NC TECH Encourages Diverse Perspectives During Inaugural Summit

NC TECH presented its inaugural Diversity + Inclusion summit on June 23-24.

Hundreds of tech leaders across North Carolina—and at least one from Canada—Zoomed in for the NC Tech Association’s (NC TECH) inaugural Diversity + Inclusion In Tech summit this week.

The summit spanned Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, featuring keynote speakers John Samuel (head of LCI Tech) and Raven Solomon (author of Leading Your Parents), as well as a closing call to action by Donald Thompson (the CEO of Raleigh’s Walk West) for the 400 summit registrants.

Though the event has been in the works since late 2019, the 2020 deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of white police officers as well as the killing of Black man Ahmaud Arbery by three white men while jogging—and the protests around the nation and world that those injustices and many like them have inspired—have brought corporate discussions of diversity and inclusion up front.

Rachel Kennedy, marketing and communications consultant for NC TECH, says the timing of the event has been a catalyst for growing the summit.

“Recent events have made the racial component of diversity and inclusion especially prominent,” she said, “but there are also initiatives underway to raise awareness around gender, generation, physical ability, and other populations that have historically faced barriers to full participation in the tech/innovation community.”

Stacked Zoom rooms

Along with the keynote speeches, attendees got access to breakout sessions with Q&A’s led by a group of panelists assembled by NC TECH’s planning committee made up of leaders from across the state. The committee also helped determine the direction of the summit, content and agenda.

The panels ranged in topic from how D+I (diversity and inclusion) improves business value, to unconscious bias, disabilities/accessibility and more.

That last topic was featured in Samuel’s keynote speech on Tuesday. After NC TECH CEO Brooks Raiford welcomed attendees, Samuel took the virtual stage.

John Samuel, a blind entrepreneur, presents a new inclusivity acronym. “A11y” stands for “accessibility,” as there are 11 characters between the “a” and “y,” and a movement for making tech accessible for all people.

Samuel is a blind entrepreneur who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes damage to the retina and severe vision impairment, at the end of high school.

His journey includes failing out of college, moving to New York City to rely on public transportation as his need for accessibility increased, and eventually finding an opportunity to to start a company in Cameroon with a $20K investment to set up a joint venture for cell phone manufacturers.

Samuel said the executives took a chance on him; they knew he had a vision impairment, but they didn’t know to what extent. In 12 months, though, Samuel’s team generated $12 million in revenue and $2.4 million in profit.

“Those same executives who told me that I only had six months—they now asked me to give them six months notice before I left,” he said.

Then thinking he had what it took, Samuel attended The George Washington University School of Business and later returned home to Cary, seeking opportunities with LCI Tech. LCI Tech is one of the only firms that employs Americans with disabilities to provide digital accessibility services. (We previously wrote about Samuel and LCI Tech in December.)

Samuel closed by asking the audience to reflect on inclusion as it relates to accessibility.

“As you think about your own teams, stakeholders and customers,” he said, “I ask you to think about, is there a sense of belonging?”

Summit attendees then had the choice of joining one of three breakout rooms for discussions including: “Business Value – How Does D + I Improve The Bottom Line,” “Generational Mandate – Can’t We All Just Get Along and Thrive Together,” and “Creativity + Productivity – Why Diversity Is A Catalyst for Innovation and Discovery,” where panel members encouraged questions and active participation.

Bridging the Generation Gap

Day Two featured the same breakout room setup on the following topics: “Unconscious Bias – What Is It and Can It Be Eliminated,” “Communications – How Can You Communicate Effectively To All,” and “Disabilities/Accessibility – Why Accessibility Is The Key To D + I.”

Bruce Cross attended the summit along with a few coworkers from Dell’s Apex manufacturing plant, which builds Dell-branded cloud and network storage.

Cross is a Process Development Engineer and the North Carolina lead for Dell’s Black Networking Alliance ERG (Employee Resource Group). He says he has been involved with many diversity workshops within Dell and within the Apex plant.

Though the virtual setting did not facilitate the interaction and emotion necessary for truly powerful D+I workshops, Cross said, the topics and information were great.

In the Unconscious Bias breakout room, panelist and Co-CEO of Blue Acorn Greg Boone spoke at one point about how when he leaves the office he feels like “just another Black guy.” Cross, who grew up in Lexington, N.C., said he “understood that whole-heartedly.”

“I’ve been followed around in stores before,” Cross said. “I’ve been pulled over for no infraction. It’s just a part of who you are and being Black in America. It doesn’t matter what your titles are, what you accomplish. All that comes down to people looking at you as, ‘You’re just another intimidating Black person.’”

Raven Solomon discusses a survey of business decision-making by age. The most positive outcomes came from business teams with a wide age range.

The final summit event was Solomon’s closing keynote speech. She provided insight into the multi-generational workplace and strategies for navigating differences.

From the beginning, she engaged attendees by utilizing Zoom’s chat feature and asking people to chime in with their generation and whether they had experienced a generational gap in the workplace.

Solomon cited a study conducted by Clover Pop, a SaaS organization that helps companies track decisions. The study analyzed 300 business decisions made by over 100 business teams of 5-6 people over the course of two years. The study found that having an age range of 25 years or more created double the positive outcome of having a predominately younger or older workplace.

“The more generational diversity we have at the table,” she said, “the better decisions we make that ultimately drive our performance, which is why we exist as organizations. These things we can’t deny.”

The way to leverage generational diversity, she said, is striking a balance between the wisdom of experience in the older generation and the creativity and innovation of the younger generation.

What’s next?

Donald Thompson, the CEO of Raleigh-based brand and marketing agency Walk West, closed the summit with a call to action. Thompson helped organize the summit and also leads The Diversity Movement, an organization that offers group training sessions, consultations on diversity initiatives and more.

Thompson referred the audience to a blog post, What Can I Do?, for specific action points that people can take away with them.

NC TECH recorded all the content, so registered participants can access it for 60 days following the summit. The Association hopes to make this an annual event with additional opportunities throughout the year.

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About Elizabeth Moore 38 Articles
Elizabeth Moore tells the stories of the Triangle's tech startups as GrepBeat's summer intern. She is a rising junior at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and Spanish. You can contact Elizabeth on Twitter (@elizltmoore) and LinkedIn.