Diversity in Tech Summit at N.C. A&T fosters tech partnerships

EAST GREENSBORO, N.C. (Aug. 13, 2018) – At the beginning of this summer, the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus Diversity in Tech Summit was little more than a gleam in U.S. Rep. Alma Adams’ eye. But by summer’s end, it materialized as the largest event of its kind, bringing more than 200 government, tech industry and historically black college and university leaders to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University for two days of dialogue, networking and peer education.

As the country’s largest producer of African-American engineers and its largest HBCU, North Carolina A&T was a natural location for the event. University leaders and event organizers were pleased with how many individuals made their way to Greensboro – more than double early expectations – and by both the prominence of the organizations represented and the senior status of leaders in attendance.

“This summit is a landmark convening,” Adams told attendees and media assembled for an event-opening press conference, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and North Carolina A&T Chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr. standing with her. “The tech community has led the push to innovate and elevate mankind, and HBCUs have led the charge to produce great African-American talent. Both sectors have broken tremendous barriers individually. Just imagine what we can do when we work together.”

Adams invited attendees to dig in to increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries and forge partnerships that will continue the flow of well-educated and industry-prepared students in high-tech careers.

The Aug. 8-9 summit, a full recap of which is available here, started with a coding camp sponsored by Apple and the Business Software Alliance Foundation for select students from the two Guilford County public schools on the N.C. A&T campus: the STEM Early College and the all-male Middle College.

Students participated in three groups that explored the uses of coding. One group learned the basics of Swift, a new Apple programming language, to play through an interactive game. A second group used the same coding language to organize lines of code to make a Meebot robot dance. A third group were assigned to troubleshoot and debug code to help a Sphero bot navigate through a two-dimensional circulatory system.

“It’s important that we connect with these young people early to develop their interests in math, science and coding,” said Chancellor Martin. “We know that the growing areas of career opportunities are STEM-related, and we struggle to fill these in our nation. We have to connect with our school districts so our bright and talented young people remain excited about math, science and coding and are better prepared to pursue STEM degrees in college.”

The second day was dedicated to creating dialogue among the three sectors and voicing the needs and actions wanted from each. Some 40 tech companies -- including such big-brand names as Amazon, GlaxoSmithKline, Quicken Loans, Hewlett Packard and Facebook – were involved in the conversation with more than 30 HBCUs to discuss the power of partnerships, how to bridge the diversity gap in tech and retain young people once they are recruited to companies and corporations.

“Understanding consumers and consumer behavior is our backbone,” said Angela Talton, chief diversity officer at Neilsen, a company that provides and uses data analytics and global measurements. “We know that we have to have a diverse workforce in order to provide that understanding of consumer behaviors. [The summit] is a chance for us to share some of our best practices but we’re also here to learn from some of other organizations to further relationships with government, industry and certainly with HBCUs.”

In addition to coding camp, opening day reception and second day of dialogue, many attendees took advantage of the opportunity to participate in guided tours of N.C. A&T. They visited the Fort Interdisciplinary Research Center, the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering and other key locations on A&T’s four East Greensboro campuses. 

Dean Garfield is president and CEO of Information Technology Industry Council, which represents some of the most dynamic global technology companies. He said although it seems natural for a summit like this to have happened before now, it is phenomenal to finally have high-tech businesses and high-quality HBCUs at the table.

“We have a shared interest, and that is to create a more inclusive economy,” he said. “Through this discussion, we’ll move toward solutions and this [summit] will hopefully build the foundation for how we go forward.”