Knatokie Ford has an excellent resumé. She holds a Ph.D. in experimental pathology from Harvard University and helped to shape science and technology policy in the Obama White House — twice.
Ford also founded Fly Sci Enterprise, a Washington, D.C-based company that uses science and technology to create social change. But her journey to success has not been easy.
“My first go-round at this whole entrepreneurship venture was a total failure,” Ford said. “I was going to go out there and figure out this media and STEM idea — and was basically unemployed for a year.”
Ford shared her reflections on diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship at a panel during the recent Tom Tom Founders Festival in Charlottesville.
“I never thought of myself as someone who could be a business owner or CEO,” Ford said. “I say I’m ‘founder and CEO’ because I guess that’s what they say when you register an LLC.”
Though Ford didn’t grow up among founders and CEOs, African-American women like her are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the country. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that businesses owned by black women increased by 265 percent between 1997 and 2014.
However, these businesses are far less likely to get funding to bring them to scale. Only 0.2 percent of venture capital deals went to women of color, according to a study by digitalundivided.
Charlottesville’s technology industry is growing. This summer, construction will begin to replace the Main Street Arena — a building that long housed Charlottesville’s ice rink — with the Center of Developing Entrepreneurs, designed to attract tech startups.
Brian Nosek, co-founder and director of the Center for Open Science, wants to do his part to bring more diversity to the local tech scene. Nosek also co-founded Project Implicit, which pioneered a test for implicit bias.
“We want to advance our mission to increase openness and reproducibility of research, as fast as possible, as far as possible, with the best talent that we can recruit. And the talent is widespread,” Nosek said.
Nosek sees internships as a way to find that talent.
“It has been a really good opportunity to take more risks on people that have different levels of experience,” Nosek said. “One of the big challenges of diversity in the pipeline is that as soon as one person or one group has a slight advantage in terms of more experience than another, then that snowballs.”
University of Virginia psychology professor Noelle Hurd studies how important mentorships can be for marginalized teens.
“The importance of a network of supportive adults can’t be understated,” Hurd said. “That doesn’t have to be just specific to tech, but it’s more broadly about helping young people build self-efficacy and feel confident in their intellect and their ability.”
Hurd said internships are a good start for diversity, but what matters is how they are implemented.
“If you don’t have a diverse social network, what are you doing to reach out and connect to ensure that those networks can be tapped into?” Hurd asked.
The Center for Open Science has specifically recruited female interns from local groups such as Girl Develop It, Tech-Girls and Girls Excited about Math and Science. The interns create prototypes for services and products the center wants to expand.
“For us, the key goal is: integrate them into doing meaningful projects right away,” Nosek said.
Trusting interns with responsibility is one part of making the Center for Open Science an attractive place to stay.
“You could recruit forever if you don’t make it an environment that people can succeed in,” Nosek said.
Hiring a diverse workforce is different than retaining a diverse workforce, Ford said.
“You can have a space that is diverse but is not necessarily inclusive, meaning people that are a part of that organization don’t necessarily feel empowered to contribute,” she said.
Nosek noted that the Center for Open Science has changed the timing for its social events to accommodate employees with children. The center also has gender-neutral bathrooms and includes Islamic holidays on its office calendar.
“The mindset of inclusion is that at every stage, we design a policy,” Nosek said. “We’re thinking, how does this impact people in different life circumstances, whatever those circumstances are?”
The center has created multiple feedback processes, from an anonymous online form to weekly office hours with Nosek, so that every employee can contribute to the work environment.
Hurd warned that failing to make employment in technology fields more inclusive can harm the health of the broader community.
“I think we’ve seen some of that in our own town, where there is this juxtaposing of people who are not earning a living wage and people who both have a huge wealth inheritance and also earn a very sizable income on top of that,” Hurd said.
“The friction that comes from such gross inequality in terms of pay is not good for building a healthy and strong community.”
Hurd was quoted in a recent New York Times article about how rich, black boys are more likely to become poor adults than are their white peers. The article drew from a study of 20 million children and their parents that found that African-American men earned less than white men, no matter what their parents had earned. That same inequality did not exist for women.
In neighborhoods where black boys thrived economically, there was a higher presence of black men. Whether the child’s own father was present was not significant.
“Those black men are in the community because they’re not incarcerated, they haven’t been violently murdered, they’re not unemployed and needing to move somewhere else,” Hurd said.
Hurd sees the study’s conclusions as lessons for Charlottesville.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say, well, that’s not anything the tech industry or our community can do anything about. People in the tech industry in Charlottesville are part of the community,” she said. “I think all of us should be thinking more about how these things are all connected.”