactive about seeking out minority-led tech startups to fill the ranks of its accelerator class. Tony Alexander, the general manager of startup accelerator, and lawyer Rob McDonald met Wyzerr CEO Natasia Malaihollo while at PowerMoves, a minority-centered entrepreneurship conference, in Detroit.

Brandery officials were able to convince Malaihollo to enter the Over-the-Rhine program and her growing business is now based in Covington. Wyzerr collects and analyzes data by building technology for consumer feedback that look and feel like games.

“If an organization is looking to diversify, it’s not enough to sit and wait for startups to come to you, you have to seek them out,” Alexander said.

For minorities looking to partner with angel investors and venture capital firms, “which have never really been that inclusive,” Redus said, “I would encourage the groups to be proactive on their own, continue to set up meetings with the goal of becoming investor ready.”

As of late last year, 21 percent of companies that have landed investments from Over-the-Rhine-based seed-stage investor CincyTech are either founded or led by women or minorities. Mason-based Assurex Health has a female chief executive with Virginia Drosos and Mason-based ConnXus has a black founder and chief executive Rod Robinson. Nationally, fewer than 6 percent of venture-backed companies have been founded by women and only 1 percent are led by blacks.

“We want to make sure anyone who has a good idea has access to resources in the community,” said Bob Coy, CincyTech’s chief executive. “At CincyTech, we’re looking for entrepreneurs with high-quality, scalable ideas.”

JumpStart in Cleveland obtained money from Ohio Third Frontier in December to launch a $10 million Inclusion & Diversity Tech Fund to invest in early-stage Ohio technology companies founded and led by women or minority entrepreneurs.
Conversation about diversity goes beyond Cincinnati

The conversation in Cincinnati is part of a national dialogue about the lack of minorities and women within Silicon Valley tech companies and beyond. Venture capital groups and schools have also fielded criticism about whether current efforts are adequately targeting and training a diverse array of entrepreneurs.

Men make up 70 percent of the workforce or more at 10 tech companies including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Twitter, according to companies’ and federal government’s reports on diversity. According to data analyzed by the Wall Street Journal, blacks held about 7 percent of technology jobs in 2015 at Apple, which was the highest among the 10 companies. Hispanics held about 8 percent of the tech jobs at Intel and Apple, which were the highest rates among the companies. At Yahoo, Asians occupy 61 percent of the tech jobs but occupy fewer than one in five leadership jobs.

Silicon Valley-based semiconductor maker and technology company Intel Corp. is among companies that have publicly stated goals to hire a more diverse workforce and promote more women into leadership roles. Last year, Intel Capital launched a $125 million fund to invest in tech startups run by women and underrepresented minorities.

*In November, Downtown-based Lisnr was one of 11 startups that land an investment from Intel Capital’s diversity fund. Lisnr invented a high-frequency data over audio protocol to connect and activate any device with a speaker or microphone.

“As technology and markets continue to evolve, building and growing a workforce that is fully representative of the customers we serve and communities in which we operate is paramount to our success,” according to a statement from Intel CEO Brian Krzanich on the company’s website.

Even if the low employment counts are not intentional, Greg Greenlee, the founder of a six-year-old Cincinnati-based organization called Blacks in Technology, said it feeds concerns among minorities that companies aren’t interested in hiring them.

“How does that translate to someone up and coming?” he asked.

Greenlee, a computer systems engineer, can also answer the question – it limits career possibilities. The mission of the Blacks in Technology is to increase the visibility and participation of people of color in technology-related fields.

In the last few years, Greenlee has worked to connect blacks within the sector by hosting online discussion forums, recording podcast interviews with interesting people in tech and posting job leads whether they’re in Cincinnati, Silicon Valley or beyond. The network now totals about 1,900 people in the United States, Europe and other parts of the world.

Greenlee said there’s still room for the group to grow especially as it looks to connect students and those with an interest in the field with industry participants.

“We’re building awareness around the opportunity of being in tech,” Peters said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The story was updated to clarify the software Lisnr developed and how the Black Founders Group was organized.

Forum planned to discuss tech diversity

Future History Now is scheduled Feb. 25 at Union Hall, located at 1313 Vine St. in Over-the-Rhine, at 6 p.m. Mortar Beta and the Black Founders Network were founded in 2015 to address the need for increased diversity and inclusion efforts in the #StartupCincy ecosystem. The groups are designed to lend support, educate, and inspire current and future women and minority tech entrepreneurs. Goals also include engaging more mentors from diverse backgrounds, attracting and retaining minority talent incubated in Greater Cincinnati and elevating the visibility of these issues within the community.

Among the speakers scheduled to attend:

Rodney Williams, CEO of Lisnr

Wendy Lea, CEO of Cintrifuse

Derrick Braziel, co-founder of Mortar

Chris Powell, CEO of BlackBookHR

Rod Robinson, CEO of ConnXus


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