The Chicago Urban League and the 1871 tech incubator aim to make African-Americans a bigger part of Chicago’s growing tech scene. Last month, the organizations struck an agreement to better support African-American tech entrepreneurs and to foster diversity in the technology industry. The agreement comes as Chicago’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition continues to pressure Silicon Valley tech firms to diversify. Andrea Zopp, the Chicago Urban League’s president and CEO, discusses why Chicago’s tech industry needs a formal diversity program.
Q. Why did you need this agreement?
We've been looking for ways that we can engage with that community to help create a thoughtful and focused pipeline of talent into 1871, from young people and students to existing entrepreneurs. It’s not like that could not have happened before, but once you agree that you’re going to be partners it takes it to a different level.A. Workforce development, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship are growing areas of economic opportunity, particularly in the city. While there are a number of very successful tech entrepreneurs, African Americans are underrepresented in that field.
Q. You’ve worked to broaden the Urban League’s mission since you took over in 2010. What progress have you made?
A. It was about broadening the mission but also clarifying it for everybody, being that we’re strengthening the African-American community and focused on creating educational and economic opportunities and social progress. The next piece is making sure the work we're doing is impactful, not just to have activity. The third piece is making sure people are aware that the Urban League is a voice of the African-American community and a leader on issues that impact our community.
In all those areas we’re making progress. We’ve had major focus on building metrics that talk to outcomes, not just numbers of people through the doors. We’ve hired a director, Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, who’s focused on research, program development and evaluation.
Q. How does the racial disconnect affect economic opportunities for African-Americans?
A. Recently Chicago United came out with their biannual study on diversity in the ethnic ranks in the corporate community in Chicago. The study showed that overall minority diversity is still moving very slowly but that it was trending positively and that the African-American community will never reach parity if the current trends continue.
That can’t be because the African-American community doesn’t have talent, ability or drive. There’s a driver there when you get down to the subjective decisions that come with making executive ranks of businesses that African Americans are not being evaluated on the same path. So companies have to be aware of that.
Q. What’s your take on Jesse Jackson and Rainbow PUSH’s efforts to get tech firms to release their diversity data?
A. They were reluctant to release the figures, but starting earlier this year in response to pressure from Rev. Jackson they did release the figures and they were, as anticipated, abysmal. Now there’s an effort under way to see what we can do to move those numbers.
That’s exactly why we have the partnership with 1871. He’s focusing on the big tech companies that happen to be headquartered in Silicon Valley. But Google, Groupon, Twitter and Facebook all have a presence here in Chicago.
Q. How do the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths relate to your mission?
A. In the African-American community, there’s a real belief based in fact that the institutions that we rely on don't value us the same way they value the majority community. What you’re seeing is this disconnect between African Americans and the perceptions of the majority community about how we as a country still have a long way to go in resolving and getting comfortable with our differences and recognizing that we have a long history of discrimination against African Americans that we have resolved legally but still have some resonance.
The only way we’re going to get through that is to begin to have some honest conversations that we're starting to have, but you have to be focused and intentional about it. We have to figure out a way to work together to make our cities better for all of their citizens.
Q&As are edited for length and clarity.Copyright © 2014, Chicago Tribune