The tech industry is heralded for leading the future. However, many reports released in early 2016 prove that it’s quite nascent where inclusion is concerned. For qualified hopefuls who identify with one or more equity-seeking group, change in the sector is uncertain, even with the many diversity initiatives in place to combat this issue.
This issue is one that startup founder Sarah Juma and marketing exec Jessica Yamoah are no strangers. Born and raised in Waterloo – the epicentre of technology and innovation in Canada (home to Research In Motion) – the women have joined forces to support entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities. After facing similar successes and challenges navigating their respective fields, they launched Innovate Inclusion; a network created to fill gaps in the local incubator system. Struggle was something both Juma and Yamoah experienced launching and trying to secure financial backing for StyleID, the app Juma co-founded to identify clothing items worn on popular television shows.
After attending the University of Waterloo, Juma went on to study management at the Harris Institute with hopes of becoming a music manager. Once landing what would be considered a recent graduate’s dream job, four years in she realized how difficult it would be to navigate the unpredictable field. While consulting, she stepped out on a whim and decided to transform an arbitrary idea into a start-up.
“I always had events and meetings to go to and could never figure out what to wear. On the other hand, I had a lot of time to watch TV,” she shares. “I was waiting for someone to come up with an app that would help me identify items worn and seen on screen.” Needless to say, she stopped waiting and created the app herself.
Fortunately for Yamoah, French immersion proved to be a worthwhile recommendation from her immigrant parents. She got wind that a large corporation was hiring someone who could speak French and jumped at the opportunity. This helped her climb the corporate ladder in coveted positions at brands like Nike and Nokia.
“I was lucky to have been surrounded by a mentor who had great foresight and informed me that technology was the way of the future. This was during the days of Napster,” Yamoah recalls. Her mentor proved to be right. However, this wasn’t enough to prepare Yamoah for her first major career disappointment. “At an early age, I experienced getting laid off. So I understand the struggle between what’s perceived to be secure and what’s not.”
Yamoah and Juma credit connection as being critical to the ability to climb in their careers. Nonetheless, they also cite lack of connection as a contributing factor to slow progression for minorities in the business. With Innovate Inclusion, they aim to roll out a feasible solution to implement the necessary change in Ontario’s tech industry.
“We hope to uncover pieces that were difficult for us. I find when I speak to people over and over again, the connection is missing,” Sarah shares.
“If our communities are not involved in these advancements at an early stage, we’ll be left out socially and economically,” Yamoah says. “It’s disheartening, especially because when you look at studies, we are the first adopters of some of these advancements.”
Innovate Inclusion is currently in the development stage and will commence with a research study benchmarking the current status of incubators in Ontario. Yamoah notes that an immediate win would be [incubators] acknowledging that there is work to be done before getting a commitment or willingness to collaborate to become more inclusive.