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Indiana's law delivers real hurt to this state tech grad

Indiana's law delivers real hurt to this state tech grad

Tech sector companies are far from angels on the issue of equality. But when it comes to gay and lesbian equality, this industry is vocal in its defense of it, combative and willing to challenge political leaders.

Tech sector companies are far from angels on the issue of equality. Despite losing her case last week, Ellen Pao's lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, drew attention to the tech industry's "boys club" culture and gender imbalances. But when it comes to gay and lesbian equality, this industry is vocal in its defense of it, combative and willing to challenge political leaders.

This strong stance is born of a combination of moral belief and business reality. Technology companies were among the first in the nation to adopt non-discrimination policies, offer diversity training, and extend partner benefits to same-sex couples to improve, in part, their ability to compete for employees.

Belief in equality is now so embedded in the tech workplace that "religious objection" laws, such as the one recently signed by Indiana's governor, are viewed with shock and outrage and seen as throwbacks to earlier, less-tolerant eras in the nation's history. Critics say these laws, such as the one in Indiana, allow a business owner to deny service to someone and cite religious grounds.

The law also puts Indiana's tech companies at a competitive disadvantage. The tech industry workforce is well-paid, educated and mobile. Industry leaders are warning Indiana that its unwelcoming law will discourage workers from relocating to this state and it may prompt some talent to leave.

This warning could not be truer for Patrick Kozub, who graduated in 2014 from Indiana University (UI) Bloomington with a bachelor's degree in computer science. He is working with three other UI graduates on a big data startup, and they have an ongoing relationship with the university in their research. They named their company Quarry Labs, a reference to the state's limestone mining history. It's a name that "underscores the pride we have in our connections to Indiana by drawing a connection between our data mining expertise and one of the prominent industries of the state," Kozub said.

Kozub has read the text of the new law and is disturbed by its broadness and the level at which it allows people to turn someone away "based on any parameter they like, and of course this does include being gay."

"I never had issues of people not accepting me," said Kozub, who came out as gay while a high school student in Indiana. "I'm very proud of the fact that I was there and made so many wonderful friends and learned so many good things." He said he knows no one who would approve of such discrimination.

Kozub recently took an IT job in Rochester, N.Y., but that was before Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed this controversial law, and his decision to move wasn't in response to the law. The company offered a short-term contract, which is what he wanted as he works to get Quarry Labs off the ground. The employer also has strong anti-discrimination policies, and he has friends and family nearby.

But Indiana's law is discouraging Kozub from returning the state. This law "makes me not want to go back," he said.

"I won't go to a place and contribute economically when my interests are not protected, and my interests do not hurt anybody else," Kozub said.

The law "isn't the Indiana I know," said Kozub, who, in his travels, has told people, proudly, about where he was from and the Hoosier state's friendly attitudes. "Laws like this really make me look like a fool for telling people these things," he said, and called the law a slap-in-the-face.

The tech industry attack on Indiana's law is happening on multiple fronts. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for instance, says the law is part of a "very dangerous" trend, and wrote, in a Washington Post piece, that there is a wave of legislation in some two dozen states that "would allow people to discriminate against their neighbors."

Alan Saldich, vice president of marketing at enterprise software company Cloudera, tweeted over the weekend that the company is "pulling out of" an upcoming "Indy Big Data Conference," because of the law. The company's co-founder, Amr Awadallah, was one of the keynote speakers.

Cloudera isn't the only group to pull out of the event. Late Monday afternoon, Christine Van Marter, the CEO of Conference Ventures, the conference organizer, said, in a statement that, "over the past 48 hours we have had seven national sponsors back out of the Indy Big Data Conference 2015 as a direct result of the Religious Freedom Act. This law is having an immediate and definite negative impact on technology in the state of Indiana. The Indy Big Data Conference wants lawmakers in the state of Indiana to know and acknowledge that this is a real case that is happening now, not a conference to be impacted months or years from now, and is calling for an immediate correction to this law in order to prohibit discrimination in Indiana on any grounds."

Indianapolis-based Angie's List was due to break ground on an expansion in that state, but said it is putting the project on hold. Late last year, Angie's List said it intended to grow its Indianapolis headquarters location, expanding from around 500 employees in 2011 to 2,800 by the end of 2019. It plans to hire in IT, sales and member services jobs.

The tech backlash carries implications for Indiana's economic development and for its tech employees. It's not inconceivable that Indiana's tech employees may be worried that this corporate activism may come at their expense if companies reduce their investment in the state. But tech firms, especially those with significant in-state operations, may feel they have no choice but to take strong stands if they believe they will suffer competitively in the IT, engineering and the scientific job markets.

The success of the tech industry in battling discriminatory laws in today's polarized political atmosphere remains to be seen. But if Indiana continues in its direction, it will be turning its back on some of the people who have called Indiana home, like Kozub.

Kozub's ambition is to one day build a profitable, stable company that creates great jobs and employs people from all walks life. "I would not do that in a state that allows this kind of discrimination to happen," he said.

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