Diversity in tech startups: time to check our privilege

I was recently asked to speak on diversity in the South African tech space at Net Prophet, the popular technology and entrepreneurship conference. The talk addressed issues around race (mostly) and gender in the tech space. It asked how tech could solve some of the gender issues and race issues in the country and around the world. How are companies and the tech industry at large dealing with fact there aren’t enough women and people of colour in tech in South Africa and Africa at large? And how can we encourage entrepreneurship in those groups?

It is such a big conversation that I felt that I needed more time to discuss how I feel about this topic and some of the ways we need to start addressing it. I also felt there was a greater need for context. We automatically assume the lack of something means a lack of interest or a lack of trying by other parties. When it comes to race and gender and entrepreneurship, it is a bit more complicated than that.

People get very defensive and protective when diversity comes up in their industry or company. They needn’t be. I am going to tell you something no one else will. This problem isn’t a problem but an opportunity to build change and find solutions that don’t impose on people but help and support. It is a great and important challenge that is necessary.

Why diversity matters

According to a study by McKinsey and Company, companies with a racially and ethnically diverse leadership are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
Companies with a gender diverse leadership are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

The management consultancy makes the business case for why diversity should be taken seriously by companies. But there is also the logically moral case. Businesses should be reflective of the society and industry that they exist in. If your company refuses to employ and empower women and people of colour how does it expect to succeed in a society where huge percentages are made up of women and people of colour?

The conversation around diversity needs to shift from what we would like to do what we must do. An entrepreneur trying to solve problems unique to people living in rural Nigeria will never truly succeed unless that entrepreneur talks to and even hires people from that part of the world.

Why are there not enough people of colour and women in the startup space?

According to the 2015 Ventureburn Startup Survey, just 17% of South African startup founders are black while only six percent of the country’s startups have female-only founders. So why are those numbers so low?

The truth is, most people of colour don’t enjoy the privilege of being able to go home when it all goes wrong. In black communities, there is the notion of “black tax”. Black tax undercuts whatever aspiration young black people have. It is the extra “tax” that the young professional back people are expected to pay to their immediate and extended family. The most publicized case of black tax is the footballer Emmanuel Adebayor and the story of how his income was spoken for by family. Most black people don’t have the luxury of entrepreneurship due to circumstantial disadvantages. They cannot afford it. Even if they are not paying black tax, they have no support system both financially of emotionally to indulge in starting a business.

There are far too many systematic and circumstantial disadvantages stacked up again people of colour in this country and women on this continent to truly engender an entrepreneurial culture. Culturally, women are taught not to entertain careers in tech let alone start businesses in tech. When enough people tell you no, at some point you might start believing that is the right and only answer.

The internet itself has not been kind to women either. Strong talented women are often shamed and ridiculed by the same industry they are trying to break into. Companies barely recognise female leadership,and with few role models to look up to, it’s hardly surprising that young girls are not clamoring at the door for tech education and jobs.

Education is also key. Most families find it difficult to support their girl child in a career path they know little about, especially if they are not sure it will provide security and life’s comforts. Gender transformation in corporate South Africa and Africa at large is already dismal. Entry into tech can seem near impossible. The few women in real leadership positions are also likely paid less than their male counterparts.

Things we can do to improve diversity

Tech companies need to offer better structured and paid internships. Paying interns is a great way to balance out privilege. We need to think about internships as systematically empowering. We need practical solutions for diversity transforms in tech. Companies need to stop choosing candidates algorithmically but more humanly. A diverse interview panel ensures that each candidate is given fair consideration and presents an opportunity to bust unconscious bias.

There are a number of entrepreneurs that have language barriers against them; vernacular translators could be employed at startup pitches. If not, investors need to make a concerted effort to fully understand what second language speakers are doing. English may be the language of business, but Chinese and German entrepreneurs are not expected to speak English in their pitches. So why are Africans?

Transformation in the tech entrepreneurial space needs to be thought about from a state level. Talented young black people are more likely to opt for a position in with a big corporate for all the reasons mentioned above. We need a new form of empowerment to change this. Black Economic Empowerment or affirmative action policies in corporates are not enough, entrepreneurs need to be empowered too.

International conglomerates can only do so much for job creation in Africa. New jobs must be created and these new jobs will be created by entrepreneurs. It is up to the state to help empower those who will create those jobs.

This article originally appeared on Globemich.com and is republished with permission.



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