Ten months after frustrations that Philadelphia's tech start-up community was paying short shrift to diversity, equity and inclusion exploded in public, a collaborative has been formed to get at the problem with data and determination.
"People got tired of just talking about it," said Tiffanie Stanard, co-organizer and director of marketing for Open Access Philly, or OAx, a nonprofit focused on equal economic opportunity. "We have to make sure there are actions associated with it."
In partnership with Philly Startup Leaders, which provides networking, resources and education services, OAx launched a survey last week to develop what it says will be the first diversity, equity, and inclusion data set for the city's start-up community to identify "the most impactful, actionable issues" and provide resources to "enact meaningful change." Joining OAx and start-up leaders in the initiative are three local start-ups: Guru, Mogulette and Media Bureau Inc.
"We came away from last year's Diversity Dinner with a list of action items, said Robert Moore, a serial entrepreneur and board president of Philly Startup Leaders. "The top item was a call for more frequent opportunities to engage as a community on the subjects of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It was also clear that better data would be helpful in making these conversations as productive and action-oriented as possible."
Stanard said the goal is to get at least 1,000 founders, executives/team leaders, employees, investors, board members, advisers and vendors to take a survey on attitudes about diversity, equity and inclusion at their companies at http://bit.ly/PHLDEISurvey. Survey takers are being encouraged to share it on social media using #PHLDEISurvey.
Additional input will be gathered at a series of workshops expected to begin in the fall targeting founders, leaders, board members and investors.
"It will take a while — analyzing data and then making recommendations," Stanard said.
But it's a concrete step toward addressing a serious issue that has fomented hostility and divisiveness since a controversial panel discussion last October at the Black & Brown Founders Conference over the lack of diversity in Philadelphia's tech start-up community. It led to the resignation of startup leaders' then executive director, Yuval Yarden.
Hired as the group's first full-time employee in March 2016, Yarden, who is white, and African American panel member Tayyib Smith got into a tense exchange at the conference with Smith, cofounder of Little Giant Creative and Pipeline Philly, at one point accusing Yarden of "whitesplaining" diversity shortcomings in the tech community. Yarden, who grew tearful at one point, further offended those in the predominantly minority audience with a comment that, as one of the few white people there, she felt "like I'm walking on such thin ice because anything I say or anything that I plan to be helpful, the response is that I don't get it."
Later that month, tensions remained high at the Annual Philly Startup Leaders Diversity Dinner, an event billed as "an opportunity to talk about the challenges, share best practices, and celebrate the positive aspects of being an underrepresented group in the tech world."
"It was a lot of frustration, a lot of trying to understand everyone's feelings of diversity and inclusion," said Stanard, who spoke at the event. Aggravation and exasperation was expressed not only by people of color but by women and members of the LGBTQ community.
"There was a lot of stuff in the air that we said we actually have to do something," Stanard said, referring also to her co-organizers at OAx, Paul Wright and Jeff Friedman, as well as Moore and others from start-up leaders.
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But before they could, she said, they had "to first know where we are. Nobody has ever really collected data." Why not is not clear, she said.
"We're such a diverse city, we should have a lot of those answers," Stanard said.
Their goal is to ensure all groups feeling marginalized in the city's start-up community — black, brown, LGBTQ, immigrants, veterans and people with disabilities — have equal opportunities to successfully grow their businesses, said Wright, Stanard's partner at OAx.
"Through the combination of data and context, we can identify actionable items to ensure that all companies, regardless of the background of their founder, have an equal opportunity for economic success," Wright said.
The analysis, along with workshop notes and anonymized transcripts, resources and subsequent feedback, will be shared on a dedicated website at http://openaccessphilly.com/.
Asked what success in this undertaking will look like, Stanard said that will be accomplished when events such as the Diversity Dinner are no longer considered necessary, when members of groups currently feeling overlooked — such as African Americans, women, and LGBTQs — are regular speakers at start-up events such as Philly Tech Week, and the start-up community is "focused on everybody, regardless of your color."