We Are Tech Is the Exact Edtech Startup the U.S. Needs Right Now

We Are Tech Is the Exact Edtech Startup the U.S. Needs Right Now
Brittany Jenkins, Founder of We Are Tech (Photo: Courtesy We Are Tech)

“The action of amplifying [Black voices] has been necessary, but what is the next step?” said Brittany Jenkins, the founder of the We Are Tech edtech startup. Jenkins is on the frontlines of working to foster diversity and equity in the tech industry. We Are Tech is not the first organisation to address these issues, but Jenkins’ deep understanding of both the tech industry and the U.S. education system makes her particularly qualified to tackle this question.

We Are Tech launched during the winter of 2020, dedicated to addressing the “injustices that exclude Black people from the benefits of technology, and the tech industry,” according to the core mission statement on the organisation’s website. Jenkins previously worked for Facebook, NBC Universal, and Girls Who Code, but now she’s a STEM educator who leads Tech Integration at Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia, PA, where she also teaches computer science. We Are Tech is a manifestation of Jenkins’ “liberation as a Black Woman,” as she writes on her organisation’s website, encapsulating her expertise working in both the tech industry and in education.

In March, We Are Tech will hold a three-part panel series focusing on how to effectively address racial inequities in tech across three key areas: Pre-K through 12 grade levels, higher education, and career-level. Each panel was curated with the help of Erdina Francillon, Education Specialist at Microsoft 365, will feature families of colour, educators, college students, tech professionals, and community organisers, and will cover several topics, including: giving students of colour more access to technology, addressing educational gaps at the college level, and retaining and empowering people of colour in the workforce.

In terms of the next steps beyond amplifying Black voices, Jenkins said, “I’m thankful the series we’re producing is centered around those next steps. What this panel will do is bring together people who are usually siloed in different conversations.”

The hope, Jenkins said, is these conversations will inspire those who are in a position to take action, like school district superintendents, HR directors, or college administrators, to actually take action — to use their sphere of influence and implement the changes necessary to address educational gaps in exposure to and understanding of technology. This panel series, while about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the tech industry, is also about how an individual’s roots in tech starts from within their family unit — and how that interest can be maintained and cultivated by increasing exposure to technology from the time they are in preschool all the way into adulthood.

“It’s all about having that unique network and saying we can bridge that gap, we can be that conduit… We also have the network and the insight on how the tech industry operates in order to create those pipelines and be inclusive in that pipeline development,” said Jenkins.

The first panel, Investing in Families of Colour from Pre-K through 12, will address Digital Literacy resources and access to technology for families of colour. In other words, how exposure and availability of technology at an early age can affect what jobs those children choose to pursue later in life.

Jenkins says this panel was curated specifically to have families, students, and educators speak about their experiences, but it also includes tech professionals who work for companies that provide edtech products to those groups. Especially important considering virtual learning is a part of our everyday lives and the tech we use directly impacts how we teach and how we learn. For instance, if a student doesn’t have access to a computer or reliable internet, that can make it harder for a student to do well in school, regardless of their previous academic performance.

Providing predominantly non-white school districts with more funds to access technological resources is one major step. According to EdBuild, an organisation that researched the U.S. school funding system, predominantly non-white school districts receive $US23 ($30) billion less in funding than predominantly white districts despite serving the same number of students.

Jenkins believes that exposure to tech at a young age is crucial to fostering a potential career path in it. “I got into tech because I used to love playing with Tetris and Gameboys, and taking things apart and putting them together. So it’s an element of your early exposure to pursue it. To understand what’s out there for you,” said Jenkins.

A big reason why disparities in the tech industry currently exist is because there are disparities in education. It comes down to how things are introduced to children of colour in the school system. What happens in K-12 can affect a student’s perspective of education and, consequently their perception of technology, for the rest of their lives. Speaking with Inside Higher Ed, Kevin Clay, an assistant professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth University, said, “School has become just a place where students are conferred credentials,” and that doesn’t protect Black students from societal inequities.

“If these students are being looked at differently in terms of their capability, it determines what teachers, administrators, institutions make available, what governments make available to certain communities and so on,” said Jenkins.

That lack of exposure, opportunities, and even access to tech can have detrimental effects on those students who do decide to go to college. The second panel, Enfranchising College Students of Colour with Equitable Information & Support, and includes college administrators, college students, and tech professionals. Jenkins mentioned that one of the panelists, Brelind Whitehurst, a narrative studies student at USC, has fantastic insight on how the covid-19 pandemic has created new challenges in terms of navigating college.

College is the time when most students get exposed to what sort of jobs and companies in their chosen field are out there, and when they learn what they need to do to gain the necessary qualifications to be hired there.

“There is a disparity among students who cannot afford to buy equipment to do certain projects in order to be qualified for certain internships. That’s something I learned from her,” said Jenkins.

That can affect some student’s qualifications for certain industries, especially for tech. What happens if you can’t afford the AutoCAD software you need to complete a project because the on-campus computer lab is closed due to covid? Or what if your school does provide AutoCAD software, but you only have a Chromebook for your school work and can’t afford to buy a computer that can run the software?

This panel will focus on the college experience, from freshman year all the way to the recruitment process, and how recruiters and college administrators can create more equity in that process to make the tech workforce more diverse. How to offer students of colour the best possible guidance so they will be successful. How to address any “gaps that a college student of colour may have experienced,” such as networking, writing a resume, interview skills, etc.

“If your company is designed in a way to only gain exposure to a certain demographic, or cater to a certain demographic, that’s going to set the standard for how [students] are being recruited,” said Jenkins.

All that will lead into the third panel, Attracting, Retaining & Empowering Talent of Colour.

When Jenkins says “attracting, retaining, and empowering people of colour,” she means seeing enough representation in the tech industry that affects what goes into tech products. There needs to be a holistic arrangement of people who can take certain things into account when making a product so people who buy that product are seeing their personal experience accounted for.

For instance, when you look at wearables, a lot of the time certain features like heart rate monitoring and sleep tracking don’t work on people with darker skin. One recent report from the Sleep Research Society suggests the issue is in photoplethysmographic (PPG) green light signalling, which is used in many wearable devices.

Skin tone affects the absorption of light differently, which affects the accuracy of this green light technology. It may not register heart rate correctly, or at all, on people with darker skin tones. “The reduced accuracy of wearable devices in people with darker skin tones seems to have been known for some time, yet this issue has garnered little attention from the medical community,” the reports states. The report also goes on to mention that test marketing for these kinds of projects is often done with local populations that may lack diverse skin tones, so objective measurement of skin pigmentation is rarely reported, according to the report.

Looking at my own tech space, most tech reviewers are lighter skinned, and that’s a likely contribution to these sort of wearable issues not getting sorted out. If more people of colour worked at tech companies that make wearables, or even if more tech reviewers were people of colour, these issues might have been identified and addressed earlier.

“Workspaces can’t just be ‘we have one Black person’ or ‘we have a pink version of our product so girls will like it too.’ You must empower a talent of colour not only to enfranchise them, but also to really put out mindful, quality products that account for the human population,” said Jenkins.

You can watch the panels via Zoom if you would like to ask the panelists questions, or you can stream it live. You can register for the Zoom panels on the We Are Tech website, where you’ll also find the full schedule and a bio of every panelist.