American talent is ubiquitous, with entrepreneurial wunderkinds as likely to be born in our heartlands as on our coasts. The problem has been that we’ve done a really unequal job of scouting and scaling it. There are 6 million young people not in school or working, 12 million experienced skilled workers who need to re-train, and 1.5 million veterans who are unemployed or reentering the civilian workforce, all at a time when we have 500,000 open American tech and programming jobs. This matters for more than just the tech sector; who fills these jobs will dictate who sits at the table for many of our key cultural and political decisions over the next generation.
Enter Megan Smith and the Tech Jobs Tour. Smith is a former Vice President at Google and the 3rd and first female Chief Technology Officer of the United States. Despite her ever-changing and ever-more-impressive titles, Smith would be the first to tell you she has the same job now she’s always had: evangelist. To watch her work a room is magic, instilling in anyone within earshot both that technology is a large part of our future and that there are no barriers to participation.
Most central to her message, however, is the key insight that is most often lost: not only is inclusivity a part of technology’s future, it was also a seminal part of its past. Ada Lovelace, for example, an English woman born in 1812, was the first computer programmer; Katherine G. Johnson, an African-American woman featured in the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures,helped put NASA astronauts on the moon and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015; Grace Hopper invented coding itself; in President Obama’s words: “If Edison is light and Wright is flight, Hopper is code”.
This is Smith’s gospel. After leaving the White House, she helped launch the Tech Jobs Tour, aiming to hit 50 American cities within a year. Each stop is part pep-rally, part mentoring event, part networking, and part jobs-fair, with the goal of getting people from across the country to understand that technology is key to their future economy and community. So far more than 10,000 people have attended Tech Jobs Tour events and among them 48% have been female, 25% LGBTQ, gender non-conforming or other, and 35% people of color. The stats evince the idea that, even if those in tech jobs today don’t represent our diverse America, those lining up for the tech jobs of tomorrow most certainly do. That sound you hear is Smith smiling.
But inclusivity isn’t – and shouldn’t be – just about identity politics and demographics. It’s about geography as well. Tech Jobs Tour is swerving far off the beaten path, with stops like Charleston, WV, Pikesville, KY, and Birmingham, AL. On Tuesday, Nov 7 – Election Day, no less – it landed in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
For those of you not from Cheyenne – which is all but 60,000 Americans – know that it represents our future. The divisiveness in our culture today results, at least in part, from very real divisions in access to dollars and opportunities. In 2016, 75% of venture capital dollars went to California, New York, and Massachusetts. Written another way, 47 states compete for just a quarter of all total venture funding. Over the last couple decades, Cheyenne is the sort of city those golden asteroids have missed.
Sara Burlingame, Executive Director of Wyoming Equality and proud Wyomingite, says Cheyenne has the ingredients for success. “This is a place full of passionate people who care deeply about their community. We know how to solve our own problems and have the culture here to attract top talent to work on important issues. The holdbacks historically haven’t been about what is or isn’t inherent here – it’s been that those on the coasts haven’t bothered to look.”
Tech Jobs Tour’s rallying cry is that, with the right training, individual motivation, and open-mindedness from companies, our next Lovelace, Johnson, and Hopper can be ready for work next Monday. As in all things, execution takes teamwork and coordination. Rural areas can best position themselves for success by creating cultures to foster tech and innovation, and the key is often strong local leadership.
Mayor Marion Orr, one year into office, is already taking steps to lead the revival. Her vision is holistic: “While good infrastructure is the backbone for any strong community, I’m also working daily on initiatives that create a community where diversity is embraced, and to ensure that Cheyenne is a community of choice to grow your business, grow your family, and grow your experiences.”
There’s a lot of conversation today about how to bring diversity into our tech future. Once you realize technology has diversity at its roots, the next steps are easy.