Jessica Lawrence: Why Diversity Drives Growth In Tech [PSFK 2014]

The Executive Director of NY Tech Meetup talks about how to even the playing field for women in tech.

In anticipation of PSFK CONFERENCE 2014 coming up on April 11th we interviewed Jessica Lawrence, the Executive Director of NY Tech Meetup, on the state of New York’s burgeoning tech industry. Jessica will be joining the conference as a panelist this year. She has overseen a rapid rise in the number of startups creating apps, web experiences and B2B tech services in the city. We spoke with Jessica on how women and minority groups are faring in this brave new world.

Since becoming Executive Director, what are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed at the NY Tech Meetup?

When I first began my work with NY Tech Meetup three years ago, New York was still not being taken completely seriously as powerful technology ecosystem. There were misperceptions that New York did not have enough engineering talent or that it did not have the capital to support substantial growth. We were also at our very early stages of being a non-profit and just beginning to expand our programming. One of the first programs we launched – in order to prove that there were in fact engineers building tech in New York – was our Made in NYC list of tech companies at least 50% coded in New York.

And now, three years later with over 700 companies on the list, I don’t think there is much doubt that New York is home to outstanding engineering talent. During that time we also more than doubled in size – we have grown from 15,000 members when I started to over 38,000 members today. Along with that growth we’ve launched programs to support our community and the New York community at large, from creating the NY Tech Meetup Coalition for Women in Tech to support diversifying the tech industry, to rallying our members to provide community support after Hurricane Sandy and to fill mentoring roles in the city’s new computer science high schools.

How do you feel about the current state of the tech industry in general?

We are at a pivotal point in the growth of the New York technology ecosystem – it is no longer just a small, stand alone industry in the city: tech is part of the fabric of the city’s economy, woven even now into the city’s other long-standing industries. As this ecosystem continues to grow, it is incredibly important that the entire city benefits from that growth: that more of the city has affordable access to high-speed Internet and that the current workforce and future workforce have the training they need to drive our technology-powered city.

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Why is diversity within the technology sector so important? What impact does this have on the end products and services that enter the marketplace?

Diversity is important in every industry, but is especially important in the technology sector at the moment because it is the sector that is driving innovation and product development and yet gender and race/ethnic diversity are still severely lacking. This matters for a multitude of reasons, including that diversity leads to the development of products that are more reflective of the diverse array of challenges faced by the full community as opposed to solely reflecting the viewpoint or challenges of one group.

What challenges still need to be overcome for there to be an even playing field for women in technology?

We have made significant progress in raising awareness of the challenges women – and anyone who isn’t in the current majority – face in the tech sector (from receiving less venture capital funding to being bullied and threatened online), but I was at a conference recently when an entrepreneur proclaimed that he didn’t have time for diversity. There are still those who are unaware of how unwelcoming the sector can be (they think the problem is solved) and then there are those who, like the gentleman at the conference, may realize it is an issue but do not make it a priority. That means we need to continue to speak about the challenges, we need to highlight the diversity that does exist, and we need to do a better job of educating the community on how to prioritize diversity, without making it just about checking a box.

Thanks Jessica!

Check out our conference page to see more of innovative industry leaders who will be speaking at our event.

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