Session 3: Decoding Diversity

The third session I attended brought the issue of diversity to the forefront with a panel lineup moderated by Felix Flores of #YesWeCode. (Kids Code Mississippi partnered with #YesWeCode in 2015 to put on a hackathon for 100 minority students in Jackson in 2015.) Panelists included Antonio Tijerino, President and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation; Beth Rosenberg, the founder and executive director of Tech Kids Unlimited; Sarah Echohawk, CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma; and Laurie Burns McRobbie, a technologist in higher education for more than 25 years, a champion of gender diversity in technology fields and the First Lady of Indiana University.

The session began with a thought-provoking video from Infosys Foundation USA highlighting how diverse teams create better products and highlighting the fact that computing is one of the least diverse fields.
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The panel discussion covered diversity in a broader sense than is often considered, with panelists representing ethic and gender diversity, as well as students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Antonio Tijerino discussed how the lack of access to a computer at home causes many Latino students to struggle in school. The Hispanic Heritage Foundation has a number of tech-focused initiatives to help students bridge the digital divide, develop leadership skills and find jobs at prestigious companies and government agencies. Their Code as a Second Language program reaches youth at the K-12 level and helps channel talent into their LOFT (Latinos On Fast Track) Coder Summits and other leadership opportunities.

The founder of Tech Kids Unlimited, Beth Rosenberg, talked about the importance of diversity extending beyond race and culture and recognizing that people with disabilities can succeed in tech careers, as well, if given the opportunity. Beth, a teacher from New York City, started her non-profit as a way to provide her son (who has an autism spectrum disorder) and other special needs youth like him with opportunities to build upon their technology interests. Tech Kids Unlimited holds classes, workshops and competitions and has even created their own digital agency called T3 (Talent Tech Team) that provides professional experience by connecting skilled students to local businesses who need websites or mobile apps.

Other highlights from the session included a reminder from Sarah Echohawk that “you can’t say you support diversity and leave out the First Americans,” speaking to the importance of STEM education as a means to enhance economic development and self-determination among sovereign Native American tribes. Her organization is participating in the 50K Coalition, a coalition of 40 organizations working together to create a pipeline of 50,000 engineers from diverse communities by 2025. They are also partnering with Intel to increase opportunities for STEM education in Native American communities

Laurie Burns McRobbie discussed stereotypes and unconscious biases associated with tech careers that can steer young women away from computer science and related careers. McRobbie also discussed the need to attract students with a broader range of interest and skills to support the country’s growing technology interests and needs.


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Photo: TECHJXN Innovation Summit & Hackathon 2015 by Tate Nations.