Tackling the Challenge of Making the Innovation Economy Post-Racial

Tackling the Challenge of Making the Innovation Economy Post-Racial


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By Patrick Gusman

Patrick is a versatile international corporate and nonprofit executive and serial innovator.

As the proud father of three bi-racial children and an instructor for diverse STEM students, I often ask myself – where are the role models? It’s hard to explain the opportunities science, technology, engineering and math education can afford to underserved students when the field is so racially homogenous.

So, while it may be an uncomfortable conversation to have, I think it’s time we talked about it. Where are the racial, bi-racial, and gender minorities in STEM? And, how do we turn this train around and ensure our children have role models of all colors and creeds to aspire to? If America remained the run away leader in educational achievement and its place as the top innovator in the world was secure, I would not engage in this discussion. However, as it stands now, our country faces a number of troubling trends including decreasing levels and quality of STEM education, and a growing gap in representation across these fields:

Scientists and engineers working in science and engineering occupations: 2010.

To begin this discussion, I will repeat some unattributed comments from my recent travels in the tech space. My hope is that these comments may give you a feel for the current state of play for those of us who are trying to create a level playing field for students from underserved backgrounds:

  • Major Tech Company Executive: “My company is very diverse. We have South Asians and other people of Asian descent.”
  • Tech Journalist: “Looks have nothing to do with what’s behind the skin and skull. On the Internet nobody has to know what you look like.”
  • Student at a school in an underserved area: “When are we going to see a leading scientist that looks like us?”
  • African American Tech Entrepreneurs: “If we looked like Mark Zuckerberg, we would receive millions in funding for our concept.”
  • African American Tech Entrepreneurs: “We are tired of being the only black people in the room at major tech events.”
  • African American Tech Entrepreneurs: “Black city leaders and corporate executives do not trust black tech leaders to produce results. Thus White and Asian tech companies have a monopoly on technology projects.”

In the context of Education Reform and the overall effort to better serve students of color, I hear constant complaints from people of color that White and Asian Americans lead the vast majority of ed tech and tech-based Social Innovation businesses and initiatives, yet the population served by these initiatives is almost entirely diverse. On the other side of the color spectrum, I hear comments lamenting the over-emphasis of minorities on racial issues and see fingers being pointed at aspiring tech leaders of color about their lack of preparation.

There is a real tension here but there are also some real opportunities. As parents and teachers we must begin emphasizing the incredible triumphs of minorities in the tech space. While the stories may be harder to find or tell right now, it is my hope we can use them as examples to inspire others in underserved communities and start a chain reaction – young leaders and thinkers who are inspired to learn and innovate.

In addition, there are steps I believe industry can take to help augment our grassroots efforts:

More Transparency. There is an incredible opportunity for venture capital firms, tech companies, and the Social Innovation Sector to provide greater transparency about the racial and gender demographics of their organizations, especially their senior management. With more accurate data, we will have a tangible benchmark from which to increase diversity.

More Open Discussion. Groups like Clinton Global Initiative, W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are great potential hosts for an ongoing dialogue about “The Issues of Racial Misunderstanding in the Tech Sector.”

More Understanding. Tech entrepreneurs and students of color must be bold – increasing their willingness to be heard early and often, even if they are the only person of color in their tech conference or meet-ups.

For the sake of my children, my students, and our country, I hope that many of you will consider and help increase the level of diversity in the Innovation Sector, whether within your own homes or classrooms or within your own businesses or institutions.

Patrick Gusman is a versatile international corporate and nonprofit executive and serial innovator. He currently is the president and managing director of the Equal Footing Foundation and managing director of Social Sector Innovations’ Startup Middle School, a pilot program that trains and develops a sustainable pipeline of early-stage masters of disruptive technologies from underrepresented backgrounds at the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science (MS)2. Prior to his work with the Equal Footing Foundation and Social Sector Innovations, he was the Executive Director of the TechNet Foundation, Inc. (ConvergeUS) and Chief innovation Officer at the National Urban League. At ConvergeUS he helped give birth to a series of social innovation including MyMilitaryLife. In his work at the National Urban League, Gusman managed strategic planning and was responsible for introducing a groundbreaking social media effort, www.iamempowered.com.

Earlier in his career, Gusman was an in-house counsel for Chrysler Financial Corporation and then created and managed Chryslers French subsidiary in Paris, France and led corporate departments and major strategic projects for the DaimlerChrysler Group in Europe and Africa. He also worked at the law firm of Lemle & Kelleher in New Orleans.

Gusman received a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center and a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Finance and a concentration in French from the University of Notre Dame. He serves on the board of the Kenya Village North Project. He and his wife Jill Roberts are the proud parents of three bi-lingual children.