Tackling tech’s diversity problem in Philadelphia
Project Northstar, a tech conference organized by Black & Brown Founders in partnership with the city to take place this October, seeks to highlight and amplify the work of Black and Latinx entrepreneurs.
As a Latina tech innovator and self-described “fixer by nature,” Deldelp Medina has often come up against the difference between perception and reality of diversity in the U.S. tech landscape.
“The narrative up until recently has been that folks like us didn’t exist,” said Medina, director of strategy and partnerships at Black & Brown Founders, an organization that, in Medina’s words, “is really dedicated to making sure that entrepreneurs have the best practices and community to build successful tech companies with modest resources.”
Medina said that investors will often cite the fact that they don’t know anybody that is Black or Latina that is building tech companies for why they are not investing in any ventures owned by Black and Latinx entrepreneurs. Her response?
“I would say, ‘Well I know 20-30 people like that!’” she recalled.
But Medina and others have a plan to change that inequity and increase visibility for entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities. From Oct. 3-5, the City of Philadelphia through the Startup PHL initiative will partner with Black & Brown Founders to host Project NorthStar, a three-day conference designed to highlight and amplify the work of Black and/or Latinx entrepreneurs in the tech industry.
The idea for hosting a tech conference centered on diverse entrepreneurs in Philadelphia was first sparked after Mayor Jim Kenney attended South by Southwest in 2017 and noticed a lack of diversity there; shortly thereafter, he made a trip to the BEYA STEM conference in D.C. where he witnessed the work of many Black tech entrepreneurs working in the industry. The mayor’s experience showed the “contrast to the narrative that [diversity in tech] is a pipeline issue,” said Francisco Garcia, director of business development for tech and innovation at the city’s department of commerce. As Medina pointed out, the problem is not that there aren't Black and/or Latinx entrepreneurs in tech, but that their work isn't being amplified and supported in the same way as that of their White peers.
Garcia said that in order to be competitive in the tech industry, Philadelphia needs to diversify its talent pool for tech and ensure that a greater portion of its majority Black and/or Latinx population has access to resources to pursue and develop tech ideas.
The challenge, he noted, is: “How do we think about...the future of the people who are growing up here and make sure that they're part of this economy, which is really going to be around tech?”
Both Garcia and Medina see Project NorthStar as the beginning of systemic change and a citywide movement, rather than a solution in and of itself.
“The event to us isn’t the stop point, it’s the opportunity to coalesce community and then keep the conversation going,” Medina said.
Black & Brown Founders previously hosted a conference in Philadelphia last fall, and is “excited to be coming back,” said Medina, adding that the fact that Philadelphia is a majority-minority city “means you need to have a group of people that are often not seen or considered within these spaces to be elevated.”
The partners' goals for Project NorthStar include: focusing on students and building a pipeline to tech careers; boosting retention of Black and Latinx tech professionals currently working in Philadelphia; and developing ways to provide support diverse entrepreneurs throughout the business development process.
Garcia said that given the fact that 56 percent of the city’s population is Black and Latino, “If we’re not producing a diverse talent pool that means we’re leaving out the majority of our city and that’s not sustainable.” To that end, Startup PHL will this year begin to improve their community-building and grant distribution to attract more entrepreneurs.
“I’m looking to restructure the call for ideas program to really support startups, support truly early stage companies,” said Garcia, adding that helping early stage ventures along through the business development process will allow the city to “focus on people who couldn’t start this business without our support.”
The barriers for Black and/or Latinx entrepreneurs cannot be solved all at once — but recognizing them is essential to begin addressing them, said Medina.
These challenges include lack of access to investment capital, and a more difficult time connecting to venture capitalists and high-profile investors in what is very much a majority white world.
Medina recalled how she was once told by an investor that if she could raise $100,000 from friends and family, he would match that — something that she said knew immediately would be impossible because her family and friends would not have those resources.
Her case is not unusual among Black and/or Latinx entrepreneurs, many of whom are the first in their family to go to college and are more often serving as a source of financial support for their friends and family, Medina noted. According to the Black & Brown Founders website, the median Black family has just $1,700 in wealth and the median Latinx family $2,000, while the median White family has $116,800.
But many Black and/or Latinx entrepreneurs are finding ways to surmount challenges to accessing and securing investment capital — something that, Medina noted, is becoming significantly easier than it was 5 years ago.
When she was building a childcare app five years ago, Medina would have needed approximately $1 million to launch it. To build it exactly the same way today, the cost would be closer to $60,000, she said.
“It’s a very different landscape today and that’s also why I think this is exciting because there’s a lot of people out there that are building things with very little money,” said Medina.
“That to me is an opportunity of what does it look like to have a more equitable tech ecosystem, from everything from hiring to the CEO,” she added. “And that is a very different way of looking at how do we build in the 21st century what is essentially going to become the infrastructure of this country.”
Registration for the conference will open in the coming months, and you can sign up for updates at the NorthStar PHL website or follow Black & Brown Founders on social media for more information. Medina encouraged Latinos in Philadelphia to attend, noting that " we want the Latinas and Latinos to be a part of the growing innovation economy in Philadelphia."
The conference is focused on tech entrepreneurship and navigating the industry from a Black and/or Latinx perspective, and the press release states that “anyone eager to learn is welcome to attend and take part.”