Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, heading up a Tech Talk on Diversity at the Austin Chamber

Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, heading up a Tech Talk on Diversity at the Austin Chamber

South by Southwest, the nation’s largest technology conference, has worked hard to tackle diversity in technology to get more people who are not middle aged white guys as speakers and participants, said Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive.

Last year, SXSW declared diversity in tech as its trend event with high profile black speakers like Jesse Jackson and Maxine Williams.

And at SXSW, 33 percent of the speakers are female, Forrest said.

“That’s higher than other tech conferences, but not as high as SXSW would like it to be,” he said. “SXSW has also worked to get more black speakers.”

But that’s not enough, he said.

“I’m painfully aware we have barely scratched the surface of this issue,” he said.

To discuss ways to encourage diversity in Austin’s technology industry, a group of community leaders met Wednesday morning for a “Tech Talk on Diversity” at the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Forrest co-hosted the gathering with Michele Skelding, senior vice president of global technology and innovation at the Austin Chamber of Commerce. The heads of the Austin Black, Hispanic and Asian Chambers of Commerce attended along with startup founders and community leaders.

Austin needs a lot more mentorship and role modeling, said Jan Ryan, a successful serial tech entrepreneur and head of Woman@Austin with more than 600 members.

“We need more visibility,” Ryan said. “We need to spotlight those that do it well.”

Women@Austin is now featuring a profile of a woman entrepreneur on its website.

Women and minorities in Austin also need more access to funding sources, Ryan said.

Tam Hawkins, interim president of the Austin Black Chamber, said Austin technology companies and entrepreneurs must level the playing field and make opportunities accessible to everyone.

“Diversity is not a feel good, kumbaya feeling, it changes the world,” she said. “It changes business, it changes families.”

“We’re in the room, but we’re not being heard,” said Donell Creech, founder of Griot Media. “That’s where the inclusion part comes in. That’s where we have to realize we need to dig that this is a game of chess and not checkers.’’

Mikaila Ulmer, founder of BeeSweet Lemonade talks about the challenges kid entrepreneurs face.

Mikaila Ulmer, founder of BeeSweet Lemonade talks about the challenges kid entrepreneurs face.

Dominique Bowman, senior development officer at Huston-Tillotson University, said the university has a computer science program but folks don’t reach out to them. Its students often get placed with Facebook or Google but they would also like to have opportunities with startups, she said.

“We need to do more around reaching out to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)” said Natalie Cofield, cofounder of Urban CoLab in Austin.

Black and Latino/Latina entrepreneurs need that inspiration and aspiration by seeing others that look like them, said Preston James, Entrepreneur in Residence at the McCombs Business School at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s also co-founder and CEO of E3 Angel Network, focused on providing resources and funding to minority entrepreneurs.

“There’s plenty of deal flow out there,” James said. “The big challenge I see is how do we get them access to the resources that are critical to build entrepreneurial talent.”

James also sees an opportunity for corporations to help more ethnically diverse entrepreneurs startup their own companies.

And one of the ways to tackle diversity in tech is to encourage more genuine collaboration, James said.

Vi Nguyen, co-founder of Homads, an online marketplace for sublets, said it is helpful to see women who are doing the same thing. She seeks them out in the Austin tech community for advice.

Ashley Doyal, co-founder of RecruitHER, said diversity in technology workplaces creates a path to wealth for minorities and women.

Amy Beckstead, a labor and employment attorney founded Mama’s Austin, a 500 women referral network. It’s important for companies to address obligations people have outside of work, she said. Companies need to figure out solutions like part time tracks to keep women in the workforce and let them have a path to power, she said.

The networking group, Mama’s Austin, refers jobs and leads to each other, she said.

“There is not a better feeling in the world than to see someone you’ve helped get the job that they want,” she said.

Mehron Azarmehr, head of Azarmehr Law Group in Austin, said diverse workplaces aren’t just about feeling good, but they are about making money and performing better.

“One single thing I’ve learned from being a lawyer and also managing people we do much better when we have a diverse staff,” he said. “Everyday I’m noticing how well diversity works not because it’s a feel good thing but because our clients like it.”

“Functionally for business owners and entrepreneurs, if you have a diverse group in ethnicity and gender you are just going to do better in the service industry,” he said. “Your clients will like it. Your employees will like it. And you will make money.”