December 05, 2019
Smashing through the concrete ceiling
By: Accenture UK

You’ve probably seen the headlines and heard the horror stories.

‘Millions of black people affected by racial bias in healthcare algorithms’
‘Discriminating algorithms: 5 times AI showed prejudice’
‘Rise of the racist robots – how AI is learning all our worst impulses’

From healthcare systems to parole processes, racially biased algorithms are impacting the world over. What these stories tell us is that there’s a serious problem with black representation in the technology industry. And what’s more, something needs to be done about it.

Part of the problem is the concrete ceiling that holds many people back. ‘It’s very difficult to be what you can’t see’, explains Andrew Pearce, Head of Accenture’s African Caribbean Network. As long as companies continue to struggle getting black representation in senior leadership, young talent will continue to struggle seeing themselves succeeding in the industry. ‘All black people should remember this: the worst thing you can do is rise to a senior position and then pull up the ladder. As you progress, look about you and see how you can help others rise’.

That’s exactly what Ezechi Britton and Jason Halstead have done. After 20 years in fintech, a few industry firsts and a couple of successful starts ups under their belt, Ezechi and Jason turned their attention to helping young black talent rise the ranks too.

“Black people can’t be passengers, they need to have a stake in building the technology that’s impacting their lives”

‘I’d go to events and talk about diversity and inclusion, the founder’s journey and how technology has changed everything and allows us to finally smash through the concrete ceiling. And yet the only people that looked like me were serving the drinks and canapes. So, my question was: where are all these founders? Black people can’t be passengers, they need to have a stake in building the technology that’s impacting their lives’, they explain.

They knew that they needed to give black people a voice in technology. But they also knew that meant more than just changing attitudes in how people sifted CVs, it meant changing who was applying in the first place. It meant changing the narrative on the pipeline.

We need to show that black people aren’t just good at sports and singing

‘We need to show black kids that they can do more than sing and play sports. Part of the problem is that they don’t think tech is their space, so they don’t apply. I remember going into a school to do a talk. There were a lot of black kids there and not a single one of them knew what a technologist was. So how could they begin to aspire to be one?’ says Jason.

So Ezechi and Jason started from the bottom up. They set out to change young black people’s perceptions of the technology industry.

That’s how Code Untapped was conceived.

Code Untapped is an organisation that holds technology skills workshops and product lab days for underrepresented talent. They work with different employers to give hiring managers access to diverse talent and, in turn, give that talent an opportunity to show what they can do to potential employers.

What really sets Code Untapped apart is their approach. As Ezechi explains, ‘we’ve got quite a unique style and we’re careful to create a really welcoming environment. This isn’t an every-man for themselves hackathon, it’s a masterclass. We cover ideation, teamwork, testing, pitching, presenting. The idea is that you can come in not knowing anything’.

But it’s fair to say that they learnt this lesson to hard way. They had initially intended to run typical hackathon-style events, but that approach only created obstacles to tech rather than removing them. ‘Our darkest hour came during our second ever workshop. We had so many sign ups that we had to close the waiting list. Then the day before, we decided to send out the agenda to get everyone excited. But on the big day, only five people turned up. We later found out that the agenda had appeared too challenging – they didn’t think they knew enough. In other words, they believed that tech is too difficult and challenging. That’s why we remove barriers at every opportunity and offer something much more inclusive than a hackathon’.

It’s clearly been the formula for success. Since their darkest hour, Code Untapped has gone from strength to strength. Today, they host regular, sold-out events and work with everyone from government departments and international companies, introducing them to more diverse talent pools than ever before.

But it doesn’t stop there. Ezechi and Jason are chasing a much bigger endgame than just upskilling underrepresented talent. They’re helping to build an entire ecosystem of disruptive, diverse businesses. How? They’re setting young people up to become entrepreneurs themselves.

‘The reality is that a lot of companies are still adverse to change – it’s hard for them to think outside the box when they’ve only ever lived inside the box. So, we encourage our cohorts in their own start-ups. For example, we’re currently mentoring two boys who have an idea for an app. They come to the studio once a fortnight and we show them how them how to get the best out of themselves’, they explain.

It’s those start-ups that’ll be most disruptive moving forward. As Andrew Pearce has witnessed first-hand ‘diverse founders create diverse teams. And diverse teams are disruptive by their very nature. They will be the ones winning in the future and, more importantly, they’ll be creating the most relevant products and building the most inclusive technology’.

“Ezechi and Jason aren’t just breaking the concrete ceiling, they’re ushering in the next generation of disruption”

It’s fair to say that Ezechi and Jason aren’t just breaking the concrete ceiling, they’re ushering in the next generation of disruption and helping put an end to those horror stories and headlines.

Ezechi and Jason’s top tips for budding black entrepreneurs:

  1. Get learning – learn everything you can about the subject. Surface knowledge isn’t enough. You need to get into the head of your users, that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about.
  2. Get out there – network, build skills, make mistakes. It’s all a long road to walk with many hurdles to overcome, but you have to keep trudging on. Remember: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
  3. Get your head down – do something, try something, build something, and go through that cycle as quickly and cheaply as possible.

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