As a resident of North Philadelphia, I know all too well what it feels like to live in a community that is often overlooked and taken advantage of. When I ride the bus to visit my grandmother in the Allegheny neighborhood, it feels like I'm traveling to a different city compared to what I experience day-to-day as executive director of Philly Startup Leaders. It's clear to me that there is a strong disconnect between Philly's growing tech community and the rest of the city.
Seemingly endless news stories have illustrated the tech industry's overall lack of diversity.
Without true diversity — racial, gender, economic, and more — equity and inclusion can't exist. And more alarming, without diversity, issues of equity and inclusion can't begin to even be addressed.
While some tech companies make a big show of putting resources towards diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) or paying lip service to equitable hiring practices, data show that there is a critical need to do better.
Historically and currently, people in underserved communities have not had access to resources to support their ideas, families, and life trajectories. Systemic inequities only serve to maintain the status quo.
We can't resolve these enormous issues on a national level by tomorrow, but in Philly, tech leaders — and all business leaders — can combat these issues by taking action every day.
Where to start? Empathy.
Having the ability to understand someone and their feelings is powerful. To step outside of your bubble (or privilege) and see the world from another's perspective takes patience, unconventional thinking, and resources.
Before joining Philly Startup Leaders, I was part of the startup behind Indego, Philly's bike-share system, where I led marketing and DEI. A top priority for us was to bring bikes into underserved communities. To do this, we had to have many difficult conversations.
In the years since, Indego has become as a model for bike-share equity — and that wouldn't have been possible without empathetic listening.
We didn't achieve this success overnight. There were times when communities were in an uproar about new bike racks coming into their neighborhood, seeing it as a sign of gentrification. There were internal missteps where we didn't understand all perspectives before making decisions. We also had to navigate the challenges of building something unheard of in the bike-share industry.
It took a lot of mistakes, listening to the community, and learning from and incorporating their feedback on our quest to change the makeup of bike riders in the city of Philadelphia. This work was challenging, but it forced us to listen to understand and not just listen to respond.
There will probably never be a day when we can declare that we've achieved diversity, equity, and inclusion for all. It's an ongoing process. But we must work harder to keep all communities in mind when advancing technology and economic opportunities.
Here are some ideas for how leaders can be more intentional in this work:
Educate yourself on why this work is critical. Change begins with you. Learn about the systems in place (or the ones that were in place). If you need more education, seek support and pay people for their services. Diversify your network.
Assess your leadership and board makeup. Members of the C-suite and the board of directors wield a lot of power. When there is a lack of diverse representation when deciding what to do with resources, only the same kinds of people, ideas, and projects get the resources first. That leaves nothing — or scraps — for others.
Elevate underrepresented voices. Invite more people from diverse backgrounds to the decision-making table. Give them a platform. Notice when to speak up and when to sit back. Listen, learn, and/or guide if needed.
Catch your assumptions before they land. When talking about hiring diverse candidates, for example, let's stop resorting to "workforce development" as the immediate solution to finding good talent. The quality is out there, you need to take time to find it. Bias may be preventing you from being open to people simply because they may have different approaches to getting the job done than you're used to.
Reflect daily. Everyday, take a moment to ask yourself: Did I lead with empathy today? With equity and inclusion in mind? After your reflections, note your intention to do it again tomorrow.
As novelist James Baldwin said, "We've got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible because we are still each other's only hope." We are all better when the playing field is equal.
Kiera Smalls is the executive director of Philly Startup Leaders and co-founder of City Fit Girls. A version of this piece originally appeared on medium.com.