You get better design when there’s a diverse representation of lived experiences

Lili Gangas is the Chief Technology Community Officer at the Kapor Center. She advises inclusive tech entrepreneurship projects and many initiatives in Oakland, such as the Oakland Startup Network, TechHire Oakland, and the Kapor Center Innovation Lab. We spoke with her about how to make the field more diverse and inclusive of people from varied backgrounds.


What does the ecosystem in Oakland look like for supporting young, diverse tech talent?

Here in Oakland, there are  many nonprofits creating awareness about the lack of comprehensive tech education and are starting to create pathways into software engineering, UX, and product design. But when you start to try and fit these pieces together in the puzzle— the nonprofits, the companies, the universities and communities colleges, funders, and the government initiatives— you find a lot of duplication and gaps. Everything is heavily concentrated at the front end on awareness. A lot of young people are encouraged to pursue tech, while a huge gap exists between that and the development of mastery-level technical skills later in college that will allow them to pursue well-paying, advanced tech careers.


What could be done to fix that gap?

There needs to be a mindset shift. There has been a focus on how to get people into jobs, but that needs to shift to be about durable careers at the center of the innovation economy over the long term. For example, when we [the Kapor Center] did an assessment of the ecosystem in Oakland, it was very clear that community college students were being left behind. K-12 is pretty well-developed, but investment from companies and the government is leaving behind community college students— and when you think about the current employable age range, that’s where the talent is. If tech companies really want to hire local, diverse talent, why aren’t there any programs to work with this population?


What kind of initiatives could meet the community where they’re at?

Creative training programs, like apprenticeship opportunities that let people learn by doing and focus on skills development are helpful. Human-centric programming should recognize where people come from and what drives them— the lived journeys of community college students, low-income families, and single parent households are powerful. I met a student at a startup weekend who has been teaching himself to code. He’s Latino, in a single-parent home, below the poverty level, living in the East Bay, and he wants to use tech for good. But he couldn’t find a program that was fit for him to learn. He ended up going to three different community colleges in the East Bay so that he could gain more in depth technical skills. None of them had enough technical courses, or they were offered out of sequence. Logistically, it was impossible. Imagine a young person who is so interested and so motivated, but has to work this hard to gain the skills he needs to give back. Ideally, the city could provide for some of these workforce development gaps, and connect youth like him to resources they need to thrive.


For a lot of young people of color, entering the tech world can be isolating— where does mentorship, role modeling, and peer-to-peer learning come into play?

Organic peer-to-peer learning has helped a lot of young techies of color skillshare, and that’s a critical experience— it’s so important to learn to ask for help from other people. But sometimes those people are hard to find. We helped launch  this initiative called OurCollective, which is composed of tech industry professionals from different tech companies who have participated in or founded employee resource groups. A lot of them say, “Every time I move jobs, I feel like I’m starting over. What if there was a broader community for people like me, so that no matter where I work, I feel supported and feel like my career is moving forward? I could have champions that look like me.” And that broader community is possible, but it requires sponsorship and buy-in from leadership— from VPs and executives who value diversity and inclusion strategies. We want a community like that to include not just entry level employees, but also managers and senior directors, and ultimately C-suite representatives. Because if people leave without mentoring anyone, the system has to start all over again. It’s easy to get people in the door with headhunters and exciting job postings and career fairs. But retaining that talent means you have to create inclusive organizations where people feel valued and confident to come to work as their full selves.


What do you see as the main benefit of creating that diverse and sustainable community of technologists?

There are so many different use cases for technology, and if people who have different lived journeys don’t have a chance to be part of designing those use cases, you don’t end up with good products or technology. You get better design when there’s a diverse representation of lived experiences. Especially for this generation, which is so excited to build things that matter— we want to use the context of our lives to shape that. Take AI for example— it’s not just for technologists anymore. None of our technological advances are impactful if we don’t understand the community stakeholder concerns and use cases.


What would a truly diverse tech ecosystem look like to you?

What if people of color were no longer “underrepresented” but rather represented across all functions and industries as our demographics are?  What if we were to suspend coming from a deficit perspective, and instead recognize that folks of color make up a huge portion of the job searching population now? People of color are the new faces, the new stories, the new journeys coming into the workforce. We have a lot to share, and we shouldn’t be represented as the “other.” I went to a conference recently where they said, “if your solution doesn’t work for the most marginalized it’s not a solution.” That’s how I think about the ecosystem too. In order for the ecosystem to work, it needs to positively uplift diverse voices. It takes an intentional village with all the stakeholders pulling their weight to move us forward as a community.