Tampa Bay Wave leads conversation around value of diversity in tech

How can minorities and women get fair treatment in the traditional business world? It’s a sometimes uncomfortable and complex question to answer, but a recent panel on diversity did just that. 

The May 15 gathering also was an opportunity to introduce the most diverse cohort to date at Tampa Bay Wave, a nonprofit dedicated to building, launching and growing tech businesses. 

Funded by the newly created Nielsen Foundation, the 10-member cohort is the Wave’s first major effort to spur success among businesses owned or led by minorities, women, veterans or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender persons.

“We not only want to help grow diversity within the startup community,” says Wave CEO Linda Olson, “but I also truly believe that real innovation cannot come without diversity of thought and diversity of experiences.”

Rich Heruska, the Wave’s Interim Accelerator Director, called it a historic day because the TechDiversity Accelerator is one of the first diverse-led accelerators anywhere.

Creating opportunities

Moderated by Ernest Hooper, East Hillsborough Bureau Chief and Columnist for Tampa Bay Times, the panel provided some concrete advice on how to minimize the effects of discrimination.

A place to start is with the next generation. Lakshmi Shenoy, CEO of a new Tampa innovation hub that is under development, suggests intentionally exposing children to different opportunities. 

“If kids don’t see those opportunities, they don’t know those opportunities exist for them. I love the fact that we have companies here that are focused in on that STEM education [science, technology, engineering and mathematics],” she says. 

Lamont Robinson points out that it wasn’t until the TV sitcom, The Jeffersons, which ran from 1975 to 1985, that he realized blacks could own businesses. No business owners looked like him, he says, when he was growing up and dodging bullets on Chicago’s west side.

“Unfortunately, it took television,” says the former VP of Supplier Diversity at Nielsen. “If you are a diverse business, you’ve got to understand the torch that you have. Create jobs for people that look like you.”

There are gains to be made as a business owner.

“Entrepreneurship is the great equalizer. You can have a great idea that is going to change the world,” Shenoy says. “You can make something happen. It doesn’t matter who you know and what you know.”

Once you are in business, the federal government is a gigantic opportunity -- and they are mandated to set aside money for diverse organizations, points out Tony Gray, Director of the nonprofit SOF Technology Association, which promotes special operations technology.

A ready source for potential business, he says, is MacDill Air Force Base.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to enable our diverse organizations here to really obtain some unique funding from the government,” he says.

New opportunities are posted regularly on a Linkedin group here.

Making progress

Progress has been made, says U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-FL, who cited a recent $200-million, five-year contract for global training, which went to woman-owned Wittenberg Weiner Consulting LLC of Lutz.

Being aware of the discrimination problem is a starting point, says Crystal Barnes, Senior VP of Global Responsibility and Sustainability at Nielsen, and Executive Director of Nielsen Foundation.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” she says.

People need to be comfortable talking about bias. Showcasing success stories help open a dialogue.

“If they don’t hear and see those stories, they don’t now that success stories exist,” she says.

Diplomacy is necessary when confronted with bias from purchasing agent or investors.

“You definitely don’t want to alienate the dollars,” Barnes says.

Ultimately, it’s not just about you. It’s also about the team.

“Look not just at yourself, but the people that you are hiring,” says Joe Hodges, Chief Disruption Officer at CareValet and a Tampa Bay Wave board member. 

It’s also important to be persistent -- and visible.

“You have to be present to win. You’ve got to be out there, putting yourself in those uncomfortable situations,” Shenoy says. “If you stay at it, the result will come.”

Discrimination isn’t limited to a person’s gender or ethnicity -- it could be about the company’s size. A small company may not be taken seriously.

“If you are starting out, it is difficult to convince someone you are a global company,” concedes Robinson, who has a procurement background.

Whatever you do, it’s important to remember you’re not alone.

“You’ve got advocates that are out there,” he says. “The opportunities are endless.”

The panel discussion took place at Tampa’s Rooftop 220, where more than 70 gathered.

The TechDiversity cohort will have a dedicated director, Dr. Richard Munassi, plus one-on-one mentoring, sales procurement training, pitch coaching and introductions to investors during the 90-day program.

In the cohort, seven have minority CEOs or co-founders and seven startups have women CEOs or co-founders. Four are out-of-state companies based in tech communities like New York City and Austin. The companies were hand-picked by a Selection Committee from among more than 100 applicants.

Picking winners

Here’s a look at the companies that made the cut.

eTeki, a Tampa company chosen as one of 20 to present at the 2018 Florida Venture Forum Early Stage Capital Conference, validates the skills and competencies of job candidates through technical interviews. The CEO is Bala Nemani; Vice President Amanda Cole represented the company at Tuesday’s event.

• Led by CEO Akeelah Kuraishi, Little Global Citizens of Bradenton introduces children to different world cultures, nurturing open-mindedness and compassion. Through a subscription, children receive information about a new culture monthly. Kuraishi was VP of sales at BuzzFeed during the media company’s formative years.

• A platform for video game lovers, ProjectMQ of Tampa helps users discover new Indie games. The company was co-founded by identical twins, Marcus and Malcolm Howard, and has games from 24 countries. Marcus is CEO. 

Super Auth of Tampa lets users login to websites, mobile apps, and kiosks securely without a username or password. Rish Ram is CEO. His background? He built a shipping cost calculator to accurately forecast shipping costs.

• A Dallas company, Articulate Labs, develops wearable medical devices designed to help transform everyday activities into on-the-go rehabilitation assistance through neuromuscular electrical stimulation, motion-tracking software, and machine learning. Josh Rabinowitz is CEO.

• Shuchi Vyas is at the helm of Austin-based GuestBox, which offers welcomes boxes to hotels, Airbnbs, and vacation rentals through a subscription service.

Immersed Games of Gainesville is game-based learning platform to facilitate STEM instruction in middle school. Lindsey Tropf heads the company.

• The New York City-based OpticSurg aims to help surgeons do their jobs better and save lives. Through an augmented realty software platform, it also wants to minimize surgery-related complications. Dr. Tran Tu Huynh is CEO.

• A personalized stress management platform by Resility Health of Jacksonville helps people recognize -- and manage -- their body’s response to stress. Leading this company is Sarah Davidson.

SynsorMed of Atlanta is an artificial intelligence-power monitoring platform that automates home care for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients. Theo Harvey is CEO.
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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune