On Thursday, Charlotte Inno hosted its latest virtual event of 2021, State of Innovation: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Three of the city's leaders in tech and innovation discussed how the conversation around DE&I has changed, how it's stayed the same and what needs to happen to bridge the racial divide within the startup ecosystem. The panel featured Henry Rock, founder and executive director of City Startup Labs, Rashaan Peek, director of BLKTECHCLT-Interactive, and Kimberly Evans, founder and CEO of Just Her Rideshare.
Below are a few important takeaways from the discussion:
What does diversity, equity and inclusion mean to each you, and how does it impact innovation?
Evans: To me it means full transparency. It means impact; there has to be long-lasting impact. And it also means accountability. We know companies that hire diverse report that they perform and over-perform year after year. The benefit is value, and these individuals who are creative and brilliant, some of them never get an opportunity to showcase their talents in technology and many other areas because of the lack of access.
Peek: Innovation is only created when we have different voices. No ideas have ever been solved alone, and if we keep the same voices at the same tables, we'll never be on track to be at the great place we're supposed to be. I appreciate the different generations and hearing from and learning from each one, so (it means) incorporating diversity as in different generations, races, cultures and not making what I know as a norm, be a norm, and finding that from others.
Rock: When we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, the equity piece really stands out to me. When we talk about equity, we're really talking about access. We're talking about creating systems change that allows for more of the diverse voices, points of view and experience to actually have a roll to play rather than just being a mechanism for conversation.
How do Black founders' experiences raising capital differ from their white counterparts?
Evans: I can look at one of my counterparts who may have an idea, and it may not be a great idea, and they can go and get access to funding, and — Dr. Shante Williams said this the other day, and I loved how she put it — have the freedom to fail. That doesn't apply to our communities. We're held to a higher standard, and when we do fail, we're looked at as if we didn't have what it took ... When in fact we have some of the most creative, talented people I've ever seen on the face of the Earth.
Rock: This gets back to the need for systemic change and how the structures that have grown up around capital are baked in. The disadvantages we experienced as a people are baked in, and so in spite of the individual efforts on the part of entrepreneurs to kick the door in and make their case before investors, that's not enough. We need to really reimagine and disrupt the structures that have led to the kind of disparities we see.
How has the focus of nurturing talent changed across generations?
Peek: Technology has changed so much, and we have to realize if you can't see it, you can't be it. I've watched Just Her Rideshare fight for dollars in Charlotte and try to look across the world for something that is needed. It's always, "We already have ride shares." There are 12 different breads in the aisle, but nobody questions the act that you can have different options. In want to make sure as the generations go, there is still mentoring and uplifting and making sure you're following of your dreams and your mission. Social capital is so important. If we can find a way that social capital is invested into each generation, we'll be better.
How important is it to not only have a diverse and inclusive company or organization but also a diverse group of decision makers?
Rock: Without having ... a diverse set of folks at the table, you're really going to continue to mimic the thoughts, the ideas, the policies of folks who see the world in a narrow manner. It's important to not just have diversity for diversity's sake, but ... look at the possibility that diversity can improve company performance, improve the value a company actually has in the market, and then more broadly can improve the economic stability and vitality of the country as a whole.
Evans: It's extremely important to have diversity in the decision-making process, so at the top. We need to have multiple seats at the table; there needs to be an equitable distribution of power. We cannot do this alone. One person at the table can have impact, but it takes an army to impact generations and create legacy wealth as other communities have been able to do that have access to resources Black and Brown communities don't have.