Inclusion Drives Innovation: 4 Pittsburgh Leaders on Inclusion in Tech & Business


OpenUp. FixIt. Talk at The Beauty Shoppe, Pittsburgh on 04/08/2016 with: Courtney Williamson, CEO of Abililife, Josh Knauer, President & CEO of Rhiza, Kismet Toksu, President of eBenefits and Debra Lam, Chief Innovation Officer, City of Pittsburgh

There were about forty people attending the Pittsburgh Tech Council event OpenUp. FixIt. – a talk about inclusion of women and minorities in the tech industry and business. The audience was mixed. Young people who were at the start of their careers mingled and exchanged ideas with CEOs and Entrepreneurs of Pittsburgh’s tech scene. At the center of the event, one motivation, one common desire, one challenge – how to tackle the blatant lack of women and minorities in STEM work fields and leadership positions. Here are four takeaways:

Understanding “Otherness” and its consequences
You may be a company leader or a team leader and in your mind all your employees are born equal. Even if there are no official boundaries to join your team or move up the ladder, people who are different can feel excluded. If you are the only female or black person in a room full of white men, then you are automatically the “other”. One event visitor shared this story: “I used to go into meetings with my team of guys, and we would sit down in the conference room and they would already have agreed on strategy. I would ask, when did that happen? When did you guys talk about that? And I would find out, they decided on it in the bathroom.”

Otherness has consequences, and we may not always be fully aware of them. The harshest consequence of otherness is to be excluded from opportunity. Check out the diversity numbers for the ten largest tech companies in the US reported by The Wall Street Journal. Just because a company offers equal opportunities for everyone on paper, doesn’t mean it translates into reality automatically.

Recognize the negative effect of “cultural fit”
Building high-performing teams and attracting the right talent has lead companies down a path where company culture becomes a main selling point to top candidates; it’s also a reason qualified people sometimes are not hired. Too often “cultural fit” is interpreted as: same ideas and opinions, same educational background, same school, same hobbies, same love for pinball, foosball and video games. When is the last time you took a careful look at what your company culture actually entails? Are you and your team mostly hiring for “Mini-Mes”?

Companies building products for a broad target audience have found hiring people from diverse backgrounds is crucial to constant product improvement and usability. As Josh Knauer, CEO of Rhiza, put it: “If you hire a bunch of people who are just like you, you create an echo chamber of your own ideas and perceptions.”

Talent pipeline: Broaden your horizons
Most people tend to look back fondly on their college years and staying connected with your school is deeply rooted in American culture. However, this might contribute to a perceived pipeline problem when it comes to hiring diverse talent. There are universities out there who specialize in graduating women and black people in STEM fields. Consider broadening your search by partnering with more than just your alma mater or local university. Kismet Toksu, President of eBenefits has gone as far as working with recruiters who specialize in diverse candidates.

Start a trend, provide role models
Courtney Williamson,  a black female entrepreneur here in Pittsburgh, admits:” It still feels strange when I hear people calling me an ‘entrepreneur’. When I went to Spelman College I saw a lot of black women who were leading, so it’s not hard for me to think of myself as someone who solves a problem.”

A diverse leadership team is vital to growing a more diverse team overall. Having a leadership team with a diverse makeup will make minorities in the lower ranks feel less excluded. Minority employees need mentors and role models to connect to the top. If your company relies on recommendations to hire people, then these recommendations need to come from diverse sources, otherwise you’ll simply replicate the team you already have and keep the status quo. If you’re serious about changing the makeup of your team, tackle the diversity makeup of your leadership and foster mentorship.

Too often companies investing heavily in diversity by hiring diversity advocates, come up with mission statements that promise a commitment to diversity, and organize specific events. This is a great first step, but it’s not the last step. How do your plans actually translate into everyday action? How will it change every day routine? Real change often rises from the bottom but in business – the rule is still top down.


About: OpenUp. FixIt.
OpenUp. FixIt. was born as the Pittsburgh Tech Council’s contribution to Pittsburgh’s Inclusive Innovation week. The kick-off was on April 8th at The Beauty Shoppe co-working space in Pittsburgh moderated by Susanne Mueller from Rhiza. The event was sponsored by Rhiza and Saul Ewing LLC and it will continue taking place on a bi-monthly basis.