Initiating Inclusive Innovation

By Alyse Horn-Pyatt

“Pittsburgh has been getting a lot of press for being a livable city and a great place for tech entrepreneurs, and I think that can be very one sided with regards to the minority population that often does not get the opportunity to be included in the entrepreneurial scene.”

In the weeks after the third Inclusive Innovation Week concluded, individuals involved in the tech industry were left asking questions, and most had a commonality.

Audrey Russo, president and CEO of Pittsburgh Technology Council, said it best.

“[The week] is a series of conversations that are important to have, but what are the metrics that we are holding ourselves accountable to, to make this a Pittsburgh for all?”

The answer is that so far we have not been measuring diversity in Pittsburgh tech or the actions taken after Inclusive Innovation Week comes to an end. Josh Lucas, founder of the cooperative Work Hard Pittsburgh, started the web developer boot camp Academy Pittsburgh several years ago under the wing of Work Hard.

“Do you know how many African American web developers are in Pittsburgh? I don’t, and you’d think I would.”

Generally, he thinks the conversations that happen during the week are great. But at some point the mission needs to turn towards measurable outcomes and “assessing whether those outcomes are worth the investments that we’ve made.”

Inclusive Innovation Week kicked-off on April 2 with a panel discussion titled "Tackling the Worlds Wicked Problems: A Celebration of Social Innovation Champions." The panel included: (Left to right, front row) Marita Garrett - Mayor of Wilkinsburg; Nicole Kenny - Impact and Compliance Manager, Thread International; Laura Totin Codori - Founder of Worm Return; (Left to right, back row) Jonathan Reynolds- Outreach Project Manager at Carnegie Mellon University - School of Computer Science; Zaheen Hussain - Director of Sustainability, New Sun Rising; Leah Lizarondo - Executive Director of 412 Food Rescue; and Moderator Eliada Wosu Griffin-EL, PhD, Associate Professor & Director of the Massey Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Robert Morris University. Zaheen Hussain - Director of Sustainability, New Sun Rising; Leah Lizarondo - Executive Director of 412 Food Rescue; (Left to right, front row) Marita Garrett - Mayor of Wilkinsburg; Nicole Kenny - Impact and Compliance Manager, Thread International; Laura Totin Codori - Founder of Worm Return; and Moderator Eliada Wosu Griffin-EL, PhD, Associate Professor & Director of the Massey Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Robert Morris University. Photo by Courtney Plaszenski.

The City has fallen short when it comes to collecting that data, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed by Christine Marty, the civic innovation specialist for the City of Pittsburgh. She also found herself asking how government officials and high power individuals can “make actionable steps that dive beyond conversations.”

“The week was definitely a celebration of community partnerships and it was incredible to see how many people are willing to work together in this way and dedicate their week to having these conversations,” Marty said. “They dug up some really difficult and challenging topics that we continue to talk about, which is great, but where is the real action? Where do these conversations lead?”

Marty said the week was heavily documented so it could be shared with people “in the highest levels of power” who are able to support policy change. She also said she believes in the “shifting of resources to say we stand for [inclusive innovation] in a very intentional way.”

Lucas doesn’t think that real change can happen unless that resource shift is putting money into the hands of the people it’s supposed to serve.

“I think you need to get down to the most granular unit,” Lucas said. “I think you should be trying to create systems that put the wealth into the hands of the people that are going to be able to leverage it and really affect change at a micro level.”

To do that, we need to actively address and deal with structural racism and sexism in the tech industry, said Bill Generett, vice president for community engagement at Duquesne University.

“The reality is that there is a lot of biases, and minorities and women are not getting the capital they should be able to get,” Generett said.

After returning to Pittsburgh in the early 2000s, Generett acted as the president and CEO of Urban Innovation21 from 2007 until April of last year. The organization was the first “to seriously look at tech inclusion in the city and [one of] the first US-based nonprofit to work under the Inclusive Innovation model.”

When Generett began his venture with Urban Innovation21, he said he would walk into spaces and be the only African American in the room, and see very few women and people under the age of 40. Today there is more diversity, and with more organizations “actually working towards inclusion and talking about it… that’s a big change.”

Despite the positive momentum, Pittsburgh still faces a lot of challenges.

Courtney Williamson, founder of AbiliLife, with the Calibrace+. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

Courtney Williamson is the CEO and founder of AbiliLife, and the creator of Calibrace+, which is a back brace that helps with posture and balance for individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Originally from Baltimore, Williamson moved to Pittsburgh in 2009 to attend Carnegie Mellon University where she obtained her Ph.D. in organizational behavior and then shifted her focus to the medical technology industry.

“Pittsburgh has been getting a lot of press for being a livable city and a great place for tech entrepreneurs, and I think that can be very one sided with regards to the minority population that often does not get the opportunity to be included in the entrepreneurial scene,” Williamson said.

She said it is “impossible to disentangle” being Black and a woman in tech, but her biggest obstacle in the medical technology industry is “not having visibility in front of key decision makers in hospitals and insurance health plans to talk about our products and services across the board.”

Williamson said that some people are intrigued to see her at the head of AbiliLife, but as a person who attended Spelman College, a historically Black school for women, Williamson walks into a space and knows that she belongs. For other entrepreneurs, she said that might not be the case.

“Know your position of power,” Williamson said. “Even if you’re speaking with a large organization that you’re hoping will buy your product or work with you in some way… don’t be afraid to claim your authority.”

Audrey Russo, president and CEO of Pittsburgh Tech Council. Photo courtesy of PTC.

Audrey Russo credited Williamson when noting the rise of women and people of color building businesses in tech, and she believes that it is essential for Pittsburgh to become the best city for minorities to do so. As the president and CEO of Tech Council, Russo said she sees more minority tech entrepreneurs than a decade ago, but without data collection there is no way to tell how the demographics have shifted.

Lucas doesn’t think we’ve gotten that far ahead, and that it is time to call out the people who are leveraging inclusivity “as part of their feel good narrative and separate them from the people that are generally mad and angry at the status quo.”

He does praise the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Mayor Bill Peduto for the new MicroLoan Program, which offers $5,000 to $20,000 in support for small businesses and entrepreneurs at a subsidized interest rate of two percent, but Lucas doesn’t think there should be a “buffer” between capital and entrepreneurs if there doesn’t need to be.

“Inclusive Innovation Week ideally should be more of [providing access to capital] and less panel discussions,” Lucas said.

Generett said organizations that participate during the week’s events should release a diversity report and set individual goals on how to be inclusive and be held accountable every day. If an organization meets or exceeds those goals, they can choose to be highlighted during the week.

“The next step is to embed this in the fiber of organizations 365 days of the year,” Generett said. “The job of the [Department] of Innovation and Performance is to help organizations figure out how to do that if this is going to be taken seriously and doesn’t just become a ‘check box’ event every year.”

Threadbare Cider House hosted Re-igniting Gender Equity Conversations on April 4 during Inclusive Innovation Week in partnership with the City of Pittsburgh's Gender Equity Commission, Pittsburgh Technology Council, Planned Parenthood and Wigle. Photo by Ryan Haggerty.
Story Credits

Writer: Alyse Horn-Pyatt
Web Producer: Alyse Horn-Pyatt
Top Splash-page photograph: Courtney Plaszenski

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
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