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Tech leaders look at access, diversity demands caused by Covid-19

Monday, May 18, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

With the Covid-19 pandemic reshaping much of the world economy, leaders in the Austin technology industry are looking at how startups and established companies should change the way they hire and interact with communities, especially around the issue of diversity and social justice.

During a recent webinar hosted by the Austin Justice Coalition, a group of tech executives and leaders of nonprofits connected to the tech world discussed how the pandemic has exposed gaps in skills and access for minority communities looking to secure well-paying jobs as a way to cope with Austin’s rising cost of living.

“People are not making the transition into the right jobs,” said Michael Ward, president and CEO of the Austin Urban Technology Movement. “I’d like to see some accountability on where funding is going and that it is being directed to the communities that need it the most. There’s been a huge push around Austin ISD to ensure they have what they need, but there’s also other charter schools and individuals that have been impacted more so than others. It’s always come back to the biggest impact and be sure we allow these individuals to move from where they are so they’re not in the same place as they were.”

The need for children to attend school virtually from home has created problems for families with fewer resources, including laptops or tablet devices or reliable internet access. Marissa Tarleton, president of Aceable, said companies need to do more to provide those devices and access to underserved communities while also stepping up long-term training programs targeting more diverse audiences.

“A lot of the tech companies in Austin have a responsibility to train the new workforce of kids coming out of high school and people looking for jobs to be ready for what’s next,” she said. “That could look like a lot of things, but it has to be more coordinated and we have to look at what the big skill set gaps are, because it’s not just about access but also whether people have the education and capability to get the jobs we need them to get that will help them to take care of their families.”

Eugene Sepulveda, CEO of the Entrepreneurs Foundation, has advised Mayor Steve Adler on how to coordinate several components of the city’s response to the pandemic, including early meetings with restaurant owners about the need to close for potentially several months to limit the virus’ spread.

He said the city and foundations can do more to work with new nonprofits serving minority communities that could have a more direct line to promote training and hiring and increase the number of engineers in the tech sector to the current 5 percent of that workforce.

Brett Hurt, a serial entrepreneur who is currently the CEO and founder of, said the shift to remote working is one example of how the pandemic is accelerating the need for people and companies to go digital. That will mean finding ways to make it easier for marginalized communities to participate in the technology sector.

“The tech divide is a very real and scary problem and one thing Covid-19 has done is, it’s only accelerated and punctuated the need to move to digital,” he said. “If you’re an old-world business that’s not digitally enabled during this time you’re in serious trouble, and that’s true in society as well. It pains me a lot to not see more diverse engineers. We’ve got to address that systemic issue because there’s something systemic going on with equality.”

Eric Starkloff, CEO of National Instruments, said his company and others need to step up their support for groups that can expose young students in different demographics to technology fields and demand that colleges and universities increase the diversity of the new workforce.

“The broader issue is the access to our field. We’re a technology company with a lot of engineers that sell to engineers, and the engineering field is not very diverse and that’s not getting any better. That’s not good, and we’ve got to address that early on to develop the tools and interests to sell the field early on and lead the way into college.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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