[Repost] We need empathy in order to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in tech


This post was originally shared via Medium by Kiera Smalls, Executive Director of Philly Startup Leaders.

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible because we are still each other’s only hope” — James Baldwin

As a resident of North Philadelphia, I know all too well what it feels like to live in a community that is often overlooked and taken advantage of. When I ride the bus to visit my grandmother in the Allegheny neighborhood, it feels like I’m traveling to a different city in comparison to what I experience day-to-day as the Executive Director of Philly Startup Leaders. It’s clear to me that there is a strong disconnect between the growing tech community and the rest of the city.

We’ve all been made aware of research, data, and the endless stories in the news that the tech industry lacks diversity overall. Without diversity, equity and inclusion can’t exist — and more alarming, without diversity, issues of equity and inclusion can’t begin to even be addressed. Take a look at the makeup of success stories we see in the media, scroll through leadership pages on company websites, and pay attention to where critical connections (or awareness) to resources are generally shared and you’ll see the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). While several tech companies make a big show of putting resources towards DEI or paying lip service to equitable hiring practices, the data shows that there is a critical need to do better.

Historically and currently, underserved communities and the individuals within those communities have not had access to resources to support their ideas, families, and life trajectories. Systemic inequities that remain in place maintain the status quo. We can’t resolve these enormous issues on a national level by tomorrow, but we can combat these issues in our homes, workplaces, and everyday lives.

Where should we start? Empathy.


Listen to Understand, Don’t Just Listen to Respond

Having the ability to understand someone and their feelings is powerful. To step outside of your bubble (or privilege) and see from another’s perspective takes patience, unconventional ways of thinking, and resources. The challenge is that we don’t collectively practice this enough.

Before joining Philly Startup Leaders, I was part of the startup behind Indego, Philly’s bike share system, where I led marketing and DEI. Looking back on that experience of having difficult conversations to watching Indego’s rise as a model for bike-share equity, empathy was the way.

To be clear, we didn’t achieve this success overnight. There were times when communities were in an uproar about new bike racks coming into their neighborhood, seeing it as a sign of gentrification. There were internal missteps where we clearly missed the mark on considering all perspectives before making decisions. We also had to navigate the challenges of building something unheard of in the bike-share industry. It took a lot of mistakes, listening to the community, and learning from and incorporating their feedback on our quest to change the makeup of bike riders in the city of Philadelphia. This work was challenging, but it forced us to listen to understand and not just listen to respond. It also pushed us to do more work internally in order to better serve the entire city.

I reflect on my work in transportation and equity and consider how lessons I’ve learned along the way can be transferred into the tech community, and industry at large.

It Takes a Village

While there are various components to my role at Philly Startup Leaders, one of my greatest goals in this position is to help the Philly tech community look more like the demographics of the city. This is where it takes a village.

If it weren’t for the JPB Foundation and William Penn Foundation awarding grants to ensure that Indego prioritized equity, I’m not sure Indego’s ridership would be as diverse as it is today. If it weren’t for the hard work of acknowledging our own biases, I’m not sure Indego’s internal teams and partners would be as receptive to prioritizing DEI as they are today.

So, what should we do? We should listen to and trust people from diverse backgrounds, support macro and micro activities — no amount of effort toward this goal is too big or too small — to ensure DEI is a practice. Lastly, we need to recognize that our biases can limit our ability to create effective change. This is where empathy can guide the way.


There is no One-Size-Fits-All Approach

There is no exit, no series (D)EI round, or day we can declare that this work has been fully achieved. However, we can work harder to keep all communitiesin mind when advancing technology and economic opportunities.

Here are some ideas to be more intentional in this work:

  • Educate yourself on why this work is critical. Change begins with you. Learn about the systems in place (or the ones that were in place) that got us to this point. If you need more education, seek support and pay people for their services. Diversify your network.

  • Assess your leadership and board makeup. Members of the C-Suite and the Board of Directors wield a lot of power. What do you think truly happens when there is a lack of diverse representation when deciding what to do with resources? I’ll tell you. The same kinds of people, ideas, and projects get the resources first. The same conventional ways of thinking remain in place only to leave nothing or scraps for others.

  • Elevate underrepresented voices. Invite more people from diverse backgrounds to the decision-making table. Give them a platform. Notice when to speak up and when to sit back. Listen, learn, and/or guide if needed.

  • Catch your assumptions before they land. When talking about hiring diverse candidates, for example, let’s stop resorting to “workforce development” as the immediate solution to finding good talent. The quality is out there, you need to take time to find it. Also, this bias is preventing you from being open to people just because they may have different approaches to getting the job done than you’re used to.

  • Always remember that this work is never completely finished. There is no better time to start than now, but know that it is challenging, it takes time, and it is worth it. Think of this as an ongoing practice. Life is progressive. Like technology, new and more nuanced ways of doing things are constantly arising for DEI too.

This brief post does not illustrate everything we need to do for this work, but I hope it motivates you to learn and do more. See it as an opportunity, not a burden. Then take a moment out of your day to ask yourself…Did I lead with empathy today? How about with DEI in mind? After your reflections, note your intention to do it again tomorrow.

We will all be better because of it.

Philly Startup Leaders