#TechInclusion 2017: My First Tech Conference

In early August, I had the privilege of being sponsored by Diversability to attend and report on #TechInclusion, which is an international Tech Conference focused on improving Diversity and Inclusion in the Tech Industry.

This was my very first (non-anime; hah) convention, and I was pretty nervous. I only found out about the conference few weeks before the event, thanks to a post at the Diversability Facebook Group, which offered sponsorships for a few of its members to report back on the convention.

As a #WomanInTech, a person of color, and a person with disabilities, this convention was just the thing I had no idea I was even looking for. I very quickly contacted the Diversability admins, and received confirmation that I could be one of the sponsored attendees.

With my manager’s blessing, I limped my way to the convention center by Times Square at 8AM on August 10th (this was also the day after I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and before I started taking my chemo meds, so pain level was pretty high).

Career Fair

What I didn’t have blessing from my manager with was the Career Fair that occurred the day before. His words: “Unless you’re looking for a new job, I don’t think you need to go to the career fair on the 9th.” Darn. I wanted to check it out, just to see what these “Tech Career Fairs” looked like! But fair enough. I had plenty of work to do, so it didn’t really make sense to miss an extra day if I didn’t have to.

From all reports, it seems like it was a pretty cool event, with booths from the big-names like Google, Etsy, Twitter, Amazon, and AirBnb, all looking to hire in “Diversity” from the conference attendees.

It was also free, unlike the convention itself, which is a great equalizer for those looking to make the big jump, but not as financially capable to buy admissions into other career-based conventions.

Live-Tweeting for @Diversability

This was my first time live-tweeting an event, and it was a pretty cool experience. A couple of my Tweets even got featured in a “Chief Executive Officer” Article, featuring the convention: What’s to Learn from Tech Inclusion New York!

Here we are, the Diversability Live-Tweet Team!

TechInclusion 2017 @ NYC

The convention takes place in many different cities around the country, and we were one of the first ones of the year. Panelists ranged from a teenager from Black Girls Code to Director of Industry Engagement from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Tech Innovation, to the Culture Editor at Giphy. There were founders, venture capitalists, authors, speakers, VPs, directors, and journalists.

They talked about what “Culture” is to a company…

Culture is like a ship. "It can harm or help a company" move in the right direction. -Mileshka Chetty on diversity at work #TechInclusion pic.twitter.com/m6OV4iMuj2

— Diversability® (@Diversability) August 10, 2017

What “Covering” means…

"Covering: Downplaying a stigmatized identity." @jenniferbrown #Disability #LGBT #TechInclusion pic.twitter.com/OF6QtSEIVR

— Diversability® (@Diversability) August 10, 2017

And how everyone’s “Diversity Story” is important for productivity in the company…

"Everyone has a diversity story" that needs to be told. "Keeping a lid" on our whole identity is exhausting. #TechInclusion @jenniferbrown pic.twitter.com/kZB0zdCrQo

— Diversability® (@Diversability) August 10, 2017

And how we can facilitate the “Diversity” in the Corporate Culture as a leader…

"We need more leaders to 'show themselves'" so we have role models for junior people to look up to. #Diversity #TechInclusion @jenniferbrown pic.twitter.com/ECD1fH82wn

— Diversability® (@Diversability) August 10, 2017

They spoke about how we need to “get in the room” to expand the diversity of a corporate culture.

As a response, we questioned: how do we “get in the room” when we are physically and metaphorically barred from the whole building (whether by physical or cultural reasons)?

"How do we get into the building? Much less the room?" #Accessibility would help, literally and metaphorically. Let us in! #TechInclusion pic.twitter.com/sHe9Jhwr89

— Diversability® (@Diversability) August 10, 2017

One thing that this conference did not touch much on (though as you can see, it did have a dialogue prompter for people who benefit from text instead of audio inputs), was diversity in terms of Disability Inclusion.

One audience member asked the following question, after a panel where the panelists (none of them disabled) insisted that if we tried hard enough, “they” would listen, and if they don’t, then we probably shouldn’t work there!

Working while #Deaf. Great question about Disability Disclosure at Work/Interview. Not all of us get to pick & choose. #TechInclusion pic.twitter.com/ijKQPw94DM

— Diversability® (@Diversability) August 10, 2017

In Conclusion…

In general, I think this conference was a great step in the right direction. Events and dialogues like this are very important, because it provides an avenue for marginalized groups to come together and discuss.

I learned about a lot of interesting new projects, like the C/I – Code/Interactive, which is a non-profit which strives to make technology available to all American youths. Then there was Silicon Harlem, which strives to bring “Silicon Valley” to Harlem by making it a technology hub, and empowering its residents to be entrepreneurs.

Everyone had so much drive, ambition, and dreams, and spoke so passionately about their projects and ideas, that it sparked excitement inside me, too.

I networked with and spent time with a lot of extremely accomplished leaders and entrepreneurs from very diverse backgrounds, and it was very exciting to learn about everything they were passionate about. I’ve been able to follow up with a few, even grab lunch, and it’s been a very nice experience meeting people out of the normal structure (let’s get real; it’s super hard to “meet” people once you’re out of school…).

I loved learning about all the ways many people, nonprofits, and companies presenting were doing outreach efforts to provide tech education to students. I went to a very well-funded school system in a fairly wealthy area, but I didn’t have any tech education in my school years! It’s great that tech is being included into so many areas of education these days. (Though there’s something to be said about there being too much technology in kids’ lives these days too… But that’s a conversation for another time!)

I felt like I should also be trying to do something. I just wasn’t sure what!

And here we are! The #Diversability crew! Thanks for the great day! #TechInclusion pic.twitter.com/wmhcmw8ZBs

— Diversability® (@Diversability) August 10, 2017

The Missing “Diversity”

However, probably due to its relative young age (I believe this is only their 2nd or 3rd year?), the “diversity” seemed fairly unbalanced. Many panels were about/by panelists whose ventures or companies support African Americans in education, empowerment, and employment. However, companies and ventures that specifically focused on other minority groups were very minimal.

There was one employment support company introduced that provided support for African Americans and Hispanics, but by specifying those two groups, excluded every other marginalized group.

(This observation obviously isn’t about whether or not African Americans are or are not “more disadvantaged” than other minority groups; it is an observation of the lack of “Diversity” in the panel topics/represented companies. No logical person can deny the violence and discrimination African American people have and still face in our country.)

There were many Diversity/Discriminated Groups not touched on, such as Ageism, Veteran Status, and Immigration Status (though to be fair, in the end, the presenter reflected on the lack of topics regarding these groups, and expressed hopes for inclusions of these topics in the future). There was one Asian presenter, but he did not present about the “Asian Minority,” or focused on helping the Asian community (which is completely fine! he was there to discuss other diversity topics). There was no mention of Native Americans, and only a sliver of LGBTQA topics/panelists.

One topic in particular that is close and dear to me is Disability Inclusion. There was one panelist who “represented” the Disability Community, and she was only invited as a last minute schedule change. There were few panels (especially about video games that allow people to create avatars to their own image having ability to have white canes or wheelchairs) that touched upon representation for people with disabilities in the virtual world. Given we make up almost 15% of the US population, I think there could definitely be a little more intention put into the population!

From the way the some panelists responded to disability related questions, some quite insensitively, and others in complete shock that disability was included in the whole “Diversity” concept, I think there’s a definite need for more voices about Disability in future conferences.

There was a case when one panelist responded to a question about Disability in the Workplace with a random tirade about how she hates the word “Disability” and “Disabled,” and doesn’t think anyone should use it, because her mother had a disability, and she hated being called disabled.

FYI: You are not empowering us by stripping us of the ability to self identify.

By trying to tell us how we should identify ourselves, you are going completely against this whole Diversity concept! (This is what we call “Everyday Ableism“; even if well-intentioned.)

I think as the conference grows and tracks more attention, the reach of the diversity populations and speakers will grow, and this convention has great potential to grow and expand every year, especially in New York City, the melting pot of the world!

The Missing “Non-Diversity”

The most important member of these conferences that was missing for the most part was the “Privileged White Male.” There was one white male panelist speaking about being white and male in the industry. (His talk was titled: “What does it mean to be a white, male, and straight executive in the conversation on diversity within an organization?“)

However, in general, they were not very present within the audience (unless representing some company related to diversity inclusion).

The “Status Quo” needs to be present in order for real dialogue to happen, because they are the collective individuals currently dominating the Tech field (and honestly, most fields).

We need everyone to be present at the table, and that includes the “Majority,” as they hold the most power over everyone and everything, which includes the ability to instigate real change.

My Personal Take-Away from #TechInclusion ’17

My take-away from #TechInclusion? I need to talk about it.
I need to talk about #Disability. Because if I don’t, no one will.

Attending this conference motivated me to look deeper into a cause that’s always on the back of my mind: Disability Inclusion in the Workplace and Education.

When I was a student, and a Special Education major, I wanted to find ways to benefit the educational system of children with disabilities. Now that I am in the workforce, I want to look for ways for adults with disabilities to transition from the school system to the work place. I believe many of us are able to be gainfully employed, if only we are given the right resources, training, education, and support.

A big life-long goal of mine remains to be part of a projects where we create assistive technology for education and life that enables individuals to take full advantage of the resources available, but also affordably (most assistive technologies these days are extremely cost prohibitive, and unattainable to most; especially those on disability income).

But beyond the “big goals,” I realized that I need to talk about “it.” The elephant in the room.

I need to talk about Disability, accommodations, and the needs we have.

I need to use my (relative) privilege as an “Able-Bodied Passing” Disabled person to help the Able-Bodied world understand that we exist all around them, and that we have the rights to be involved with society.

I realized from listening to the panelists at the conference that many times, when people are being insensitive or can’t understand our specific needs, it’s not malicious.

It happened because the specific simple accommodations could make our lives so much easier never even crossed their minds because they never had these needs, and don’t perceive them as barriers.

So I can’t expect them to “know” when they haven’t been “told.”

I can’t expect for accommodation without requesting it.

I can’t expect people to “understand” our realities without helping them understand first.

So I’ve been talking about it at work, I’ve been writing blog entries, I’ve been Tweeting, I’ve been looking for ways to share with the world that we are not some unknown, unseen “They.”

This realization, as simple as it seems, was actually extremely eye-opening.

I need to tell people what I need, what I want, and what I am struggling with, because they do not have these needs, so they don’t even think about it.

Realizing this has helped my personal relationships as well, because I’ve learned to stop expecting people to perceive my difficulties (and getting upset when they don’t), and to try to proactively convey my needs and how I’m feeling.

So much discourse, so many new friends! Thanks for the great convention, #TechInclusion. Excited for expansion into more Disability topics! pic.twitter.com/KGimducBzJ

— Hiro Nishimura (@nishimurahiroko) August 11, 2017

Also, attending this convention really sparked my interest into going back into coding, if not to find more ways to empower us with my potential services.

In the upcoming month, I’ve started looking at more programming languages, started different projects, and joined the #100DaysOfCode Challenge. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy learning and coding!

Want to Check Out Your Local #TechInclusion?

The Convention is making pit-stops all over the country this year (and even internationally). Does it look like something you’d be interested in, but you aren’t sure you have the means for affording a ticket?

They have sponsorships for a set number of attendees at every conference, which you can apply for here.

Kintsugi: The Art of Embracing Damage

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” – E. Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms)

To wrap this post up with something nice… This concept of “Kintsugi” has always resonated deeply with me, especially after my brain surgery, which made me “damaged goods” in many ways.

I believe the scars make me who I am, and I am much better off in life because of it.

Do you have any experiences with Diversity issues? Have you attended a tech convention or diversity convention? What are your thoughts on the whole concept?

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