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Platform: diversifying the tech and innovation economy

Ralph de la Vega speaking with Hank Williams at Platform Summit 2014

Hank Williams is a man on a mission to increase diversity in the tech industry.

The New-York based serial entrepreneur is determined to challenge the status quo through his non-profit, Platform, a groundbreaking summit to foster inclusion in the tech sector, and more broadly, the innovation economy.

“We set up Platform because there is an urgent need in the innovation economy for everybody — people of color and women — to be engaged in it,” Williams said in a recent broadcast interview with UrbanGeekz’s Kunbi Tinuoye. “We want to foster a significantly greater level of diversity.”

Williams, however, insists the problem isn’t only an educational pipeline issue. He said many of the jobs in Silicon Valley, such as sales or marketing, don’t require technical expertise. Yet even in these non-technical fields there are few black and Latino employees.

The entrepreneur, who featured in Soledad O’Brien’s CNN documentary, Black in America: The New Promised Land – Silicon Valley, said other factors that specifically hinder aspiring black and Hispanic entrepreneurs is lack of access to funding and networks.

“I think there are two big challenges for minorities in tech and innovation,” he said. “One is finding the resources to do the things that you want be able to. The second is having access to networks that can support your efforts. If you don’t have capital, if you don’t have access to networks, it’s very difficult to be successful.”

Civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow PUSH Coalition has been instrumental in highlighting Silicon Valley’s diversity problem, put it in more straightforward terms during his on stage conversation with Williams at the last summit. “Only aggressive direct action can change the climate,” said Rev. Jackson.

The annual conference brings together a host of illustrious speakers, from tech gurus and investors, to media luminaries and entrepreneurs. With tickets costing up to $2,000, the recent Platform summit at Atlanta’s Morehouse College attracted well-connected attendees eager to make deals and forge ongoing networks.

Commenting on the recent conference Williams said he was heartened at “seeing people excited about the people they’ve been able to meet and the opportunities that were presenting themselves. Platform is a great place for people to network in an environment that’s conducive to that kind of connection and real personal interaction.”

Filmmaker and producer Topper Carew, who appeared as a speaker, told UrbanGeekz that there is no doubt that people of color are innovative creators. “Cultural audacity is in our DNA,” he said. “When we develop a passion for coding and gain access to affordable fabrication tools, African Americans will make a major contribution to the African American and American economy and to the future of American productivity.”

The summit came on the heels of major tech companies releasing data that shows a dearth of black, Latino and female employees in the industry.

In a recent interview Jackson said of 189 board members in the top 20 Silicon Valley companies, there were 36 women, three African-Americans and one Latino.  Without minorities, at lower and leadership levels, companies “lock out” money, talent and growth, he said.

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter@Kunbiti

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