How can Washtenaw County tech businesses begin building diversity, equity, and inclusion?

We checked in with some of the local tech leaders we've spotlighted over the past year for their thoughts on simple steps local tech businesses can take to foster, further, and reimagine DEI.
This article is part of a series about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in Washtenaw County's tech sector. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.

Over the past year, we've connected with some of the brightest minds in Washtenaw County's tech sector for a series on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their industry. We've delved into topics like defining "talent" by more than just a degree, a local coworking space's scholarship for individuals who are underrepresented in the industry, a local tech internship program for underrepresented students, and much more. 

So how can local tech companies go about expanding their DEI efforts in an industry that's still overwhelmingly white and male? We checked in with some of the local experts we've spotlighted over the past year for their thoughts on simple steps local tech businesses can take to foster, further, and reimagine DEI.

Ronda Bergman, director of engineering, Genomenon; co-founder, Tech[Inclusive]: "Look to boot camps. Right there you'll find an almost 50/50 split between males and females, so you're opening your odds to balanced hiring. Also, a lot of tech boot camps have talented minority students. This is an important step, because if you're only hiring graduates from the University of Michigan, for example, you're probably only opening up your company to a pretty homogeneous group of candidates.
Ronda Bergman.
It took 10 years for me to get my degree in computer science, and people are doing that in a few months. Yes, it's not technically a degree, but I've seen some really good people come out of boot camps. So I would like to see local employers stop putting so much emphasis on potential employees having a degree. You must also rethink your job requirements. Are they truly all requirements? Or are some just wish lists? It's a well-known fact that women will self-select themselves out when they look at job requirements. If they don't have 100% of the requirements, they simply don't apply, whereas men will apply even if they only meet 60-70% of the stated requirements. Be willing to talk to people without actual degrees who are willing to learn."

Lauren Beriont, co-founder, Emergence Collective: "There aren't any set check boxes or little steps that folks can take to reach their ideal of DEI. It's a caution that I've learned from my experience and from the negative experiences of other people who take DEI in their companies very seriously.
Lauren Beriont.
Building change and better habits takes time and effort. Folks need to take a long, hard look at themselves in a really honest and consistent way. Examine who you are as an individual actor in your business as well as who your company is within the Washtenaw community. 

Don't try to go at it alone – sometimes you may have staff that are interested in learning DEI skills or who are already trained and are interested in that work. But sometimes organizations who aren't working with a facilitator, or bringing in folks who are professionals, causes a lot more harm than good. I'm not a doctor, so if I broke my arm I wouldn't try to reset my arm myself. That would be bananas. Same with DEI. There's a lot of thought in the field behind what works and what doesn't work, and we need to be grounded in what does and what doesn't work."

Rich Chang, CEO, NewFoundry: "A big step people can take is learning about, and understanding, the history of opportunity. Learn about how it affects everyone, especially those who don't have traditional opportunities, or privilege, or the opportunity to go to a four-year college. For some people they've had folks before them, like their parents and siblings, attend university and it's a lot easier to follow in their footsteps. It's challenging to be the first to try to establish that path, and a lot of people from underserved and underprivileged communities in Washtenaw County, especially people in Ypsilanti, are faced with that struggle.
Rich Chang.
We also have to really sit back and evaluate how we do our outreach. Who are we actually outreaching to? We know from the pandemic that there are people who don't have access to the internet, nevermind computers and smartphones. So putting all your job postings online and making people have to upload their resumes, et cetera – that's not right. You must do legwork. Hit the pavement and put job postings in churches, on bulletin boards, visit places like schools and chat with students K through 12 and from different colleges and universities. Our businesses can create a strong workforce pipeline from the hidden talent pool in our community. We need to think about DEI in our community, because the true definition of community is that anyone who wants to have an opportunity has opportunity."

Jamal El-Mokadem, VP of software engineering, Clinc: "Furthering DEI efforts means getting an understanding of your company's culture or setting up your company's culture with those values in mind. When we got our new CEO about a year and a half ago, the first thing that he did was appoint a committee that actually talked to every single employee to discover what was valuable to them. Every single employee had a say about what they care about, and lucky for us, having an inclusive environment was on everyone's list. We had an all-hands meeting to talk about it and afterward we had a couple employees who 'came out.' One was non-binary gender and they wanted to be referred to as 'they.'  Another who was biologically female wanted to be referred to as 'he.' 
Jamal El-Mokadem.
This sense of safety that comes from knowing higher-ups in a company have your back doesn't happen organically. But, once you can define your company's culture, you open a door where all people feel safe, valued, and understood, and good things happen. I'm not only saying this is important because it's the moral or ethical right thing to do, but it actually helps you connect with your employees and strengthen your company."

Ylondia Portis, principal partner, BrandHrt Evolution: "Start with inclusivity. You can't have diversity until you have inclusivity. When you have opportunities that are available or a position that is available, challenge yourself to think beyond your traditional employee or paradigm. Even if it's an opportunity to work on a type of project you can open the door there. Your mind may automatically go to a certain profile of a person that you want on it, but challenge yourself to stretch that profile and stretch those boundaries. Ask: where might I be limiting my thinking around either people or people's capabilities?
Ylondia Portis.
Also, look around and ask if you are being inclusive to the population that surrounds you. DEI goes beyond race and gender; it goes to physical capabilities and it goes to personality.  For example, extroverts tend to think of extroverts and introverts think of introverts, but we need to stretch out of our personal comfort zones. Be brave and open your mind and company to allow more people to enter, instead of mentally filtering them out before they even get the chance to walk through your door. When you build and foster a more inclusive workforce, then you have no choice but to have more equitable opportunities within that workforce."

Trista Van Tine, executive director, Michigan Founders Fund (formerly the A2 Entrepreneurs Fund): "Genuinely driving DEI can be distilled into two objectives: values and voices. Michigan Founders Fund's mission is centered on community building among company leaders to better support and equip them in building inclusive organizations that ultimately make positive cultural contributions to the places where they live and operate. This is why we launched a DEI-focused internship program last year to provide underrepresented students the opportunity to gain experience in the tech industry. And tech companies can also access tools that can enable them to strengthen their DEI efforts and implement change.
Trista Van Tine.
There's a great quote from [psychologist] Adam Grant that I think really captures how companies should approach creating inclusive and equitable cultures: a company isn't a family. Parents don't fire their kids for low performance or furlough them in tough times. A better vision for a workplace is a community – a place where people bond around shared values, feel valued as human beings, and have a voice in decisions that affect them."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.