Saturday may be the last day of Black History Month, but the chance to make black history continues. Consider Black Tech Week, a week-long series of events in Miami celebrating the diversity of technological innovation in a field too often accused of having precious little of it.
Being geek isn’t usually associated with people of color, particularly black people. African-Americans make up 7 percent of all computer and mathematics workers, according to a 2011 report by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council. It’s worse for Hispanics.
Pay’s a problem, too. According to one estimate cited in the council’s report, “the full-time salary for African-Americans and Hispanics with science and engineering bachelor’s degrees was 25.8 percent lower than white and Asian-American counterparts.”
The situation isn’t much better in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of high-tech innovation. You know it’s bad when the local paper, the San Jose Mercury News, publishes stories that show the big tech firms not only refused to share workforce diversity data but tried to keep it secret.
We’re living in an era that relies more and more on technology. At a time when new industries are rapidly emerging and old ones either adapt or go the way of manual typewriters, rotary phones and Palm Pilots, the status quo of a homogenous tech industry simply won’t cut it.
Unfortunately, in 2014 only 4.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences from the more prestigious universities went to black students, and only 6.5 percent to Hispanic students, according to Computer Research Association, an organization made up of more than 200 academic departments engaging in basic computing research.
The math, not to mention America’s competitiveness in a new age, doesn’t add up. The priority should be on increasing minority employment and entrepreneurship in our high-tech industries as firms seek to use those innovations to compete in today’s global economy.
High tech firms operating in this important sector have a social responsibility to build diverse workforces. More compelling, diversity can be the difference between making money and staying competitive and going bust in today’s marketplace. Change, though, takes time.
Like many ideas coming out of the new tech order, Black Tech Week developed quickly — in about 90 days, according to Michael Hall, the event organizer and high-tech entrepreneur.
Hall is no stranger to the need of inclusiveness. His firm, Digital Grass Innovation and Technology, connects minority and women-owned startups with established companies with the idea of developing a diverse, entrepreneurial high-tech industry in South Florida.
Initially, Hall said, the concept began as a way to honor those black men and women who are seen as industry trailblazers. It grew well beyond that to include panel discussions, workshops and “hack-a-thons,” where small groups of business owners, designers, venture capitalists, students and other participants develop projects to meet specific goals or community needs.
The speakers and panel participants include a wide range of corporate executives, intellectual property attorneys, social entrepreneurs, software designers and venture capitalists. With few exceptions, they’re young, gifted, black, and they’re on the right side of high-tech history.
Hall believes the potential for Black Tech Week, like that of developing a more diverse high-tech workforce and business climate, is huge. He cites potential markets in Africa and the Caribbean that make South Florida an ideal hub for a black high-tech business community.
“One of the [event’s] main points is that you don’t have success without diversity.” he said.
That reality is slowly dawning on the industry. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich recently pledged $300 million to increase the company’s workforce diversity. Firms like Apple and Google are stepping up their presence at historically black college and university campuses.
Science, technology, engineering and math is now all the rage as political figures from President Obama to Florida Gov. Rick Scott stress the importance of a STEM education to today’s students after years of decreasing enrollment in math and science courses.
Black Tech Week ends on Saturday, and while Hall sees holding smaller monthly forums in South Florida, he envisions his signature event becoming annual one that tours the country.
If South Florida wants to make some history of its own, the region’s business, education and political leaders had better make sure Black Tech Week becomes a significant mainstay here.