How Tech (and PR) Companies Can Increase Diversity

A real-life parable on the importance of inclusion

diverse tech workers

We think that diversity in public relations and technology companies—two of the global world’s most thriving industries—is one of the most significant issues of our time. To that end, we write a good deal about the issue. Our post below, a real-life parable on the importance of inclusion, focuses on tech, but could as well be written about public relations today. As always, we welcome your feedback and comments at the end.

Given the opportunity, do you think most African American or Latino youth would opt for an entry-level job at McDonald’s or one in tech? Of course, the answer in our tech-driven world is a virtual no-brainer: most would no doubt choose the burgeoning world of technology. Which is what makes this story so important.

Diversity through Mentoring

Nearly two decades ago, at least one technology company took the initiative to offer a similar opportunity to a few talented high school students. One result of their pioneering and perseverance is Jessica L. Williams, a 34-year-old information networking and technology manager in Chicago.Jessica_intro With the aid of an early start, now at age 34, she’s comfortably immersed in middle management, with 15 years of experience in technology–eight of them as an information networking manager, and the last two working for one of the largest convention centers in the United States. How and why she got to her current position is an instructive lesson for both tech and PR—two industries now under fire for the inexplicably low representation of women and minorities within their ranks. It’s worth noting here that Williams is an African-American woman, whose life experience contradicts the oft-heard canard that there aren’t qualified African-American techies out there. The point is these industries have to do more to develop and/or find diverse candidates.

Back in the 1998, during the early phases of the dot-com boom, an upstart technology firm, SDI Solutions, took the initiative to offer promising high-school students their first exposure to the fields of business and technology through the firm’s First Chance Initiative. Williams was one of those students. A junior at Whitney Young High School at the time, she had no idea what the technology field had to offer, as she hadn’t ever known anyone who’d had such a career. She only knew that she was good at math and science, and that people at school urged her to follow the tech path. The downside—she thought—was that she’d have to give up her job at McDonald’s, which provided additional income that she and her family truly needed. (Williams was parented by a single grandmother). Fortunately, she discovered that First Chance was a paid internship. As she would also learn, it also offered her tutoring and mentoring in a transformative experience that came to be a defining moment in her path to a career.

Finding a Niche in a Varied Industry

As an intern, my first introduction to a technology career was in marketing, then later coding. It was only by talking to people on the job that I learned about information systems technology [as a career option].”

Williams also found other supports at SDI, which led to her scuttling her plans for a post-graduation pre-med education in college, and put her on a path through business and marketing, coding, technology networking and systems design—all within the same tech company—during the heady days of the dot-com boom. Those varied work experiences led her to her niche in information systems networking. She finished her Bachelor’s degree with a concentration in business, with emphasis on technology. The company also provided support in her senior year of college to become a Cisco-certified networking associate. In all, through a series of progressive work and learning experiences, she became an established technology veteran with more than a decade of career stability at the same company.

Which is not to say the path to her current position as Technology Infrastructure Manager at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, was without challenges.

Challenging Workplace Insecurities


Jessica_talking2

My first [career] challenge was being typecast as a ‘young intern’.” As I grew professionally, “it was hard for me to be taken seriously for project management and other leadership roles.

It was only through proving myself by working on ‘special projects’ that I got the chance to show what I could do.”

One of her biggest challenges, she recalls—a challenge not uncommon to women, especially women entering the male-dominated fields like technology—was insecurity.

I had to learn to overcome the mentality that if I didn’t know something 100 percent initially, that I couldn’t do it. Instead I learned how to figure things out while working on the job.”

Asked about the current criticism of the tech industry as not being diverse enough and whether the dominant tech companies are prepared to live up to the corporate social responsibilities expected of other leading industries, Williams responds,Jessica talking 2

It doesn’t matter whether the tech industry is ready or not [to play a leadership role in social responsibility]; the social expectation is there, so the industry simply has to step up and meet [that societal expectation].”

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