Creating a Diverse Tech Ecosystem with Melinda Briana Epler

October 5, 2015

5:47 pm

Even as major players like Google and Twitter have made efforts to create a more diverse work culture and hire more underrpresented population, the numbers remain abysmal for women and people of color in tech. There’s been a lot of conversation around diversity in startup culture but the needle isn’t moving nearly as quickly as it should.

Melinda Briana Epler, CEO and Founder of Change Catalyst, talked about the roadblocks that keep underrepresented populations out of startups and venture funding. “The industry is in desperate need of shifting,” said Epler. She mentioned that the number of women majoring in computer science hit a peak in 1984 and went down from there. While African-Americans and Latinos fare a bit better, the number of underrepresented people being employed by venture backed startups remains low. According to Epler: 2.7% of venture-backed companies are women-led and  the number of women VC partners went down  to 6% from 10% in 1999. 1% of companies run by African-Americans and Latinos are venture-backed.

According to Epler, we lose people down several parts of the tech ecosystem: education, workplace, entrepreneurship, and policy, One of the reasons is what she calls “death by 1000 paper cuts” the small, subtle ways that underrepresented people are pushed out of work environments. Epler related her own story, working at an engineering firm and being talked over in meetings, skipped over for projects by supervisors. “It wasn’t me but the culture around me that was the problem,” said Epler, noting that many in underrepresented groups “being invited to the table but not being invited to speak.” is a major issue. She also mentioned that for many women and people of color,  imposter syndrome and anxiety can be a major roadblock to advancement. “The more you are stressed out, the less effective you can be at your job,” Epler said.

When talking about solutions, Epler mentioned the importance of questioning and acknowledging unconscious biases that we all have. “When you talk about ‘culture fit’ what exactly do you mean?” she said.

After her presentation, Epler facilitated Q & A/breakout session that led to a lively discussion among participants. One recruiter in the audience mentioned that women she recruited often ask for $20-30000 less than male candidates.  Another recruiter mentioned that underpresented groups simply don’t send in their resumes. The group as a whole discussed strategies for attracting more underrepresented groups to tech, including hiring more women and minority recruiters for hiring fairs. Epler also mentioned women and minority-focused accelerators and crowdfunding as other options to get more women of people of color firmly entrenched int the tech ecosystem.

On October 4-6, Tech Cocktail Celebrate Conference is gathering hundreds of attendees, industry leaders, and inspiring speakers in downtown Vegas to meet the hottest startups and investors from around the country, learn and collaborate with others turning their communities into startup cities, and enjoy music, parties, and llama spotting. Check out more Tech Cocktail Celebrate Conference coverage here.

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Keidra Chaney is a writer that focuses on technology, music, and culture and was previously a managing editor of Tech.Co.