“Fueling the Talent Pipeline: Preparing for the 21st Century Economy” was the theme of the 10th Regional Affinity Incubation Network (RAIN) conference late last month at the University City Science Center. The consensus? That pipeline is leaky, especially for millennials, women and people of color.
Amy Nelson, CEO of Venture for America, a New York-based nonprofit, reported that despite a persistent narrative to the contrary, millennials, saddled with more than a trillion dollars in student-loan debt, have largely abandoned entrepreneurism and “given up on the American dream.”
Although the number of startups entering the national economy is down by tens of thousands, she added, black women are starting companies faster than any other demographic, yet they account for only a miniscule .6% of venture capital.
Sylvester Mobley, founder and CEO of Philadelphia’s Coded by Kids, said that marginalized groups are largely precluded from high-paying tech careers. “We understand that technology is the largest driver [of jobs]. If that’s where the opportunity is and you’re locking a large segment of society out of it, it’s hard to say to me that it’s not a civil right issue.”
Erica Hawthorne-Manon, founder and executive director of Small But Mighty Arts, a Philadelphia nonprofit, noted that “artists are part of the creative workforce,” but their contributions to the economy and culture are persistently undervalued. “Artists need supplies, space, marketing funds, professional development,” she said, and without adequate resources, only 23% report they’d continue a project. “For any other industry, this would be abysmal,” Hawthorne-Manon said.
Deborah Diamond, president of Campus Philly, reported that while 64% of recent college graduates stay in the region – significant progress – about 55% of Greater Philadelphia’s college students are of color, yet the workforce aged 25 to 34 is 60% white.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the community of organizations that support innovation, entrepreneurship, workforce development, STEM-focused career training and youth engagement – the core constituency for the annual RAIN gathering – is working on solutions.
Mobley gave up a secure tech job in 2016 to launch Coded for Kids “because of my own frustration with the lack of diversity in tech and lack of access to the opportunities in tech for people from marginalized groups,” he said. Today Coded by Kids has programs in three states, using project-based education and mentorship to equip hundreds of underserved and underrepresented youth with the skills and support needed to succeed in a tech-driven society.
Venture for America uses a sort of apprentice model, placing recent graduates in two-year, paid fellowships with successful startups. Philadelphia is its largest hub, with more than 100 fellows placed in Philadelphia since 2013. Venture fellows have gone on to found seven companies that are active in Philly: Naturall Club, founded by Muhga Eltigani; Magnolia, founded by John Yarchoan and Mark Bernstein; Synotrac, founded by Elsa Swanson and Forrest Miller; Leagueside, founded by Evan Brandoff and Zubin Tehrani; Emile, founded by Charlie Molthrop and Nazli Danis; Philly Makerhouse, founded by Jack Feldman; and Oneclick.chat, founded by Dillon Meyers.
“We have been fortunate to partner with really successful startups in Philadelphia, like Guru, Curalate, Azavea, and Journaya,” says Nelson. “The large number of high-quality startups here has allowed us to build up a significant cohort every year. Fellows are having great experiences at these companies and they end up staying even after their fellowship is over. Philadelphia also has other great assets, like a low cost of living and easy access to New York and Washington DC. Having funders like First Round Capital and great universities locally means it’s easier for startups to access capital and talent. It makes it easier to get your business off the ground in a market with so much access.”
Hawthorne-Manon, whose own work is in spoken word, music and theater, was frustrated by her inability to pay studio expenses and “became determined to find more opportunities for me and my peers to find ongoing, well-paying creative opportunities.”
Today Small but Mighty Arts has a network of 1,500 “artrepreneurs” and offers grants and other resources, while advocating for fair pay, professional development and investment to support working artists.
“Keeping in mind that there are real people at the source of all art, then it would make sense that if we want more art or the continuation of art in communities, schools and all around us, that we would of course invest in the talent and workforce to continue to produce this art,” said Hawthorne-Manon.
The Science Center’s own FirstHand program works annually with 300 to 400 West Philadelphia middle-schoolers – a critical age – to introduce them to STEM fields. Waterfront Ventures is plowing the ground for tech startups and entrepreneurs in Camden.
All meaningful, but the speakers were clear in their underlying message to the 100 conference attendees: it won’t be easy to inject diversity, inclusion and equity into the talent pipeline. Money (lots!), mentors, coordination, enlightened corporate and civic cultures are all essential. Said Mobley: “The pipeline is irrelevant if you can’t fix the system.”
This article was produced as part of our Writer in Residence Program with the University City Science Center.