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Tech startups should tackle diversity, inclusion right away, experts say

Aaron Aupperlee
| Monday, April 16, 2018, 2:55 p.m.
Judith Williams, right, and Kelly Hoey will speak at the AlphaLab Gear Hardware Cup Finals and IEEE N3XT Frontier Tech conference in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. (Photos from IEEE)
Judith Williams, right, and Kelly Hoey will speak at the AlphaLab Gear Hardware Cup Finals and IEEE N3XT Frontier Tech conference in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. (Photos from IEEE)

No technology startup is too small, and it's never too early to tackle the issues of diversity and inclusion.

That's the message entrepreneurs will hear this week as they come to Pittsburgh for the AlphaLab Gear Hardware Cup International Finals and the IEEE N3XT Frontier Tech Keynotes.

Judith Williams, who led diversity programs at Dropbox and Google, and K elly Hoey, a serial entrepreneur and networking expert, will speak at the event and stress building a diverse company from the start.

“It's inexcusable not to think about it,” said Hoey, the author of “Build Your Dream Network.”

“If you wait, and you wake up, and you're a 1,500-person company, and you look around, and you're like ‘Whoa, we don't have any women,' it's very hard to fix it now,” said Williams, founder of Magic Deer Consulting.

Williams and Hoey will be at Pittsburgh's Ace Hotel on Wednesday speaking to a crowd of entrepreneurs who hope to be on the cusp of breaking out and growing. Hardware startups from around the world will compete for $50,000 in funding at the fourth annual Hardware Cup presented by AlphaLab Gear and Innovation Works.

The competitors include Velocity Robotics, a Pittsburgh company that makes connected and automated construction tools. V elocity Robotics won the Mid-Atlantic preliminary round of the Hardware Cup in February. Companies will pitch products ranging from standalone, micro-hotel rooms and micro-satellites launched from high-altitude balloons to automated bras that pump breast milk and wireless, vital sign monitors for newborns. Teams from Japan, South Korea and Israel also will compete.

Williams and Hoey said if companies don't start out recruiting and hiring a diverse workforce, they won't know how women, black people and other minorities may use their products.

“You're not aware of what you don't know,” Williams said, telling a story about how left-handed people had trouble using Google products designed by a team of right-handed software engineers. “We all have those types of blind spots.”

Williams said a company should have the goal of building products for everyone. To do so, the company should have a diverse staff that reflects the world around them.

“If you just have those two or three guys, and they continue to hire people who look like them, they will continue to solve the same problem in the same way,” Williams said.

Startups shouldn't wait to start thinking about these issues, Hoey said.

“It gets really bloody expensive down the line to correct the problem,” Hoey said. “The more that companies think about it from the get-go, the better off they are going to be.”

The AlphaLab Gear Hardware Cup and IEEE N3XT Frontier Tech Keynotes is free and open to the public. You can register h ere.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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