“Micro-aggressions are the biggest barrier. They add up until people feel completely hopeless about ever being included.”
– Michelle Glauser, Founder and CEO of Techtonica
Under the big tent of Startups Live, it’s easy to forget that not everyone feels equally welcome at the startup table. Issues of diversity and inclusion – gender inequality being a big one – are real and pervasive.
But, if the movement to address such issues is going to gain traction and unleash widespread transformation, there is no better space for it to happen than here. Today, our featured guest and the movement’s conductor is Michelle Glauser, the Founder + CEO of Techtonica.
“Do you want to tell us a little bit more about yourself before we get started?” invited moderator Steph Newton.
“Sure! I grew up in a large, blue-collar family and was always a voracious reader and interested in computers. I was born in the U.S., but I’ve also lived in Germany, China, and the U.K. (perhaps as a reaction to my family not traveling much). I now live in San Francisco and love to bike everywhere I go.”
“So, what is Techtonica and how did you guys get started?”
“Techtonica (techtonica.org) is a nonprofit I started that partners with tech companies to provide free tech training with living stipends and job placement to Bay Area women and non-binary adults with low incomes. It’s like a coding bootcamp, but it’s longer (six months), it’s free, it includes living and childcare stipends, it’s specifically for women and non-binary locals with low incomes, and it ends with job placement.”
“What inspired your social entrepreneurship,” asked Dr. Deborah Hecker.
“I really like helping people, and becoming a software engineer was so empowering for me that I wanted to pay it forward. I did the #ILookLikeAnEngineer ad campaign in 2015, and while that was really awesome – it was mostly about visibility, and I wanted to make a bigger difference. With the high income disparity in my area, I thought it made sense to train and hire the people in danger of displacement.”
Michelle started putting on free coding workshops at local computer labs at the end of 2015. As an official organization, Techtonica is a year old. Multiple people were curious to know more about funding for the program.
“We just launched our first full-time class! It took a lot of outreach and crowdfunding to get us there, so we were just doing one-day workshops until May.”
“The funding that got us started is mostly from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign I did. Most donors were individuals from my “techie” network (I lead PyLadies SF—a group for women-identified people who code in Python that has nearly 4,000 members—so that’s a lot of it). Long term, companies will pre-pay a recruiting fee that will cover training costs and monthly stipends, and then at the end of the training, students are placed with those companies. We have half of these hiring sponsors for this first class, so they really took a leap of faith with me and I’m working hard to find more sponsors.”
“Our placements and funding are closely tied together, so it’s hard to say [whether placements or funding are more challenging]. I initially tried to get funding before we even had a teacher, a location, and students, but no one wanted to help out, so I just pushed forward anyway.”
Read: serious Founder drive and muscle.
“Can we talk about how you’re seeing the gender gap in tech in SF right now closing or changing? What’s improving?” asked Wil Schroter.
“Yes! I’ve seen more and more engineering teams talking about gender diversity and working to hire and promote people of underrepresented gender identities, so that’s a step in the right direction, but obviously (from companies like Uber), there are still huge problems where underrepresented engineers don’t feel included.”
“It’s important to recognize that diversity won’t grow without inclusion. Building great diverse teams is not easy and we’ll all need to continually question our biases in order to get past our assumptions.”
“Racial diversity is another big topic that is very important. I rarely see people thinking about socioeconomic diversity, though, and I think we need to talk about that and look for solutions. My research has shown that the cities with the highest number of tech jobs per capita all have high income disparities like San Francisco does (where, shockingly, it’s higher than Rwanda’s income disparity in some areas), so there are definitely some class issues we need to deal with. And there’s a business case for sure—having more diverse perspectives will lead to better products that work for more end users, and diverse teams make more money.”
“As part of our deal with sponsor companies, we provide some diversity and inclusion training that covers some of the socioeconomic differences teams will need to know about.”
“I love what you’re doing!” Eileen Guan gushed. “She then took the conversation to the individual level by asking, How are you doing recruitment for each cohort?”
“I didn’t want to have an open application process because I knew it would be the same people who already know about all the opportunities out there applying. Instead, we host one-day workshops with local community organizations and have them invite their communities. At those workshops, we watch for the fastest, most interested and collaborative students and invite them to apply. They then are invited to more workshops where they build a quick project in HTML and CSS, present it to others, work with volunteers who rate them, and then have interviews with the teacher and me.”
“I love that!” Eileen enthused again. “Bringing the resource to the community instead of making the community find the resource.”
“How are you matching students with your sponsors?” Steph followed up.
“The sponsors are required to be involved in mentoring the students during the training, so they get to know them that way, and then at month 5, the students and companies rate each other and we do our best to make both sides happy. Both the student contract and the sponsor contract agree to at least three months of paid employment.”
“If it works out after the 3 months of employment, students are offered full-time positions.”
“To the point of it feeling ‘risky’ to the advocates from an outcome standpoint,” Ryan Rutan began, “how involved were they in developing the programs, defining outcome criteria, grading etc?”
“For this first class, not so much, at least not in advance. We’re still putting together a lot of resources to build our curriculum and are adjusting as we go with companies’ input. You know, the putting the plane together as you’re falling thing.”
Michelle was asked about plans on scaling Techtonica and moving into different cities, and had this to say, “This first class is just six students. In January, we hope to do at least double that many. We’re currently working on some public education partnerships that could result in multiple cohorts going at once next year. San Jose is probably our next big area and then we can definitely look at launching in the other top tech cities.”
Naturally, the conversation expanded from talking about the specifics of Techtonica to considering issues of diversity and inclusion more broadly.
“Are there some recent examples where creating more diversity has had a noticeable change in how a company operates?” Wil asked. “We talk a lot about the ‘input’ of getting to more diversity, but I’d love to talk about the demonstrable “‘output’ of what happens when companies have more diversity.”
“McKinsey has some really great publications on the ‘output’,” answered Michelle. “Here’s one I really like. (New research makes it increasingly clear that companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially.)”
“I can’t think of any argument against having a more diverse team, but what are companies specifically seeking out when the strive for more diversity? Is it the idea that greater gender balance will improve products? I’m asking,” continued Wil, “because I think when the outputs/benefits are really obvious and strong, it creates a powerful motivator in the marketplace.”
“I’ll give an interesting analog. When I was starting my first company at 19, there were very very very few executives that were in their 20’s. This was 1994. The general consensus was that you got decades of experience (and an MBA!) and later on when you were old and craggy, you then were able to become management. I think for centuries that was the commonly held belief.”
“Then all of a sudden you had – for really the first time – an entire decade of 20-somethings becoming managers/CEOs. And with that the world learned for the first time that there were some really obvious benefits to having super young people run companies (and problems, like anything else).”
“I remember extolling the virtues of fresh thinking, extreme risk taking at a young age, etc. as being obvious virtues. And I think people started to say ‘Yeah, that’s true. I see it. Netscape is gonna be around forever!’ Kidding. But I feel like we need a watershed moment like this around gender diversity.”
“I think we need such a massive and obvious momentum shift that people can’t deny it.”
Michelle replied, “There are a lot of companies that are working hard on diversity, like Lever (https://medium.com/initialized-capital/how-lever-got-to-50-50-between-women-men-b8db05b7d3ee), Clover Health, Etsy, Stripe, Redfin, etc. Engineers feel more able to speak up when there’s an issue with a product, products have been made much better and more lucrative, etc.”
“Of course, Lever is an exception—most studies have shown that if you don’t work on building diverse teams from the outset, it’s extremely difficult/not possible to ever build a more diverse team.”
“Weirdly, several studies have shown that even when strong, clear data is presented as a case, people aren’t convinced. I’ve definitely seen that once people have met our students, they’re much more likely to want to support us.”
She then added, “diversity includes all sorts of diversity—gender, race, socioeconomic, age, ability, etc. Now the industry skews towards favoring younger people.”
“There are so many people with valuable skills and perspectives being left out, unfortunately.”
“What’s a simple, small thing all of us could be doing tomorrow in our respective companies to start making strides towards supporting / growing diversity?” asked Ryan. “Something you typically don’t see implemented would be great!”
Did she ever deliver. “Stop looking for ‘culture fit’ in your interviews. Rather, check that people are collaborative, have the basic skills, and want to learn. Project Include has a lot of great advice/resources.”
“That’s a very eye opening thought,” acknowledged Ryan, “and one that goes exactly counter to how I’m approaching it now – I do look at cultural fit – which means I’m building for mono-culture…”
UB Ciminieri agreed. “Great insight. ‘Culture fit’ is a phrase and idea that is contrary to what companies should be looking for, which is ‘cultural add.’ I’d love to talk to you all more about this as we’re working on developing a platform to tackle this particular issue – how do we find the right fit talent for our IT dept (for example) using psychographic research and analysis of the primary traits that align with all our top performing employees?”
“I love what you’re working!” Andy Rosic joined in. “As part of the glaring problem (white guy in tech), I try to use my ability to influence and advocate whenever possible. At my last co. I helped drive a distinct shift in hiring (i.e., stop posting jobs in the same local tech blog, alter the process to not favor specific people, etc.) until we became a far more diverse and richer workplace. I also support anyone doing what you’re doing, WWC, BGC, and so on. I have daughters who love tech, and I want them to have every opportunity and chance that I did some day.”
“For all the populations who currently face exclusion, what do you think represents the most common barrier? Where are they most likely to hit a wall?” Ryan inquired.
“Micro-aggressions are the biggest barrier. They add up until people feel completely hopeless about ever being included. To counter them, question your assumptions. Get to know people. Apologize immediately, sincerely, and without focusing on your intent.”
Andy Rosic offered great examples of this information put into practice. “I had women and POC give the product updates at monthly and quarterly meetings. I stopped men from interrupting women while they spoke. I called on w/poc in meetings when I knew they wanted to speak but dominant others were hogging the airspace, when asked to speak at (for ex) women in tech events I always brought a woman colleague, gave a little 5 min something, and then gave the floor to her. I could go on. It’s a 100 little things.”
Eileen added, “I think something companies can do that’s relatively simple is to change the perks of a company to be more gender neutral. Something as simple as expanding beyond ‘ping pong tables and beer’ can make a company culture seem less bro-y.”
“AMEN,” responded Steph. “I’d rather have a gym membership or a childcare stipend than beer + ping pong.”
“What are the most popular gender neutral perks you’ve heard of?” Wil asked Eileen.
“I think weekly WFH [work from home] is a great one, professional development stipends, paid meals, gym memberships. For ladies, menstrual hygiene products in the bathroom! And, of course, day care as well!)”
It’s so difficult to hear such necessary discussion shut down by the heartless clock, but, to all who genuinely care about fostering diversity, we can thankful for the wonderful example of Michelle and Techtonica and for the actionable, sage advice shared in this space.
AND… for the opportunity to directly lend a hand. Techtonica accepts donations from anywhere. They also have a volunteer signup form in the “How to Help” section of techtonica.org.
Keith Liles is a freelance writer who loves travel, music, wine, hiking, poetry, and just about everything. He practices saying “yes” to life vigorously, rehearsing for the phone call when he’s asked to tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Follow Keith on Twitter @KPLiles.