Diversity Takes Center Stage on the Bayou


Variety’s the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavor.
–       William Cowper, The Timepiece

Photo by Alan Cleaver.

The famous quote above was published by William Cowper in 1785. Over 200 years later his words continue to be a banner for celebrating and encouraging diversity. Diversity of education, culture, viewpoint, and life experience has been proven time and time again to improve the odds of success in business.

In Louisiana, diversity is often front and center in debates around crime, education, housing, and politics. I take it as a good sign that diversity is starting to become a sticking point in discussions around the local start-up, tech, and entrepreneurship scene.

First, it’s a good sign because it means we actually have a scene worth talking about. Second, it means the scene is growing and many people want to have a say in the direction of its growth.

One such supporter is @ChristianGumbo. In a post on her personal blog late last week, she highlighted the fact that in the Silicon Bayou, as in most of the Silicon-Everywhere movement, diversity is lacking.

As a female tech-lover and general flag-waver for the worldwide startup movement, the lack of women in the scene has been obvious to me for quite some time. I’m not an apologist or a poor-me feminist, but I recognize that women aren’t exactly encouraged to pursue technical careers.

To appease the bug in my brain about the lack of lady participation in the tech scene, I follow inspiring, powerful women on twitter, I pay close attention to women like Sheryl Sandberg and Aubrey Sabala, and I’ve assisted in organizing small groups like Ladies of Launch Pad and Ladies Take Hack Night.

@ChristianGumbo noted in her post that the trends are becoming slightly more encouraging for women. Under30CEO profiled seven women on a list of the 30 Most Influential Young Entrepreneurs of 2011 and published a separate list of the Top 15 Female Entrepreneurs.  There were also six out of 66 start-ups with one or more female founders in the most recent Y-Combinator class.

Now that I think about it, Ladies Take Hack Night was a very white bread takeover. Doh.

While these numbers are looking up, @ChristianGumbo pointed out that zero of the women mentioned are African American.

Here on the Silicon Bayou, we struggle to find female founders period. Last year I asked Chris Schultz why Launch Pad Ignition didn’t have any ladies in their inaugural class. He told me that out of over 100 applicants, only one woman applied. This year’s LPI class is slightly more diverse than last year’s but still includes zero women, white, black or otherwise.

A combination of many factors contributes to making tech & entrepreneurial careers less viable for minorities. @ChristianGumbo listed lack of education, connections, encouragement and resources (financial or otherwise) as reasons for the gap. She also listed six things we can do as a community to close the gap [see detailed list here]:

  1. Appoint a minority community ambassador.
  2. Connect urban city students to tech/entrepreneur mentors.
  3. Engage our youth.
  4. Cafe Reconcile for tech & entrepreneurship.
  5. Create 500 NOLA female startups program.
  6. Partner with Essence Music Festival, National Urban League Conference, Louisiana Women’s Conference, and Black Executive Exchange  Program’s annual conference.

I agree with several of her ideas, and I know several of them have already been implemented to some degree. As an example, NewOrleansTech.net’s Teen Tech Day is a great example of engaging youth in the community.

One of the biggest barriers to implementing these suggestions is the lack of centralized leadership within the community. There isn’t really one person or one body of people that can appoint an ambassador or partner with minority-focused conferences. Both technology and entrepreneurship are traditionally de-centralized and becoming more so thanks to the power of (wait for it…) the cloud.

One step we can all take today is to step back and take a good look at the people we’re working with inside and out. Are we surrounding ourselves with a diverse group of individuals? What can we all do to make diversity in our environments more of a reality?

Let me know what you think in the comments, especially if you have ideas on how Silicon Bayou News can change the face of entrepreneurship in Louisiana.