How can you build tech equity?

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Image of two people (Kelly Burton, CEO, Black Innovation Alliance; Janaye Ingram, Director of Community Partner Programs & Engagement, Airbnb) sitting on stage on perspex and plastic chairs. The person on the left appears to be talking while the person on the right looks on.

Tech is increasingly integral to our every day lives, but is it fit for purpose? Embracing tech equity could be – and should be – the next logical step in the sector’s development.

Can companies lead the charge in closing the tech equity gap from within, or is the help of supporting organisations needed?

The first question to ask is ‘what exactly is tech equity?’. In short, tech equity is about making sure technology works for everyone.

Specifically, it means creating an industry and products that are inclusive and accessible to all people, especially those from marginalised or underrepresented groups. This includes women, people of colour, people with disabilities, the economically disadvantaged, the elderly and more.

Pursuing tech equity is important for all organisations striving for an inclusive and bias-free environment, both for their customers and their employees. According to Airbnb director of community partner programmes and engagement Janaye Ingram, this is a valuable lesson to learn.

“In 2016, the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack started trending on social media,” said Janaye, speaking on the Future Societies stage at Collision 2023. “As someone being recruited by the company [at the time], I wanted to know what they were doing about it.”

In response to Airbnb customers sharing their experiences of bias alongside the #AirbnbWhileBlack hashtag, the company undertook major reforms, including delaying guest photos in bookings so as to prevent someone’s physical appearance being a deciding factor for the host.

The company also required users of the site to click on a non-discrimination pledge. “To date, we’ve had 2.5 million people removed from our community who won’t attest to [the pledge],” Janaye noted.

Airbnb also commissioned an outside civil rights audit, and created a 24/7 helpline for discrimination cases.

“We created an open doors policy – a helpline that allows people who are on a trip, and even after a trip or before a trip… If you feel like you’ve experienced discrimination, you can immediately get rebooking assistance,” explained the director.

“If there was an issue, we can remove and take action on the host or the person who was the offending party,” added Janaye.

“It gives us a lot of power to take action against discrimination,” Janaye explained. “We know discrimination continues to persist – we imagine that there will be other instances – but by creating solutions and policies that underpin our efforts to combat discrimination, we are able to take action.”

Closing the racial wealth gap through Black entrepreneurship

Another important aspect of increasing tech equity is the building out of resources for historically marginalised or underrepresented communities.

Kelly Burton, CEO of Black Innovation Alliance (BIA), is working to support and fund Black entrepreneurs in tech in the US.

“It’s going to take Black families 228 years to catch up to white wealth. And if we have any chance of doing that, we’ve got to really lean into entrepreneurship,” said Kelly.

Kelly emphasised the need for top-down change – something BIA’s research has uncovered is required.

“When we assessed where the venture funding was going, most venture capital goes to three places: Silicon Valley, Boston and New York in that order. But when we geocoded Black founders who received over US$1 million, we found that New York was number two and Boston was number three.”

Digging into data helps guide policies, according to Kelly: “We often have these artificial metrics, like US$1 million, that doesn’t tell us a whole lot. But we need to better understand when we see Black founders receiving funding, what are the conditions that enable that to happen?”

“What we still need to better understand is how [to] create inclusive economies – inclusive ecosystems – that really enable Black entrepreneurs and innovators to win,” adds the CEO.

Black Innovation Alliance CEO Kelly Burton and Airbnb director of community partner programmes and engagement Janaye Ingram were in conversation with Media Girlfriends co-founder Hannah Sung on Future Societies at Collision 2023.

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Main image of Black Innovation Alliance CEO Kelly Burton (on left) and Airbnb director of community partner programmes and engagement Janaye Ingram on stage at Collision 2023: Carlos Osorio/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

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