Rewriting the code: Local tech firms work to address the diversity gap

Rewriting the code: Local tech firms work to address the diversity gap

Elizabeth Bell, a mother of six, used to work in a warehouse, walking between towers of inventory and entering data into a computer.

She would walk by frightening, looming machines and, occasionally, a robotic helper would come up next to her to do its job checking stock.

“I saw lines of code going by on this panel on the robot,” she said. “I had no idea what it was. Now I know it was either JSON or JavaScript.”

Bell, who would also work a second job cleaning at Camp Randall after finishing hours of data entry, now works as a developer at Flexion, a computer consulting company in Sun Prairie.

She’s part of a world she hardly dared imagine for herself — the laidback, “cool” universe of tech, where she joins other staff members for barbecue lunches on Thursdays and works with free rein, without anyone looking over her shoulder.

“I’m very confident now, but I was scared then,” Bell said of her first visits to Madison technology companies. “To be honest, you don’t see any black people up there, doing this type of work.”

Bell broke into Madison’s tech scene with the help of a program run by the YWCA and a local tech company, but there are many other women and people of color who believe — consciously or subconsciously — that the barriers are too high or the environment too unwelcoming to enter the growing world of programming, coding, development and startups in Madison.

“I don’t mean to pick on Madison, it’s just, what is true is those who have access have been springboarded above those who don’t,” said Jim Remsik, founder of, the tech company that partnered with the YWCA to help Bell enter the Madison tech scene. “We’re sort of falling into the same trap that other cities have. There are a lot of people who haven’t been granted access.”

The tech industry’s lack of diversity is a widespread, well-documented problem.

Facebook released a report in June that revealed nearly 70 percent of its employees are men and 57 percent are white. Only four percent are Hispanic, and two percent African-American.

Yahoo released their numbers at the same time. As of June, 62 percent of their workforce was male and 50 percent of workers were white. Only two percent — just like Facebook — were African-American.

And Twitter recently came under fire for its workplace diversity report, which said the company employs only 34 percent women. In response, Twitter committed to raising that number by one percent by next year. As The Los Angeles Times pointed out, that means hiring just 41 more women into a 4,100-strong workforce.

“I think that what is critical is that this problem is as easy as it’s ever going to be to solve right now,” Remsik said. “It’s only going to get more difficult, the disparities are only going to grow from here.”

“There’s a lot of latent potential,” said Amy Gannon, co-founder of the Doyenne Group, a Madison organization that provides mentorship and support for women entrepreneurs. “I think Madison is poised to crack that knot. Why can’t we be the ones to figure it out?”

The ‘digital divide’ and sexism

Arguably, there isn’t a professional field in Madison that doesn’t have a diversity problem.

A report released earlier this year by the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) found that, though Dane County and its surrounding counties report minority populations around 15 percent, at least 95 percent of management positions across industries are held by whites.

On top of that, 56 percent of survey respondents said they don’t have any written diversity hiring statement or policy.

A University of Wisconsin-Madison report released in July also found that, in Wisconsin, “women-owned and managed businesses still represent a relatively small share of establishments, sales, and employment.”

Industry insiders acknowledge the tech and startup communities are a microcosm of the larger problem in Madison, throwing many of the challenges other industries do at minorities — for example, a lack of professional community members that look like them.

“If you don’t know people that look like you that are operating in that scene, it can be difficult to feel comfortable, to be confident, to get involved,” said District 10 Ald. Maurice Cheeks, who is also director of the Wisconsin Innovation Network, the membership arm of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

“It’s a lot of white guys working within the space in Madison,” said Heather Wentler, co-founder of the Doyenne Group. “How do we get more women in tech, either as coders or programmers, to go into entrepreneurship? I think we need more role models locally for them to be looking at. If you don’t see (someone) who looks like you, how do you even break through?”

However, insiders argue that tech and entrepreneurship present their own unique barriers to minorities as well.

“On the community of color side, it’s about access, the digital divide,” said Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce.

According to 2014 data from the American Community Survey, 12 percent of Madison’s households don’t have Internet access. Six percent of white households don’t have Internet access, compared to 13 percent for black or African-American households and eight percent for Hispanic or Latino households.

If individuals don’t have Internet access at home, especially when they’re growing up, they’re less likely to acquire the (often self-taught) skills assumed as a baseline when pursuing a higher degree in technology.

“Kids these days have had access to more technology; there are ways of thinking and patterns that you get exposed to with that access,” Remsik said. “If you get exposed to them younger, it becomes second nature.”

“The tech industry is seen by folks as a skill that’s developed through self study,” said Brandi Grayson, employment services director at the YWCA. “People from different populations, or people who are suffering or surviving poverty, usually don’t have the privilege or the time to self-direct into the tech field.”

The primary challenge for women looking to break into the Madison technology and startup communities is less tangible and concrete than the digital divide.

According to industry insiders, decades of sexism and male bias permeate the scene.

Wentler has heard dozens of stories outlining the challenges women face while attempting to become a part of the Madison tech and startup communities.

“We’ve had women come and tell us, ‘No one will talk to me, and no one takes me seriously — I’m not legit enough,’” she said. “We have stories of women coming and telling us, ‘I was talking to this guy and he leaned in and sniffed me.’

“Unfortunately, there’s stuff like that going on in Madison,” Wentler said. “These are the things going through our minds at networking events. And then you question, ‘Should I show up again?’”

Diverse communities reap the rewards

Many argue that diversifying the Madison technology and startup communities would be beneficial to the entire local economy.

“If we are not encouraging people of color and women to get into the fastest growing, highest potential sectors, we’re not just doing a disservice to them, we’re actually holding back our economy,” Brandon said.

Last year, Forbes called Madison one of the country’s preeminent “cities winning the battle for information jobs.”

“Employment in the metropolitan area’s information sector is up 28 percent since 2008, among the fastest growth in the country over that period,” the article read.

In the Forbes roundup, Madison was in the company of tech giants like San Francisco and Austin.

Richard Reeves, a liberal political theorist and Brookings scholar who recently gave the keynote address at the annual dinner of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, told Cap Times editor Paul Fanlund before his appearance that inequities in Madison are “as much an economic and a business question as they are a housing and a schooling question.”

And encouraging diverse populations into that fast-growing field has also been shown, in a handful of studies, to reap rewards.

Research from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business found that diversity-rich teams are better at decision-making. Catalyst, a nonprofit corporate membership research and advisory organization, found that companies with women in leadership roles produce better financial results.

“A lot of people make a social justice case for diversity — then you generally end up in philanthropic buckets. If you can make an economic imperative case, it’s now about investment,” Brandon said. “If you care about the economics of your business, you should care about this issue.”

Creating community, conversation and ‘genuine buy in’

Acknowledging the arguments for including racial minorities and women in the Madison technology and startup communities, tech leaders have identified paths forward: creating communities, providing sustained training and mentorship and encouraging an ongoing conversation about diversity.

Creating an inclusive community, a place where individuals see others like them, is something that 100state, a downtown co-working space that brings entrepreneurs together to share ideas, has been working on.

Gregory St. Fort, executive director of 100state, said that about 30 percent of the space’s membership is female (“Which is pretty good,” he said), and that, of the space’s eight private offices, two are rented by women and two by African-American startup business owners.

He said the space, with its diverse members, allows for intimate, closed-door conversations about the realities of being a minority in predominantly white, male fields.

“If you’re a person of color and you have a startup there are certain things, there are kinds of biases, you want to talk about,” St. Fort said. “The same things happen with gender. I think when you connect with the right people, you can have conversations about those things.”

“The efforts coming out of 100state are exemplary in terms of creating events that are welcoming to all cultures,” Cheeks said. “I see 100state doing a really great job of reaching outside of their own walls, and allowing people to be their authentic selves.”

The leadership team for StartingBlock, a startup hub peer to 100state that’s scheduled to break ground this winter and open sometime in 2016, is mostly young white men. Executive director Scott Resnick said that’s something the budding organization is acutely aware of.

“The reality is, the numbers are jarring — particularly when you look at the socioeconomics of many tech companies,” Resnick said. “It is a very concerted effort by many in the community to improve those numbers.”

Resnick said StartingBlock has plans to partner with the Urban League of Greater Madison. They’ll also work with the Doyenne Group and the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation.

“We will obviously have programming to improve the number of women entrepreneurs and minorities in the center,” he said.

Programming and training were also necessary if the Madison tech and startup scenes want to include more minorities. Those programs may be modeled after the YWCA and’s YWeb Career Academy, the program that graduated Elizabeth Bell. YWeb graduated its second class of diverse coders in earlier this month.

“Training people to get their foot in the door is going to be a huge part of how we can make a dent in this issue,” said Cheeks.

But the problem isn’t solved after training and introducing a woman or person of color into the industry, according to some.

“There are lots of ways that the people who we are training and the sector that they are entering have to reach to meet each other,” said Rachel Krinsky, executive director of the YWCA. “There are a lot of cultural differences.”

That’s especially true for graduates of the YWeb program, many of whom are experiencing, or have experienced, poverty, mental illness or addiction.

Because of those differences, the YWCA provides a year of counseling and support for graduates of their program and the employers who hire them.

“It’s not just about teaching the students the hard skills,” Grayson said. “For every program I oversee, I implemented soft skills on how to survive in the white culture: how to survive in the white world, how do you deal with being discarded, dismissed, talked around, talked at. We feel like we’re not good enough, we get disempowered in those situations and we just give up. (I tell people), ‘The issue isn’t your blackness or your womanness.’”

And Grayson would argue that even those who haven’t experienced poverty or other socioeconomic barriers have hurdles to overcome when they introduce themselves into the world of tech.

“Even when they do attract certain individuals, the culture of the company is really framed and rooted in white male dominance,” she said. “It kind of forces women and minorities to leave.”

Some YWeb graduates have yet to find employment, which some associated with the program chalk up to a lack of “buy-in” by members of the Madison tech community.

“You can create a thousand programs, but if the intention is just to train a program for numbers, then your program is just a program,” said Sabrina Madison, who is also known as “Heymiss Progress,” a local artist and activist. “There has to be a better relationship between YWeb and tech companies. Why aren’t the tech folks interested in hiring these kids? Why are they having a hard time getting people to come out and tutor them? There has to be genuineness.

“My biggest disappointment is the follow through, and that the tech industry itself doesn’t seem to be as the outside world may think they are,” Madison said. “Where’s the buy-in?”

That buy-in could be fostered, many said, by encouraging a tough, ongoing conversation about race, gender, technology and entrepreneurship in Madison.

“We have to continue the conversation — with everyone in the room,” St. Fort said. “The more the discussion continues, the better.”

And that conversation could lead to a network — which could lead to jobs.

“Folks who are familiar with other people, you have a desire to see them successful, you might go a step further out of your way,” Remsik said. “I think if there’s some way to build a network where we can get current technical professionals interacting with folks who don’t look like them, that’s really the key.”

Bell said that is what worked for her. She met one of the co-founders of Flexion, the company where she’s now employed, when she was still a student in the YWeb program.

She said Scott Hasse, partner and chief technology officer for Flexion, was kind, engaging and very welcoming to her as an industry newcomer.

“We were able to build a relationship,” she said, which made her internship— and pending full-time employment — much less nerve-wracking and intimidating than she imagined in her pre-YWeb, pre-code-savvy days.

“It was so welcoming,” she said.

Perhaps, if some industry stakeholders have their way, more will feel that way about Madison’s tech and startup scenes soon.


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