The local tech economy is growing. How can it better include Black Philadelphians?
Four Black entrepreneurs and tech leaders discuss the opportunities and challenges facing attempts to make Philly’s innovation ecosystem more equitable.
Philadelphia is lauded for its tech economy that’s growing even in the pandemic, as well as its increasing ability to attract technologists to build here. But for many of the city’s existing residents, access to the sector’s wealth potential remains elusive.
Black Americans make up more than 40% of Philadelphia’s population, but only 15% of its STEM workers (which contributes to a surprisingly high ranking for diversity among tech hubs). At the same time, the local Black unemployment rate is around 15%.
The moment brings cause for hope — and plenty of calls for change — but also, a challenging of long-held narratives, according to four Black tech pros who discussed innovation and access during a Philly Tech Week presented by Comcast panel hosted by WURD’s Charles Ellison.
Sherrell Dorsey, the founder of The Plug, a national online publication that covers Black innovation, believes this moment in tech is rife with opportunity. That’s even with the blight of the pandemic and a concurrent recession.
But the existing economic climate is a reminder that Black Americans need to fight for themselves, she said.
“There’s never been a more incredible opportunity to also reskill and retrain ourselves in spaces that are having fast-growing potential,” Dorsey said, especially with the rise of shorter-term tech training programs like bootcamps, apprenticeships and online certificates.
Little Giant Creative founder Tayyib Smith has long been a proponent for Black economic growth in Philadelphia and believes that it has to start with addressing misconceptions about entrepreneurship.
According to Smith, a “disingenuous narrative” exists that we live in a meritocracy, when in reality, race and gender are common determinants of who can or cannot be successful. Take, for instance, the nationwide lack of investment in underrepresented founders, with a meager percentage of venture capital going to people of color and women.
That’s something local institutions need to confront: “Since Tech Week started in 2009, the community that was talking about entrepreneurship has left African Americans in the wake,” he said.
Tech media personality Stephanie Humphrey — who spoke at PTW19 about who gets to call themselves a “technologist” (spoiler: anyone who wants to) — agreed and believes much more can be done to include the Black community in the local tech community. That starts with core essentials like broadband internet access.
“We’re not being included as robustly as we could be in the tech innovation process and growth and journey that is happening in Philly,” she said, “but we have to get back to the fundamentals are well.”
That includes increasing rates of literacy, which must come before coding for Black youth: “There has to be foundational work done there.”
Sylvester Mobley is the founder of Coded by Kids, a nonprofit designed to prepare youth from underrepresented backgrounds for careers in tech. He believes that the Black community needs to come to a consensus about what it wants as far as growth and how working in tech could lead to those outcomes.
“Black people are concentrated in the lowest-paying college majors,” he said. “At some point, we need to make a conscious decision as a community about whether we’re moving in an intentional way and into college majors that have a higher return on investment.”
Entrepreneurship must play a role, too: “We also have to be prepared to start startups,” Mobley said, noting that 18 Philly founders exited companies in 2019 and created more than $1 billion in value — and none of them were Black. If just three were led by Black founders, it would have created $211 million in value, by his math.
Watch the full video of the discussion here: WURD Philly Tech Week Panel
Written by Michael Butler in the May 21st Editon of Technical.ly