April 10, 2014

Q & A with Erdina Francillon of Urban League Young Professionals and Jorge Guzman of Hispanicpros

“Innovation economy” describes jobs and companies that require some sort of innovation to develop a product – whether it’s through technology, design, or ideas.  By encouraging the growth of industries that involve innovation, we see a huge benefit to the economy in terms of high wage jobs and citywide economic growth.

However, the African American and Latino communities don’t currently enjoy a high level of participation in technology or innovation pursuits. Combined, blacks and Latinos make up only 9 percent of the technology workforce, although they represent about 30% of today’s US population and will be 42 percent of the US population in 2040. Among venture funded companies on a national scale, less than 1% of founders are Black or Latino. 

Q. Tell us about your organization.

: We’re an auxiliary of the Urban League of Portland whose mission is to empower communities and change lives.  We are specifically focused on lifting communities as we climb. We’re a group of 21-to 40-something professionals making sure that as we progress in our professions we bring our community along with us.

: Hispanicpros is a diversity inclusion consulting company. We have a large membership of about 1600 Hispanic professionals, and we promote professional and career development within our network.

Q. How much involvement have the communities you represent had in the innovation economy?

:  Many of our members are innovators in their respective fields, blazing trails within their places of business. But taking that next step in how we leverage the innovation economy, particularly with startups, and seeing how we drive new ideas and create growth, is a shift we’re looking to make.

: A lot of our members work for high tech companies here in the area and I believe they have contributed very much to the innovation in the area and abroad.   We’re ready to take leadership in the innovation sector to begin creating our own technologies to solve some of the issues we face every day.

Q. If trends continue, 70% of technology jobs will go unfilled by 2020. What’s been your experience in working with companies to bring more diversity to the workforce?  Where’s the disconnect?

:  So many of the jobs in the knowledge economy are in fields that are difficult and have a low penetration rate for everyone. We know that 60% of college freshmen will drop out of their engineering programs within the first semester.  Nationally we have issues in retaining and developing engineers. For women and ethnic minorities the challenges are even more persistent in creating the type of community that fosters collaboration and involvement of those groups. We have to reshape what it means to be someone who’s in tech, someone who’s a founder, to make it attractive and relevant – reshaping the paradigms, the academic experiences, the narrative to appeal to the cultural interests of people of color and women.

: The Latino community is very relational versus transactional. For companies looking to diversify their workforce, having the personal connection with this community is essential not only to attract talent but also to retain the talent. That is crucial to the success of the company as well as the success of the employee.

Q. PDC partnered with both Hispanicpros and the Urban League Young Professionals for our first Include Innovate Invest event, which drew a very diverse crowd of about 200 business and technology professionals and featured a panel of very accomplished founders of diverse backgrounds.  What were some of your takeaways from that event?

: It was really powerful to hear the panelists talk about times when they were underappreciated and underestimated because they didn’t come from the right university or didn’t have the right k-12 background, or talked about the perspective of being a woman in the male dominated workplace and not being invited out for beers to go out with her peers. Those are the little things that chip away at confidence for so many people who have really great ideas to bring to the marketplace and to innovate. But if you don’t have those relationships and the confidence then going out and building a path to take an idea from concept and creation to market is really difficult.

That’s one of the barriers of getting more people of color within this tech startup world.  We have to push the envelope and the expectations of children of color and professionals of color, and when we think of tech startups, reframing what a founder could look like, the cultural things, the relationships that are important to them.

There’s still lots of work to be done because many people don’t push through, and settle into thinking, I won’t be the producer or innovator, I’ll innovate behind someone else’s ideas. So it was inspirational to hear the panelists talk about how they overcame those challenges. We have to find a way to scale that confidence and that persistence.

  What was extremely powerful for me was the collaboration I saw between the professionals there regardless of whether they were Latino or African American or Anglo.  We are ready to work with each other to collaborate regardless of race or color. Technology gives us the opportunity to bring everyone together and use technology to tackle social issues we have as minorities. It’s a great opportunity and we have to take advantage of that. What we saw is that we do have the talent we need here in Portland; how do we capitalize on that so it works for everybody? I’m excited for the next event.

Q. What would you like to see happen in the next few years as a result of this initiative?

I would like to have more open conversations about the barriers that exist for our communities. One of the challenges is the culture of risk-taking capital that’s needed to start your own startup. It’s very different from the cookie cutter path of go to school, find a secure job, be successful. If we really want professionals of color and people who are not professionals to understand that the startup economy is welcoming and an open space for them, we have to go back to the challenges that are holding back people emotionally, the fear of going into the tech world. How do we have open conversations about that, and how do we build that level of innovation, risk taking, experimentation at an earlier age for the communities we serve?

I would like to see how we can engage the next generation with both young and older professionals.  How do we work with each other to tackle some of those issues we’ve seen? As soon as we bring those barriers down we’re going to be able to collaborate with each other a lot more.

Q. Students of color make up 45 percent of the population in Portland Public Schools. What role could organizations like PDC could play in a more inclusive future for those students, and for Portland?

  What I’d love to see is more access, partnering with programs that already exist, and building that culture of mentorship at a younger age. Sharing with students what it is to be involved in a startup, and that it’s another form of innovating, of being an entrepreneur. Startups don’t have to be tech specific, but technology opens up a great window of opportunity because it’s something they can feel, they can touch, they understand its applicability to their lives. So many people have an emotional connection with their technical devices.

Getting students to understand and make that connection; to create a culture where it’s intrinsic in the same way that as a kid you go play soccer or basketball and all these opportunities are available. So that the mentors that come out of the [Startup PDX] Challenge and this growing community start to think, how do we make the startup mentality an organic part of our culture?

I agree that it’s important to make the connection with the younger generation. In the Latino community, the children really follow the parents.  The way I see PDC really engaging and assisting these entrepreneurs is by connecting them to all the resources they’re not aware of. Once you make a connection with the parents, and the parents make connections with resources so they can develop their own business, their own app, the children see that and become motivated. It’s a generational solution to getting them engaged in technology.