Start-ups: Panel talks about more diversity

There’s no single answer for how to make the technology community more inclusive of black entrepreneurs. It will require better science and math education for minority students, more effort from companies to hire a diverse workforce, and a willingness among venture capitalists to invest in people of color.

Those were some of the ideas put forth during a pair of panels on Aug. 1 at Technoir, the first in a series of discussions and networking events created to examine the challenges and opportunities unique to black entrepreneurs.

Conceived by District-based digital marketing firm Ghost Note Agency, Technoir may be a first step toward inclusion in and of itself, founders said. It’s common for technology events to be a sea of largely white and male faces. Technoir, however, brought a predominantly black audience to D.C. start-up hub 1776.

“There are lots of situations where you’re in a room, and you’re the minority. I’ve been in that situation for most of my life. We need to find a way to create events where it’s more balanced,” said Brandon Ellis, co-founder and chief executive of Ghost Note.

Convening an audience of black entrepreneurs is just one hurdle to overcome.

Clearly Innovative chief executive Aaron Saunders, one of the night’s panelists, co-founded a summer camp and academic program at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, called Startup Middle School, that gives youngsters experience solving problems with math, science and technology.

When Saunders first started the program, none of the students had met a software engineer. If young people aren’t exposed to people working in technology, Saunders said, they may not even realize those careers exist or how to pursue them.

“These are the things that make a difference,” Saunders said. “These are the things that move the needle.”

While preparing the next generation of software engineers and Web developers is important, panelists observed, diversity at large tech companies is a problem today. The industry’s lack of women and people of color has been well documented, most recently in demographic data companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have disclosed about their workforces.

“A lot of these top firms, their diversity is, in my opinion, shameful,” said Justin Maddox, the chief executive of CrowdTrust, an identity verification service for crowdfunding sites. “It’s extremely lame in 2014 for you not to be able to reach outside your demographic and grab somebody of another gender or another race.”

Start-ups founded by women and people of color are also funded in lower numbers than those founded by white men. While studies have shown there are a number of reasons for the disparity, several panelists said the fact investors often look within their network for the next big idea contributes to the problem.

“If you have a great idea and somebody believes the only people who have great ideas are white males, then how are we ever going to create an economy that outperforms those economies like China?” asked Talib I. Karim, executive director of the nonprofit STEM4US. “We have an advantage in our diversity.”

Crowdfunding offers an opportunity for minority entrepreneurs to get their start even with that disadvantage. The practice of start-ups raising small sums of money from a large network of people means entrepreneurs no longer need deep-pocketed investors to get their ventures off the ground.

— Steven Overly

Women: New group

Two years ago, Rakia Finley had an idea to create a forum where women in business could come together and share their life lessons. The notion was born from her realization that women at the top of their careers had untold stories to pass on to those just starting out.

This summer, Finley, who runs her own technology solutions company, started Pastries & Champagne, a monthly discussion series for women. The first session was held on a balmy summer evening at the renovated Wonder Bread factory in Shaw last week.

A panel of four women discussed how they overcame their fears while starting out in their careers and shared insights about navigating their professional and personal lives as women. Attendees dined on — what else? — pastries and champagne, as well as gourmet cupcakes, cookies and ice cream from local businesses.

The panel featured Ambreen Ali, a former reporter for CQ Roll Call; Ramunda Lark Young, the founder of online bookstore MahoganyBooks; U.S. Black Chambers Vice President Toya Powell; and Maimah Karmo, the founder of Tigerlily Foundation, an organization that raises awareness about breast cancer.

— Amrita Jayakumar

Rivalry: Paddle battles

A different kind of defense was on display Aug. 1 when law firm Arent Fox took on the American Bar Association in lunchtime table tennis. (Arent Fox won, 3-2.)

The teams competed at Farragut Square, where the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District is hosting weekly games all summer. A championship round will take place Sept. 19.

Previous weekly winners include the law firm Lewis Baach, the American Physical Therapy Association and the United Nations Environment Programme.

Next up: Lockheed Martin vs. National Geographic on Aug. 15.

—Abha Bhattarai

Conference: A look at Internet of Things

Government officials and private sector representatives met in Washington last week to discuss potential applications in the public sector for the Internet of Things — a technologists’ term for a connected network of devices and sensors.

Randy Garrett, program manager of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, along with Transportation Department Chief Information Officer Richard McKinney and Veterans Health Administration special adviser Joseph Ronzio, mentioned cybersecurity, defense, traffic management and health monitoring as possible uses for the network, among others.

The representatives met at a conference organized by online government-focused social network GovLoop, and Herndon-based marketing communication firm ConnellyWorks. This is the first GovLoop event dedicated to the Internet of Things, according to founder Steve Ressler.

Some parts of the public sector have been developing connected applications for years — for instance, the Defense Department has been using various sensor networks for situational awareness technology, said Michael Chui, a principal at McKinsey Global Institute, who delivered the conference’s keynote. Some municipal governments are using sensors to monitor water pipes and identify leaks, he added. “At the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done.”

Many public agencies are still in the “definition stage,” Ressler said, learning what the Internet of Things is, and how it could be used, before actually building the applications.

Ronzio described futuristic wearable sensors that could be used to predict cardiac events before they happen, allowing VA medical systems to dispatch paramedics preemptively. Or perhaps the Transportation Department could deploy a wide network of sensors to monitor traffic patterns, tolls and weather in a vision McKinney termed “vehicle-to-infrastructure” communication. Under such a scheme, sensors in individual cars could signal to sensors in roads and highways to collect more detailed data about traffic and road maintenance issues.

He added that the Transportation Department hired its first chief data officer two weeks ago, who will work on projects related to the Internet of Things.

— Mohana Ravindranath