Building Equity in Chicago's Tech Sector - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Building Equity in Chicago's Tech Sector

Image courtesy of Meeting of the Minds

Neal Sales-Griffin hasn’t always been into computers. But after graduating from Northwestern University, Sales-Griffin taught himself code. An African-American who grew up lower-income in Kenwood on the South Side of Chicago, Sales-Griffin soon realized that there were few opportunities for a young man like him to explore computer science. Today, he’s the CEO of CodeNow, a program that teaches young people the tech skills necessary in our changing economy. CodeNow has graduated more than 2,000 students in Chicago, New York, the Bay Area, and East Lansing, Michigan. The majority of CodeNow’s pupils are lower-income and nearly half of program alumni are female—both are groups that are deeply underrepresented in tech. Sales-Griffin sees himself in many of his students, youth of color who previously lacked access to computer science education.

CodeNow is not only changing the lives of its participants, it can impact the broader tech industry. And that’s especially important in Chicago, a city where the tech sector is growing, rapidly. Investment research firm PitchBook found that Chicago (not Silicon Valley or New York) had the highest percentage of profitable startups. The city was ranked 10th worldwide as a tech leader by KPMG (up from 18th in their 2016 report), who praised Chicago’s entrepreneurial spirit and education and training programs.

But something insidious threatens the Chicago region’s dynamic tech sector: inequity. Recent research from Urban Institute and the Metropolitan Planning Council measured for the first time how much racial segregation is costing metropolitan Chicago: billions in lost income, lost lives, and lost potential. Metropolitan Planning Council’s Cost of Segregation study found that racial segregation costs our region $4.4 billion in lost income, 30% more homicides, and 83,000 fewer bachelor’s degrees.

Tech Can Amplify or Mitigate Inequity

The tech field suffers from a costly cycle of inequity. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that, compared to other private industries, high-tech companies hire a disproportionate number of white people and men—68.5% and 64% of employees, respectively. Meanwhile, the STEM workforce in the U.S. is projected to grow exponentially; already, in job-rich Cook County and DuPage counties, tech jobs grew 14% and 18% between 2009 and mid-2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As the city’s tech sector grows, so might inequality—unless more leaders like Sales-Griffin step up with creative interventions. Today in Chicago, just 12% of Latinos and 20% of African-Americans have bachelor’s degrees, compared to 44% of whites. The diversity talent gap threatens the tech sector’s vitality.

As [Chicago's] tech sector grows, so might inequality. 

Despite encouraging job growth trends in Chicago’s tech sector, the sobering backdrop is the region’s uneven economic recovery. Chicago, alone among the top 10 U.S. metros, is losing population, particularly in African-American communities. A recent analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Director of Research and Evaluation Alden Loury found that eight of nine majority-Latino municipalities and seven of eight majority-African-American suburbs have lost population and jobs (or both) since 2010. The most severely hit suburb was the town of Riverdale, a majority-African-American community south of Chicago, which has, over the past seven years, lost a staggering 23% of its jobs.

Since 2010, 50,000 African-Americans have left the City of Chicago, most of whom are low-income and younger residents from Chicago’s south and west sides, according to Loury. Gun violence tragically affects many vulnerable communities and overshadows numerous strengths. What is equally true for residents of the Chicago region and every other U.S. region is that everyone suffers when a portion of residents are left behind due to long-standing systemic barriers and racism.

Empowering a Diverse Workforce

In order to compete with other emerging tech hubs, metropolitan Chicago needs an educated STEM workforce. That means STEM training in and after high school, prioritizing lowerincome communities and communities of color in order to avoid the “dream hoarders” syndrome chronicled by Brookings Institute Fellow Richard Reeves. He argues persuasively that upper-middle-class individuals often hoard opportunities by passing them on to their children. Zoning laws, college application processes, and internship placements, for example, further advantage affluent children over lower-income children who don’t have access to the same social networks.

In order to compete with other emerging tech hubs, metropolitan Chicago needs an educated STEM workforce.

Fortunately, cities like Pittsburgh are paving the way with models that mitigate “dream hoarding” and expand access to the tech sector. In 2015, Mayor William Peduto announced the Pittsburgh Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation, which details a plan for bridging the digital divide. The Roadmap sets goals such as a map of free WiFi hotspots—produced in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University for a Digital Equity study—and wireless stations that can be checked out from libraries. Simple interventions like these provide access to the tools of the tech sector trade—expensive devices and monthly utilities that are out of reach for many would-be future tech superstars, especially low-income and minority individuals. By making the building blocks of a tech career accessible, Pittsburgh bolsters its educated STEM workforce pipeline. America’s other cities should do the same.

Growing the pool of diverse tech candidates isn’t just a social and political issue, it is a concrete business variable for companies. A 2015 study on corporate diversity by McKinsey & Company found a strong correlation between an organization’s racial diversity and its profitability, noting that “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”

The Cutting Edge of Equity

Tech can and should be at the vanguard of equity, just as it is with innovation. One example: this June, a new development was announced on 53rd Street in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago. Designed as a lab and office space for the University of Chicago, it will house companies that have outgrown the Polsky Center, the University’s incubator known for launching successful companies such as Grubhub and Braintree. Currently, about half of Polsky Center start-ups are run by people of color or women. The Polsky Center offers co-working space, mentorship, and capital to early stage ventures.

Growing the pool of diverse tech candidates isn’t just a social and political issue, it is a concrete business variable for companies.

Locating creative hubs on the South Side of Chicago is one promising strategy to ensure that talented computer science graduates find meaningful tech work near their homes. Houston is taking a similar approach. This year, Houston is participating in the National League of Cities Equitable Economic Development fellowship to increase access to economic opportunities in its most vulnerable communities. Houston’s East End, an area that is 70% Latino and has the highest levels of unemployment and lowest levels of income and education attainment in city, is one target neighborhood.

As the East End’s tech and innovation ecosystem attracts startups, Houston is incentivizing local companies to hire within five or seven miles of their property to ensure that growth doesn’t push out existing residents. The city also assists existing small businesses in the East End with technical advice and capital resources to help them grow to scale and stay competitive. By emphasizing economic development to empower people of color beyond downtown business districts, cities can increase neighborhood-based employment opportunities and expand the reach of vibrant industries such as tech.

As Goes Chicago, So Goes the Nation

Even in cities that aren’t losing jobs and population like metropolitan Chicago, racial and economic inclusion is imperative. Technology is playing an expansive role in our global economy and social structures, impacting everything from how we drive (autonomous vehicles?) to how people access assistance for basic groceries (there’s an app for that).

We need city and regional economies that work for everyone. By combining STEM education, access to the tools of the tech trade, and intentional support of businesses run by people of color such as those in Chicago’s Polsky Center and in Houston’s East End, we can empower our tech sector and ensure inclusive economic development. As a national leader in cross-sector collaboration, these are the kinds of issues that that the independent Metropolitan Planning Council exists to solve. The tech industry will only see a trickle of potential talent if many are left behind due to racism, poverty and other structural barriers. Luckily, the right thing to do is also the way to ensure continued vitality of the sector.

MarySue Barrett is president of the independent Metropolitan Planning Council, where she builds bridges between the public and private sectors to solve metropolitan Chicago’s urgent planning and development challenges, refining tactics that can help regions everywhere prepare for the needs of tomorrow. 

Abaki Beck is an Executive Assistant at Metropolitan Planning Council, a former congressional staff member, and a published writer.

This article first appeared at Meeting of the Minds on September 05, 2017. 


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