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Diversity in IT Is About Business Objectives

That was one of the messages of a panel of Washington tech insiders speaking at a conference organized as part of D.C. Week, a series of events focused on the technology scene here in the nation's capital. Despite the flowering of the social Web, mobile apps and all manner of chic new technologies, IT, as a profession, is still widely viewed as profoundly unhip.

"I think that in general diversity's important because, you know, putting race aside, gender aside, it's diversity of thought. And you need experiences," says Christine Celise Johnson, founder of IamDTech (short for: "I Am Diversity in Tech"), a group working to expand the role of underrepresented groups in the tech startup scene. "And there are opportunities with reaching out to communities that aren't already an active part of this new economy and this space."

Johnson explains that much of her work focuses on outreach to communities that typically don't intersect with the tech world. Through projects such as the "app-a-thon" she helped lead this summer in Anacostia, one of Washington's poorer neighborhoods, her group is trying to spread the word and generate excitement about the opportunities in the District's burgeoning startup scene.

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"I think it's all about exposure," she says. "You would be surprised about how many individuals do not know about the D.C. tech ecosystem."

The Business of IT Diversity

On the business side, some panelists suggested that diversity, as a stated goal, is fading from the agenda of many young startups, owing in part to a generational transition. Joe Corbett, COO of the digital agency iStrategy Labs, explains that many young entrepreneurs are focused foremost on attracting top talent--not in itself a bad strategy, but one that falls short if they only recruit from within their own communities.

"If we're not including everyone, you're only going to get the best talent from that certain subset that you're interacting with every day," Corbett says.

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"This isn't something we think about usually, and the reason why is it never occurs to me to say, 'Oh, we need more women, or we need more people of color--I don't even know if I'm supposed to say that!'" he adds.

"We need people with talent, we need people with passion, and I think that's very much ingrained in the tech culture of the 20-to-30-something perhaps," Corbett says. "We don't think of specific demographics, and probably because of that we need to be reminded to. Because while we can say, 'Oh, that's not something we worry about because we don't have that problem,' right there's the problem because you're not thinking about it."

Then, too, there is a challenge of perception. Despite the flowering of the social Web, mobile apps and all manner of chic new technologies, IT, as a profession, is still widely viewed as profoundly unhip, often imagined as "developers who sit alone in their basement and code," according to Liz Steininger.

Steininger is the head organizer of Rails Girls D.C., a local chapter of a movement that originated in Helsinki, Finland, to provide training for women in Web development using Ruby on Rails.

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The workshops Steininger's group holds are meant to "make it fun and social to learn technology," she says, explaining that even if the participants don't opt to pursue work in Web development, the sessions at least "help women be code-literate," a crucial skill at a time when technology is seeping into every corner of a business's operations.

"Tech and software are now running our lives, pretty much in every aspect," Steininger says.

Johnson carries that same message of relevance in her outreach work. She described a recent meeting with students at Morgan State University, when some says they were interested in a career in event planning, which they regarded as a decidedly non-technical field. Johnson asked if they had heard of Eventbrite and other similar online services, making the point that technical skills help provide a professional foundation, regardless of what path a career takes.

"I think it's important to make it relevant. Tech is in everything," she says.

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.

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