Inside An Annual Power Event That Is Shaping The Next Tech Pipeline
Twenty-five is a significant number when it comes to this particular event in the technology space. That's the number of years the Science & Technology Braintrust has been held within the Annual Legislative Conference of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C. And it is a power-packed symposium that not only draws the likes of major tech behemoths from LinkedIn to eBay but is also quietly responsible for a part of the pipeline of the next generation of tech employees that will develop the products and services that will impact every business in the country.
Envisioned by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the STEM Braintrust came from very humble beginnings. "When we first launched this program," she says, "I had one company that was interested and 10 people in the audience. Now we have all the tech giants and we've reached nearly 500 attendees in the past." This year's plenary entitled, "Glancing Toward The Future: To Technology and Beyond" featured top executives from Google, LinkedIn, Chevron, eBay, the National Association of Black Engineers (NBSE) and more. Not bad for an early Fall Friday morning.
Each year the focus is to connect the young audience of color and various other constituents with professionals in the technology space so that they can learn about career paths and the manner in which to best navigate them. It's a key event for such a tense time around race in our country and the larger narrative around diversity and technology. Kim Martin, Technical Lead/Software Engineer, Google YouTube who spoke on the panel said, "It's important for students to see real engineers. Google is here because events like these speak to the identity of the company - to make the best product for all of humanity."
"The Braintrust is actually a social investment for the future of companies such as Google that participate," explains Dr. Reagan Flowers who moderated the morning's events and was one of the first people in the country to launch STEM programming. "This is about access to the future workforce, and that is vital to all tech companies today."
Rep. Johnson adds, "Quite simply, women and minorities are the growing populations so tapping into these demographics are the only way that the U.S. will be able to remain in the lead in the tech space." Having introduced some of the first legislation around women and minorities back in 1974, Rep. Johnson has been a proponent of technology for most of her career in public service. She says that she knew when she saw the first chip created by Texas Instruments that it would change our daily lives. However, such fervor was often times met with a lukewarm welcome. "So many people thought I was crazy at first to focus on technology and diversity. It was hard. Even my own colleagues thought I was crazy. I simply had to persist," explains the 81-year-old.
The focus is paying off yet the journey is far from complete. Rep. Johnson stresses that vast numbers of people in our society need training for the changes that will eliminate traditional jobs. Citing the fact that hotels in her district in Texas are already using robots for check-in, Johnson notes that the challenges will be great. But there are additional complications that arose during discussions at the Braintrust. Regina Wallace-Jones, Chief of Staff and Head of Product Operations at eBay notes, "Part of the issue around diversity in tech is that it is still a hard sell for certain demographics. To ask a first-generation student of color to come and live in an expensive city such as San Francisco where there is little to reflect their culture is a challenge." Her solution? To actually create what she calls centers of excellence in various cities. "The tech industry needs to start to go where the diverse population is," poses Wallace-Jones. "Not the reverse."
The next steps will also be about maintaining balance. Matthew Nelson, National Chairperson, NSBE, noted that because so much focus is on girls and tech, that the numbers for boys is starting to fall. "Don't forget that those young boys cannot be left behind in coding outreach now as well. That's imperative."
Indeed, the next 25 years in the tech arena will, no doubt, be fraught with hurdles and setbacks but also offer some of the most astounding advancements. Perhaps one of the biggest success stories will be that such achievements were made by a society that will have worked together to create them from various talents equally represented both genders and multi-hues.