Connecting to Tech

Making Iowa's entrepreneurial communities more diverse

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Casey Hynes, guest columnist

Like her mother before her, Ini Augustine is raising a curious and tech-savvy daughter. “I’m a woman in tech because my mom was like MacGyver,” Augustine recalled. So when her own daughter began taking computers apart to find out how they work, Augustine encouraged her.

“She doesn’t get in trouble for breaking electronics. That’s her play,” Augustine said.

Augustine, who is president of the Iowa Black Business Coalition, recognizes that her daughter’s love of tech stems from the environment she’s created for her. Thanks to her own experience, Augustine is able to teach her daughter valuable tech skills and nourish her interest in computers. But that kind of access is all too rare in African-American communities in Iowa, and Augustine sees that as a systemic injustice.

Tech communities around the country are confronting inequality and a lack of diversity in their incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, and start-ups. In Iowa, the tech community has launched several diversity initiatives. But Augustine said these haven’t effectively addressed the needs of African-Americans in the state.

She blamed this disconnect on a tendency among tech organizations, social researchers, and academics to hand down solutions rather than engaging directly with people in disadvantaged communities.

“It’s hard to formulate a solution to a problem when you don’t include the people you’re trying to help,” Augustine said.

As a member of the Fairfield CoLab board, I’ve seen firsthand how homogeneous a space can become when you don’t actively work toward recruiting a wide range of members. The CoLab’s membership represents a diverse age range, but the majority of members who use the space day-to-day tend to be white males. All of them are model co-workers and valuable participants in our community.

But in order to grow, we need to connect with more women and people of color as well. The CoLab is designed to be an inclusive, collaborative space, and we welcome anyone who wants to join. Now it’s a matter of finding out how that space can serve even more people within Fairfield and how to get a greater variety of people in the door.

Augustine pointed to a lack of education opportunities among low-income, African-American communities as a direct cause of their disenfranchisement in tech and entrepreneurship. Without access to high-speed internet and computer literacy courses, it’s difficult for adults in low-income neighborhoods to help young students pursue entrepreneurial interests and develop critical tech skills, she said.

To that end, the New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative (NewBoCo) in Cedar Rapids has launched a number of school outreach programs that offer coding courses to high-need children. NewBoCo is also offering scholarships to its Imagination Iowa Summer Challenge program, which gives students a chance to learn coding and work on creative entrepreneurial projects. The scholarships will cover tuition for students who otherwise can’t afford to participate.

“There’s no question that there’s more work that could be done,” said David Tominsky, NewBoCo’s director of programs. “But we are trying, and a lot of our effort is focused on the K-12 piece when it comes to diversity.”

Inclusiveness isn’t just a social buzzword — it’s an economic imperative in Iowa. Augustine said that the Iowa Black Business Coalition hopes to conduct a study highlighting the lost revenue associated with every black and Latino person who is effectively locked out of economic opportunities.

“People are uncomfortable talking about race, but when you put it in terms of dollars and cents, it starts to sink in,” she said.

Diversity and economics intersect along gender lines as well. That’s why Iowa Women Lead Change (IWLC) is “laser-focused on all the ways women lead,” said Tiffany O’Donnell, the IWLC’s Chief Operating Officer.

The IWLC runs Invest in She pitch competitions in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. The events are open to women-run businesses that have the potential to earn $1 million in revenue, given the right resources.

“I think the challenges are often the same for men and women in terms of scaling,” O’Donnell said. “But for a woman to go all in on a business, she faces some tough decisions. Men do, too, but IWLC views everything through a gender lens. Oftentimes, [women] are faced with a choice between their families and putting it all on the line for their businesses.”

O’Donnell said that past Invest in She winners tend to stay in touch with one another and form support networks, which she believes speaks to the need for mentorship among women entrepreneurs.

The IWLC is also “very intentional” about inviting a mix of women and men investors to the Invest in She sessions. “I think it’s important for women to see other women being investors,” O’Donnell said. “It’s a wonderful example these women provide to our audience and our entrepreneurs.”

The Fairfield CoLab is developing women-centric programs for our autumn calendar. We want to foster an entrepreneurial network of women who can support one another both personally and professionally and collaborate on projects that will stimulate the local economy. The area is home to a number of successful women who range from CEOs of prominent companies to independent contractors. The CoLab could serve as a hub for these women and other professionals of all backgrounds and interests.

NewBoCo has also emphasized opportunities for women, launching a monthly Power Ladies Lunch and partnering with the IWLC and other organizations to create the Women’s Entrepreneurship Collaboration Council. Support for women-owned businesses is critical in Iowa, which American Express OPEN ranked dead last for revenue growth among women-owned businesses last year.

“With the next generation getting browner and more female, [support for diverse communities] is crucial if Iowa wants to retain any status, anywhere,” Augustine said.

Launching new outreach initiatives is challenging, especially for non-profits that are strapped for funds and manpower. But inclusiveness cannot be left for another day. Access to tech and educational resources is increasingly vital to career development. Co-working spaces and incubators have a unique opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to ensure that those opportunities are available to anyone who seeks them. That includes people of all races, genders, abilities, ages, and economic backgrounds.

Samantha Ferm is a business counselor at the Kirkwood Community College Small Business Development Center, which is currently incubating peer advisory boards for women entrepreneurs. She said that diversity is a priority among Iowa’s tech communities but that there’s a long way to go.

“The community here ... is extremely supportive and conscious and they want to be as racially and gender inclusive as possible,” Ferm said.

To truly achieve that, diversity efforts must extend beyond race and gender. The Cedar Rapids chapter of the Aging2.0 initiative is working with the Iowa Startup Accelerator and local industry experts to create products around age-related issues. From services for Parkinson’s patients to software that helps seniors connect with service providers, these projects are meant to bring together entrepreneurs and stakeholders of all ages.

“I think [aging] gets underrepresented in the startup world, so that’s what we’re trying to fix,” said Eric Engelmann, founder and managing director of the Iowa Startup Accelerator. “Having everybody plugged in together is at the core of our program.”

Ferm noted that local 1 Million Cups meetups in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City give entrepreneurs of all ages a chance to meet and exchange ideas as well.

“There are so many ways to talk about diversity — economic, race, gender, age,” Ferm said. Iowa will need to address all of them if it wants to include more people in the tech workforce going forward.

One way to do that is create spaces for these conversations to happen, as NewBoCo does. Another is to connect with people who have historically been excluded from entrepreneurship opportunities and build communities where everyone can thrive.

Ferm characterized the issue of diversity in Iowa by saying, “I don’t think it’s by any means well-addressed yet. I think it’s something that people are really conscious of and trying to work toward.”

• Casey Hynes is a freelance journalist. She is a member of the Fairfield CoLab and serves on its board of directors. Comments: casey.hynes@gmail.com

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