Columbus region programs pushing the needle on diversity in tech

Cynthia Bent Findlay
Toni Cunningham, Per Scholas

Five months ago, Ty Vinson didn’t even know she wanted a career in technology. 

The former stay-at-home Columbus mom had taken time off since 2012—she holds an electrical engineering technology degree—to home-school her kids and volunteer with local community organizations when she found Per Scholas for a young person she was mentoring.

Per Scholas is a free program that introduces people—young, and not so young—to the technology industry through an intense, short program leading to tech certification. Intrigued, Vinson ended up joining the training with her young mentee. 

“For a while I felt uncomfortable, thinking, ‘Is it too late for me to get into tech?’ As some of the older people in the program started to come out of their shells, I felt empowered, too,” she says. 

Participation in the Per Scholas program launched a new career for Vinson, who joined the Dublin office of TEKsystems, bringing not only her past professional experience and diversity to the table—she identifies as Native American—but prodigious skills in time management and dogged determination.

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Hanover, Maryland-based TEKsystems says it has hired more than 400 Per Scholas graduates across six U.S. markets since 2015. “This strategic partnership not only helps address the talent gap and strengthen diversity in IT, but is more proof that it is possible for organizations to do well by doing good,” says CEO Jay Alvather in an announcement about the partnership. 

Per Scholas’ rapid certification program, which trains many people who bring backgrounds and identities vastly underrepresented in the technology industry, is just one of the efforts in the Columbus region to help the industry become more diverse.

In doing so, tech leaders are hoping to plug the talent gap in an extremely tight labor market, too.

Making space

Doug McCollough is one of the few African-Americans who has sat in a top tech role in the region. Now CIO for the city of Dublin, McCollough says the tech industry represents a huge opportunity for minorities, especially in the “tech adjacent” roles such as sales or project management. 

But the African Americans he spoke to weren’t seeing the same opportunities. And employers he spoke to across his leadership roles in private industry and with state agencies said they were having trouble finding diverse candidates to fill their positions. McCollough decided to do something about bridging that gap. He and a group of other prominent Black technologists formed Black Tech Columbus in 2018. 

McCollough says the organization is a first step. 

“One thing that many Black tech professionals experience is being the only one in the room. You get recruited, suddenly you’re the only African American on the team, maybe in the whole division or company. And you are expected to thrive and perform in that environment. Sometimes people don’t,” McCollough says. “I’d say in this country we train in tech,” he says, but people from underrepresented backgrounds aren’t automatically equipped with the confidence to smoothly network in a business culture different from their own, especially when they may lack social ties to wealth and status.

Black Tech aims to help connect, train and mentor African American technologists to navigate those often choppy waters, and also to lift each other through the corporate ranks with mentorship—or to inspire entrepreneurship. 

However, McCollough says, getting Black technologists a foot in the door isn’t the only thing that needs to happen. Though he says he’s found a positive, open attitude in the Columbus tech community, the industry needs a hand with retention as well. 

Recruitment missteps

Level D&I is a new tech staffing consultancy spun out of Revel IT focused on helping companies increase their diversity from the ground up. Co-founder and CEO Kristine Snow says clients often know racism and sexism are a problem in the industry, but don’t realize unintentional biases in their own workplaces are throwing up barriers keeping women and minorities from feeling welcome. “There are tools out there to remove biases, trainings to put recruiting staff through, because people just naturally gravitate toward individuals like themselves,” Snow says. 

Tonjia Coverdale, associate vice president for workforce and legal technology at Nationwide, urges employers to look in the right places for talent. “It really starts with someone turning over different rocks,” she says. 

Coverdale herself was recruited out of Morgan State University, a historically Black university in Baltimore, three decades ago when IBM came to a campus job fair for the first time. From there, Coverdale has surfed back and forth between academia and the corporate world, working with Accenture and HP, and earning an MBA from Georgia State University and a Ph.D. from Morgan State. 

She served as CEO of the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network, overseeing creation of fiber-optic networks in the islands, and she created a STEAM academy there. She recently left the CIO helm at Central State University, a historically Black college in Wilberforce, Ohio, to advance Nationwide’s tech diversity efforts. 

None of that, she says, would have been possible if IBM hadn’t started looking in the right place for her at the right time. “There’s an HBCU [historically Black college or university] one hour away, and many companies here are just now starting to recruit there largely because of the work I’ve done over the past three years. They’re from Ohio, I keep saying—stop trying to get people to move from the coasts.”

Per Scholas is another player building bridges between new hires and their employers. 

Most of the organization’s students come from nontraditional paths like Vinson’s. More recently, Per Scholas has been building custom training programs with employers looking for particular skill sets. 

Toni Cunningham, Per Scholas Columbus managing director, says 60 percent to 65 percent of her students are people of color. The competition for individuals like her graduates is intense, she says, in a field where “unless you are going to poach, you have to have some tolerance for individuals you can bring in, culture and grow.”

As a result, companies are finding that building pipeline partnerships is paying off for them. Coverdale and others like McCollough call for more investment in new hires, however.

“You can’t just get students in the door—where are your wraparound supports?” Coverdale says. “How are they to learn the norms? And when they don’t, they’re punished. So are we really investing in these new hires?” 

Some paths in tech may not be well-lit for newbies, says McCollough. Black Tech wants to help shine spotlights on those clusters of opportunities—in, say, cybersecurity or data analysis. 

“You can’t hire some of these folks out of school,” he says. “It takes years of experience and direction to become an architect or a senior level engineer, so to get on that path, you need other professionals to say hey, this is what you need to do to put you on a path to this level of income or influence in your organization,” McCollough says.

Cynthia Bent Findlay is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.

Discrimination in tech

A Pew Research Center survey in 2017 found many Black people experienced discrimination in STEM occupations.

Percent of those in science, technology, engineering and math jobs who say the following:

  • They have experienced discrimination at work due to their race/ethnicity
    • 13% white
    • 62% Black
  • Their race/ethnicity has made it harder to succeed in their job
    • 5% white
    • 40% Black
  • Their workplace pays too little attention to increasing racial/ethnic diversity
    • 15% white
    • 57% Black
  • Percent saying Blacks are usually treated fairly in their workplace in…
    • The recruitment and hiring process
      • 78% white
      • 43% Black
    • Opportunities for promotion and advancement
      • 75% white
      • 37% Black

Source: Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults, 2017

Tonjia Coverdale, Nationwide