Jay Williams, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development

Jay Williams, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development

Reporter with Silicon Hills News

The tech industry has a diversity problem with Black, Hispanic and Asian employees making up just 7 percent, 8 percent and 14 percent respectively of the technology workforce in the U.S., according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report.

And women make up 35.6 percent of the tech workforce.

Those statistics need to change for the U.S. to retain its leadership position in the technology industry worldwide, said Jay Williams, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development. He conducted a press conference at Austin City Hall on Tuesday to announce $1.5 million in federal grants going to Texas organizations.

Overall, 35 organizations received a total of $15 million in grants through the Economic Development Administration’s Regional Innovation Strategies program. The grant recipients are a diverse group, Williams said.

The awardees include the program’s first investments in historically black colleges and universities in the South; a women-focused, early-stage capital fund, True Wealth Ventures in Austin; a Native American-centered, proof-of-concept program in Oklahoma; and urban innovation hubs honing in on fashion technology in New York and social innovation in Louisiana.

Williams traveled to Austin to make the announcement because four of the awardees were in the state of Texas and the University of Texas at Austin received two grants, he said.

“Austin and the region here has a long history of innovation and collaboration,” Williams said. “It was just the perfect place to make the announcement.”

Innovation and entrepreneurship has been for far too long a closed club that didn’t have the diversity that fully unleashed the power of entrepreneurs and individuals in this country, Williams said.

“The President is fond of saying that one’s destination should not be determined by one’s zip code,” he said. “The fact is that opportunity is not equally distributed. Talent is. But opportunity is absolutely not. So that’s why we are proud this round of grantees represents multiple rural award winners, multiple urban innovation centers.”

Congress funded the $15 million in grants, which is a 50 percent increase from 2015, Williams said. It’s a testament to the demand and success the awardees are seeing across the country.

To highlight the need for diversity and inclusiveness, Williams mentioned a quoted from Johnathan Holifield who said we won the last economic revolution with one hand tied behind our back.

“When he said that he meant we underutilized, neglected and overlooked so many segments of the population,” Williams said. “If we’re going to compete successfully in the next century we’ve got to make sure they are on the playing field and we’re tapping into the ingenuity and creativity of those segments of society.”

The federal grants are not meant to take the place of the private sector but are meant to be “catalytic,” Williams said. The federal grants help to “de-risk” early stage investment in diverse entrepreneurs and provides funds for overlooked opportunities, he said.

And the grants aren’t focused on any industry, he said.

“We’ve seen water. We’ve seen agriculture. We’ve seen food processing. We’ve seen the whole gamut of awardees in our regional innovation strategies program,” he said.