By Ruben Cantu
Over the past five years, the landscape of the Austin tech startup scene has changed. Some would argue the change has been for the better. But if we look closely, we can still see many opportunities for growth. You have probably heard about Austin being the number one city for startups, beating out Silicon Valley for a couple of years now. We are definitely the next boomtown, and yet we are also still the most economically segregated community in our country. These two stats get thrown around a lot, but what do real entrepreneurs think about the direction of Austin and its tech scene? Well, it depends on whom you ask.
In a recent conversation with my black entrepreneur friends and colleagues, there was a sense of hopelessness and a lack of attachment. Some feel that if they did not have other ties to the city they simply would not have chosen to start a business here. I asked why they feel this way, and their response was that Austin simply lacks the environment, vibe and opportunities they feel they need to be upwardly mobile. More importantly, they find it hard to imagine themselves in roles of privilege of power because it's not an image that is commonly portrayed here.
All of that depresses me — and not because I can deny its truth. As a Latinx male, I understand that this is an ongoing crisis. And yet some people simply don't see it as a concern. If they do acknowledge this crisis, it's in their peripheral view and not a priority. No one is blatantly keeping the black community out of Austin, or the tech scene for that matter. But all of us are complicit in what is happening. We as a community have not done enough in either fostering a pipeline of talent to step into leadership roles or in making this place welcoming to black people researching Austin as a place to settle. When they see Austin, they see the statistics and the ongoing story (which lies in truth, but still hurts) that Austin has one of the fastest-dwindling black communities.
For a city that portrays itself as a liberal bastion, we fall closer to being tolerant than truly progressive. Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago, New York and, for that matter, Los Angeles have more overall diversity and diversity in technology.
So the conversation then evolved to the point of action. Some of my friends told me: “Ruben, if you want to make that one of your battles, go right ahead. But, honestly, we are tired. We are tired of having to always fight and explain and push for positions. We get tired of hearing that we are not qualified enough or that we don't have enough merit when plenty of those jobs were filled because of who people know and not a merit-based system.”
I tried to tell my friends that while I understood why they feel this way and that their feelings are warranted, I also believe that if we give up fighting, move away or just ignore the problem, then nothing will change. The response was, “Well, you can make that your cause and bear the flag, but we don’t see anything changing soon.”
This then got me to think about three things.
1. The talent we are losing to other cities because of this issue.
If we are indeed supposed to be the Social Innovation Capital of the World, a vision that I promoted way back in 2010 and that caught traction, we sure are failing to be inclusive and bring in the best talent to do it.
2. The rate at which this trend is accelerating and the future of our city if we do nothing to change it.
We can point to our leaders and hold them accountable, but even as Mayor Adler is doing his part with this Institutional Racism Report and task force, 90 percent of the work must be done by regular citizens like you and me.
3. What this says about Austin as the supposed “best city for startups” and the precedent this sets for our children.
What kind of city do we want to leave for them? We still deal with the ramifications (even though, as Mayor Adler said, we are not responsible for them) of the 1929 Master Redistricting Plan for Austin, which forced our black and brown communities to move under the threat of cutting off their utilities.
After much deliberate thinking, I developed a response that I believe many of us would support:
1. We must keep talking about this issue and bringing it front and center.
Capitalism was never built with a moral compass in mind; that's the role of responsible citizens. Just as institutionalized racism is based on policies and systems created by flawed humans that must now be rectified, we need to rise to a higher level of consciousness. We don't do this by preaching but by deliberate and inclusive action.
2. We need a strong network of allies from the white community.
As much as we all hate to make this an ethnic or racial topic, we cannot ignore this. None of us got to choose the color we were born into, but we can choose to help eradicate this social construct. If you are comfortable and you feel that this does not affect you, then this article is specifically for you, because we are all responsible. I fear this statement will make people defensive because they will think they are being attacked personally, but that’s far from the purpose.
Words like these are often hard to say, because by pointing out facts it may feel like we're pointing fingers and blame. I urge you to stay with me and understand it is not about placing shame, but rather about creating awareness that leads to positive action. No one white person is solely responsible for the actions of their ancestors. In fact, some also had their own struggles against injustice. It's important not to fall into the fallacy of comparing suffering, which is futile. But we must accept that collectively - side by side and hand in hand - we must push for this to change.
We were given a baton from our ancestors to make this world better. What are we doing with this opportunity, and can we say we did the best we could if we never take deliberate action to change this?
3. Change is often touted as inevitable but taking a long time.
I refuse to believe this. If we really want to change, we leap into action immediately. What takes longer is accepting the need for change. This is true on a societal level, too. People will defer action on a tough issue until it is no longer bearable.
We knew slavery and racial segregation were wrong, but we chose to look away until it became an unbearable issue. We knew that restricting the LGBT community from the basic human rights we all enjoy was wrong, but they had to campaign a long time before this country finally started taking action.
But change happens instantly when we want it to. When we’re in crisis mode the urgency of now is undebatable. We move first and rationalize later. We have rationalized for decades but we all don't feel the urgency. Those in power believe it can wait and those who are being affected can no longer afford to wait. If we push change down people's throats, it will get viciously rejected. So we need a collective strategy that includes everyone and addresses their concerns and fears. That is the conversation I want to have and build upon with our leaders.
Our world is better because of diversity and inclusiveness. We become more competitive and have more opportunities to innovate and evolve. Social diversity leads to higher returns for communities and corporations, just as biodiversity often leads to greater value and resiliency for the entire ecosystem in nature.
Business leaders may not know where to start or how. That is OK; they can look toward other companies for guidance. More tech companies are releasing annual diversity reports. Even if their numbers are dismal, at least they’re starting a larger conversation.
The next step is to have our corporate leaders and civic leaders stand together, listen to the voice of the people and state that they will commit to increasing the diversity of their communities and that they will make long-term financial investments to help address this talent gap.
So what does diversity have to do with it? Everything!
If you want to be competitive, conscious, resilient and generate a lot of revenue for your company and community, the clock is ticking. Great organizations like E4 Youth, Latinitas, Con Mi Madre, Breakthrough Austin and the LevelUp Institute are working on creating a diversity pipeline from an early age. But if business leaders and citizens don’t support programs like these for the long haul, we will not see transformation. We must also not forget about the civic leaders and activists who are sidelined and disregarded. We have young talent in our city like Naji H. Kelley, founder of Blnded Media Michael Henderson, founder of @doingdev, or Ainee Athar with Fwd.us and who also step up and give this issue a voice. We need more young people like them.
Here's one final thought. If the state of Texas leads the nation, then Austin must lead Texas. As we go, so goes the nation in many aspects. We are in the city of opportunity, but is that opportunity available to all? You get to choose that with your dollar, vote and voice.
Choose wisely and act with intention.
Later this fall we'll present some new findings in Cincinnati at this years Love Summit, where we'll show that tomorrow's world depends on businesses that are conscious of their impact, intentionally inclusive and treat people with the highest dignity. If we can collectively accept that business is about loving people first then their founders will end up making large profits and prosperity for their communities.
Ruben Cantu is the CEO of LevelUp Institute & SocialGood.us. He is a social impact international public speaker and marketing strategist who serves as a serial social entrepreneur and award-winning filmmaker focused on creating impactful movements that make the world a better place. Follow Ruben on Twitter @rubencantoo.