Minorities scarce on Pittsburgh's tech scene

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African-American entrepreneurs continue to be a rarity in the region's tech scene.

A lack of diversity is apparent in every program designed to help entrepreneurs turn their ideas into companies.

Alpha Lab, a South Side tech incubator out of Innovation Works, has launched 51 new companies since it started in 2008. Of those companies, five had management teams that at least included a black member.

"I think everyone recognizes this is an area that needs to improve," said Terri Glueck, spokeswoman for Innovation Works.

Jomari Peterson, founder of Hajj Media LLC in Homewood, came up with an idea to address the problem of delays at barber shops and beauty parlors, which is a continuous source of complaints in the black community.

His Web-based solution would allow a user to "check in" virtually without having to be present.

Mr. Peterson, 26, who has a degree in civil engineering and an MBA from Howard University and is working on a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University, applied to Alpha Lab for funding. He said he was rejected because he felt the people there didn't understand the problem he was addressing because of a cultural disconnect.

It wasn't until Mr. Peterson presented his ideas to Bill Generett, CEO of Urban Innovations 21 in the Hill District, that he felt he had found someone who understood what he was trying to do.

Mr. Generett has focused on working within the African-American community to direct young people toward starting their own companies. Mr. Generett, an attorney, has worked in real estate and started his own personal care company, which he later sold.

He said the way to expand the tech community is to understand people on their terms and create an environment where they feel comfortable.

Still, he said, the region's tech community is more diverse and welcoming than it used to be.

One of the region's major tech events each year is the Innovation Works annual meeting, which includes pitches to investors by early-stage companies and a reception where funders and inventors can mingle.

Just a few years ago, he said that reception was overwhelmingly white and male, but at recent meetings, the crowd has become more diverse. He credits Rich Lunak, CEO of Innovation Works, for recognizing the problem.

Mr. Generett pointed out that there used to be huge disconnect between the leaders of the business community in the city and tech entrepreneurs, regardless of race.

The story that illustrates that is in the book "Democracy as Problem Solving" by the sociologist Xavier de Souza Briggs: In the 1980s, when high tech was still in its own nascent stage, the leadership of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development held a reception for tech leaders at the Duquesne Club, but the members of the tech community weren't allowed in to the reception because they weren't wearing ties.

Now, at least, the city better understands the casually attired tech culture.

What Mr. Generett said remains is to expand that culture to include both women and minorities.

"We have to continue to work to make people feel that the environment is something that will benefit them," he said.

Urban Innovations 21, for instance, is running an internship program that is linking inner-city young people to tech firms to give them a feel for how businesses are run.

"You can only do what you can imagine you can do," Mr. Generett said.

Another program that encourages entrepreneurship is Project Olympus at CMU that helps faculty and students develop companies based on their inventions and innovations.

Four of the five Alpha Lab companies with African-American leaders came from Project Olympus, said its director, Lenore Blum.

"Our projects are called 'probes' because they are before company formation," she said.

Of the 105 projects that have been explored, 60 have formed into companies. But of those, just a handful have been headed by African Americans.

Dan Bates, strategic relations manager in the Office of Technology Management at the University of Pittsburgh, said there are about 10 tech start-ups out of the university each year, and in the last few years, not one of them has been led by an African American.

region - lifestyle - employment

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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