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Initiative Aims To Increase Diversity In Boston's Innovation Economy

A new Boston-based initiative seeks to make the local tech community more diverse by tapping into some often-overlooked sources of talent.

The program, called Hack.Diversity, aims to create a pipeline of college students of color — particularly black and Latino students — into area tech companies. Announced Friday, the initiative is being run by the New England Venture Capital Association, a trade group made up of tech investors and entrepreneurs.

"We’re facing a bit of a market failure," said venture capitalist Jeff Bussgang, who co-founded the program. "We have these hot innovation companies that are growing very fast and are desperate for technical talent, and only a couple miles away we have communities of color where there’s capable, smart, motivated people who would be terrific employees at these companies."

The tech sector tends to be predominantly white and male.

A report issued earlier this year by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council found blacks in 2014 made up only 3 percent of workers in computer and mathematical occupations in the state, while Latinos made up 5 percent. The report also found women made up 24 percent of those occupations.

Bussgang said employers often overlook community colleges and urban universities for tech jobs. So to bridge that gap, the Hack.Diversity initiative is partnering with UMass Boston and Bunker Hill Community College. Twenty students studying computer science, engineering or another technical field will be selected for the program, which includes training, mentoring and a paid internship at one of four local tech companies. The goal is for the students to get full-time jobs by the end of their internships.

The companies participating in the program are Carbonite, DataXu, HubSpot and Vertex.

The $250,000 initiative will initially start as a pilot program, with the hopes of expanding to include more schools and employers. Each of the four companies is contributing $50,000, and The Boston Foundation is also contributing $50,000 for the program.

The initiative won't just focus on training students; it will also train employers on how to improve their recruitment of diverse candidates. The idea is to expand the companies' networks for hiring.

"Instead of us going to the tech companies and knocking on their doors, the tech companies are going to learn how to come here," said Bill Brah, director of the venture development center at UMass Boston. "This is a real undiscovered gem and treasure trove of talent just waiting to be nurtured and discovered."

That nurturing will include giving employers training to ensure their workplace is welcoming to diverse candidates, and giving students career coaching and guidance on how to navigate these work environments. To provide these services, Hack.Diversity will work with consultants from various organizations, including the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce; Year Up, a nonprofit that gives low-income youth professional development; and Tech Connection, a diversity-focused recruiting firm.

Melissa James, another Hack.Diversity co-founder and the CEO of Tech Connection, knows the challenge of navigating the tech space firsthand.

"I remember exactly how that felt walking into a startup environment and not really understanding what the heck was going on," said James, who grew up in Milton and was the first in her family to go to college. "Our goal here is to make sure our students feel supported and welcomed at the companies that are right here in Boston."

Each student participating in Hack.Diversity will be paired with a person of color who is already working at a local tech company.

Georgiana Chevry, the coordinator of internship programs at Bunker Hill Community College, said many of their students are the first in their families to go to college and because of that "don't have connections to cutting edge technology companies." She said the initiative will help "develop a pathway into employment" for the college's students studying IT and other programs.

For the participating companies, they believe tapping into this pool is just good for business.

"As a company, we have a duty to our customers to put together the best teams possible to create the best product possible” DataXu CEO Mike Baker said in a statement. "If we aren’t recruiting and developing from every available talent pool, we aren’t doing our job."

Candidates for the program will be selected this winter and begin their internships in May.

Related:

Zeninjor Enwemeka Digital Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a digital reporter at WBUR, covering all things relevant to people in Greater Boston.

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