Local programs work to improve diversity in tech industry

Reported by: Erik Avanier
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Updated: 5/30 6:35 pm
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee(WDEF) - Tech companies in Chattanooga are trying to avoid the embarrassment felt by the world's most popular search engine company when it comes to racial diversity in the technology industry.

Google employs more than 46,000 people worldwide. But here in the U.S., employment within the company doesn't reflect the diversity of its users. The truth about the company's diversity was revealed when Google's Community affairs director Matt Dunn visited Chattanooga last week.

Chattanooga Gigtank executive Monty Bruell attended Dunn's presentation.

"Matt Identified the recruitment of women and minorities into the tech community as being a huge challenge; not only for Google but for communities and other tech companies," Bruell said.

In the U.S. alone, Google's workforce is 61-percent white. One third of its employees are Asian. But only 2-percent of it's workforce is African American and only 3-percent are Hispanic.

Some tech industry leaders consider Chattanooga to be the Silicon Valley of the South because of companies like EPB and the many other tech-based businesses that have been created in recent years. Because of that Silicon Valley perception, executives at EPB say the company has tried to avoid racial disparity by reaching out to local minorities while they're still in school.

"We go out to or schools and allow them to come in and talk to some of our technicians, engineers and accountants and let them know what opportunities are here at EPB and the things they need to do to get involved," said EPB Manager of Minority Development, Michael Jones.

Chattanooga's Gigtank helps create new tech-based businesses. They teach new companies to become more diverse by thinking outside the box when it comes to looking for new talent.

"We tell them to go to the places where minority talent goes to grow and learn. That includes the universities, certain areas of the education and workforce community. There's also industry associations like the National Association of Black MBA's and Black professionals and things of that nature," said Gigtank Executive Doug Speight.

Many tech companies have often said the lack of diversity is attributed to who actually applies for jobs. Statistics show Caucasians and Asians most often apply for tech industry positions. Statistics also show the same demographic also goes to college to major in areas related to science and technology.

On the same day that Google went public about racial disparity within the company, 34 teachers from Southeast Tennessee graduated from the Science Technology Engineering and Math fellowship program known as STEM.

Within STEM is a program called Project Inspire. That's where STEM teachers who are highly qualified in science and engineering are purposely placed into predominant low-income and minority area schools.

"I think the communities where we're placing teachers have been classically under-served in terms of great math and science teaching. And all of us in the work agree on that and we want that to end," said Project Inspire Director Mark Neal.

In theory, if more minority children are exposed to science, they will more likely aspire to someday work in the science and technology industry. In Chattanooga, that industry is booming.

"I hear from members of the technology council all the time that a qualified workforce in STEM specific careers is the number one barrier that they have to cross in order to expand their business," said Chattanooga Tech Council Executive Director Ronna-Renee Jackson.

Project Inspire is designed to knock-down those barriers. But the biggest problem teachers will often face is the lack of scientific exposure to minority children.

"Ask kids to draw up a scientist. For many kids it's a challenge to even know one in their life or have a perception of what that is," Neal said.

So their biggest task is to create that perception in the minds of so many under-served children. And with that new sense of perception comes the hope that it will inspire young minorities to one day excel in an industry that right now lacks diversity.
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