Are you a woman in NYC Tech and interested in participating in this series? Make sure to read the whole article…
Much has been said and written about the lack of women in the tech sector, be it as investors (or associates), founders, or in management positions at major companies. Is the problem the old boys network – or that success in technology is seen as a young man’s game? In this series, we speak with some of the top women in tech in New York as they discuss the challenges they face, the perceptions that need to be changed and the work that’s being done – or not – to help to promote women in tech.
Today we speak with Kellie Wagner, founder of DEI Collective, a consultancy on a mission to help source and retain diverse talent by building inclusive and equitable workplaces. Originally pursuing a career in writing, Wagner fell in love with the NYC Tech scene, worked at Meetup, and has built out the community at DoSomething.org. Her work at DEI Collective ensures that companies are creating sustainable, measurable changes in their cultures to address diversity through training, events, and innovation. Wagner is extremely active in the tech ecosystem and involved with a number of organizations focused on fostering diversity and inclusion. She also serves on the Advisory Board for Experience Camps – the day camp for children who have lost a family member.
Kellie Wagner of DEI Collective
What’s your background and how did you develop your career as a female entrepreneur in the NYC tech ecosystem?
I moved to NYC to become a writer, but quickly fell in love with the tech scene, first building out community at tech nonprofit DoSomething.org then moving on to Meetup.
Being at an organization like DoSomething.org empowered me to take risks as a young employee and think in new and innovative ways. It also gave me the confidence and a passion for entrepreneurship. At the same time, being in tech exposed me to so many of the issues faced by women and people of color in this industry and it really wore me down. I felt like I couldn’t be in tech and not try to be part of the solution somehow. That need to solve a problem, that I faced everyday as a woman of color in tech, drove me to start DEI Collective. I wanted to figure out a solution to help women like me.
Your work focuses on bringing diversity and inclusion into companies intelligently. What are some successful things that companies have done that you have seen in the NYC ecosystem to ensure diversity?
The thing that I’ve seen companies who do this work the best do—and it’s so simple and obvious—is to put a plan into place and put resources behind it. So many companies jump into DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) work haphazardly and throw random workshops at their employees to show that they are committed to diversity and inclusion. But in the same way that doing a random one-off social media campaign isn’t likely going to be a successful strategy for a company from a marketing perspective, one-off trainings are not a long-term solution. When you’re thinking about behavioral shifts for a whole company of people, that takes ongoing work, in addition to looking at the structures your company has put into place that enables bias.
Another element of successful DEI work is transparency and accountability. Companies that set clear goals that they share with their employees and other key stakeholders are more likely to remain committed to moving the needle. It’s hard to publicly make a commitment to something and then not put any effort towards it.
What are the advantages of being a woman in tech?
In many ways, the bias and challenges women have faced in this industry have also afforded us the greatest opportunities for connection. I am part of so many amazing female-driven communities that were birthed out of feelings of isolation and stigma in the workplace. And because these brave ladies decided to speak up and form spaces for women to gather and talk about these issues, I feel like I benefit and am supported in ways that I could have never imagined.
I think it’s about not just inviting women into the equation, but putting them in positions of power and influence. If executive teams and VC’s are the ones that control the budgets, agendas, and funding opportunities, we need more women in those spaces. When we look at women not getting funded, you have to stop and look around at who is doing the funding. For the most part, it’s still largely white men. I think there’s a lot of good intention out there, but at the end of the day still, the entrepreneurs that are getting the bulk of funding are people who look like and share similar backgrounds with the VC’s and they aren’t women or POC.
What is diversity to you and do you see it evolving in tech?
Diversity to me, at its core, is the collection of different life experiences we all come to the table with. Because of the way our world works, those life experiences are often tied to things like race, gender, and socioeconomic background, but it’s really about the way those identities have shaped our interaction with the world around us and how we, in turn, show up to work and to life.
This is kind of why when I hear the term “cognitive diversity,” I get frustrated. It’s kind of a cop out because differences in thought are typically tied to our life experiences, which almost unequivocally shaped by our race, gender, and class.
Cognitive diversity aside though, I do think we’ve had a really limited definition of diversity, especially when we think about building diverse teams, and I do see clients starting to evolve beyond looking just at race and gender. When you look at what Google has done to embrace employees with disabilities, it’s incredible. I’ve also seen great work being done to embrace immigrant communities and other marginalized populations like formerly incarcerated people.
I think the more we can learn to value the unique life experiences people bring to the table and the more we can elevate the unique perspectives those experiences afford them, the more innovative we will become within the tech industry.
It’s statically proven that women-led companies are more successful than their male counterparts. Why do you think they still only get 2% of funding available for new ideas?
I think this goes back to my earlier point about the people controlling the funding. Until we get more women involved at the VC level, I think you’re going to see more of the same.
That being said, I also think there’s such an opportunity for more unconscious bias training at the VC level. I don’t think that male VC’s are consciously choosing to fund men over women, but clearly we are seeing that happen time and time again. And because the VC world is so male-dominated, I don’t think we can or should only rely on female VC’s to do this work to change the ratio.
We need to get men to rethink who they are choosing to fund and why. More often than they’d like to admit, I think when VC’s are choosing whom to fund, they are making decisions based on subjective factors like who they “connect with” and their “gut.” This isn’t because they are bad—it’s human nature and we all do it when faced with tough decisions. But we need to start to question why we think that someone’s company is going to be more successful than another founder’s just because they went to the same school as we did.
Please tell us about a few organizations that you are involved with or respect that are promoting women in tech.
Honestly all the big ones that come to mind—Lesbians Who Tech is incredible. Leanne Pittsford is such a powerhouse. Tech Ladies, Black Girls Code, Women Who Tech. There are so many amazing organizations out there.
I personally belong to two incredible women’s communities, Dreamers and Doers and Ladies Get Paid. Both groups support women beyond just those in tech, but each of them are incredible hubs for resources and support. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without the support of the women in those groups.
How much do you think casual sexual harassment and misconduct affects a
I think we underestimate the ways in which casual sexual harassment tears women down psychologically. It’s that phenomenon we talk about in relation to micro-aggressions—“death by a thousand paper cuts.” In some ways, I think that the more severe forms of harassment are easier for women to process in many ways. There’s, I think, less of a question in your mind when you are physically assaulted that something bad did, in fact, happen to you.
But the casual harassment that many women face day-to-day is really damaging in a different way because you find yourself questioning the validity of it, if it’s really happening or as bad as you’re perceiving it to be. That questioning day in and day out takes up a lot of emotional and mental energy. Energy that could be being put towards the job women are being paid to do. So I do think it can have a huge effect on a woman’s career in that you think of all the stolen hours and days over the span of a woman’s career that are spent just navigating a sometimes toxic, male-dominated workplace.
What can men do to support this movement and/or participate in this discussion?
I think the biggest thing men can do is listen and believe what women are telling them when they share their experiences as women in the workplace. We question ourselves enough. When women use their voices to share really vulnerable experiences, we owe it to them to validate those experiences, no matter how uncomfortable they may be to hear.
The team at AlleyWatch believes it’s important to have an inclusive discussion around the challenges facing women in tech along with highlighting the work of the female entrepreneurs that have made NYC one of the best places for women in tech according to some recent studies. That’s why we are running this series that showcases women in tech in New York.
If you are a female founder in NYC working in tech and interested in participating in the series please visit this link or click on the image above.
Please feel free to pass this on to any women in NYC that you feel should be considered for the series. Thank you.