Pittsburgh learning from mistakes of Silicon Valley to build a diverse tech hub
Kelauni Cook isn't your typical software engineer.
And it's not because she learned how to code — and what computer coding was — a year ago or because she moved from North Dakota to Pittsburgh to learn it.
“I'm always the only black female,” Cook said.
At a recent panel discussion about technology and medicine, she was one of three black people and the only black woman in the crowd of about 60 people.
“I'm bringing together two communities that I feel there is a gap between,” she said.
Pittsburgh's Inclusive Innovation Week begins Friday. It's the city's latest push to make sure women, minorities, the poor and anyone else interested has a chance to participate in the city's blossoming tech community. The week spans nine days and includes more than 60 events.
They include a Saturday brunch hosted by Cook about including minorities in tech, a small business workshop with Google aimed at helping companies increase their search engine prominence and sessions on growing your handmade business, how to start a small business and how to market your business.
Dave Sevick, executive director of Computer Reach , a nonprofit he founded to give computers to needy communities, will host volunteers on the Fridays book-ending the week to refurbish machines and ready them for distribution. Computer Reach volunteers also will teach classes at a senior center in Banksville.
“If you're not included in the digital world, you're at a severe disadvantage,” Sevick said. “We feel that it's no longer a privilege; it's a right.”
In 2015, the city launched its Road Map to Inclusion Innovation that included, among many other initiatives, plans for the first inclusive innovation week in 2016. Christine Marty, the city's Civic Innovation Specialist, said as other cities transformed into tech hubs, a huge gap formed between people who had the means to participate and people who did not.
“We're going to make sure that this just isn't about bringing Uber here and Amazon here,” Marty said. “We're going to make sure everyone can come along.”
The statistics on tech inclusion aren't flattering. It's a field dominated by white men, most of whom are fairly affluent. Companies such as Google, Apple and Uber have all acknowledged the need to hire a more diverse workforce, have more diverse leadership and make their products and services accessible to low-income and struggling communities.
Women make up less than 30 percent of the workforce at the country's top tech firms, according to documents filed by companies with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. Seven percent of that workforce is black, and black women make up 3 percent.
About 60 million Americans lack internet access at home, and poor families are much more likely not to be connected than affluent ones.
Statistics for Pittsburgh's tech sector weren't available. But people participating in the Inclusive Innovation Week said they hope that as the local tech industry continues to grow, the gap between those involved and those left behind does not. Erin Oldynski and Louise Larson, who this year founded Prototype , a feminist maker space, said there is value at looking at what has happened elsewhere. Pittsburgh can learn from it, Oldynski said.
“This is a conversation that's happening in Pittsburgh,” Larson said. “I don't know if it was happening a decade ago in San Francisco.”
Oldynski and Larson, who both also work at TechShop in Bakery Square , will host a discussion Saturday evening on women in tech. The pair said they have been encouraged by efforts in the city to promote inclusive innovation but added more could be done.
Women made up almost half of Carnegie Mellon University's incoming computer science students, setting a national record for gender diversity. Since 2008, about 51 percent of the startup companies that Innovation Works invests in, funds or assists through its seed fund and incubator programs are founded by women or minorities, according to data the organization provided.
Prototype has more than 150 members since it opened in January and was awarded a grant from The Sprout Fund as part of the organization's 100 Days of US initiative. TechShop will host more than 200 students from Homewood and Wilkinsburg during free summer camps this year, bringing students into a space they never thought was for them.
“We're helping to normalize it and we're helping to say, ‘You belong here,' ” Larson said.
Cook, too, is pleased with Pittsburgh's efforts but wants to see more done. Cook moved to the city about a year ago. She had been working for her sister's startup in North Dakota when a mentor from Microsoft suggested she learn to code. Cook started looking at coding boot camps but couldn't afford them. On a whim, she searched for a free boot camp and found one at Academy Pittsburgh in the city's Allentown neighborhood.
She moved to Pittsburgh in two weeks and took the course.
“I didn't know anything about the industry. I assumed that black people weren't in it because I didn't know any,” Cook said. “Then I started looking at statistics before I got into this, and I was thinking this is not going to be easy.”
Cook completed the boot camp and got a job working at the Washington Post as a software engineer. She's since returned to Pittsburgh to continue work as a software engineer and to promote diversity.
“I thoroughly in my heart believe that Pittsburgh is one of the nicest places I've ever been, in my opinion,” Cooke said. “I have been completely embraced by the tech community, which leads me to believe there are good intentions here.”
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach Aupperlee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-336-8448.