Entrepreneur Seeks to Close the Gap in Tech Industry Through Advocacy

With the nation’s majority poised to become a minority in less than 30 years, the notion of connecting all ethnicities to the tech economy has become not a social, but an economic agenda.

by Deborah M. Todd, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS) / November 10, 2014
The day Urban Innovation 21 President William Generett learned he would join a team advising U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker on the future of entrepreneurship and innovation was tough to celebrate.

On one hand, seven years of efforts to connect the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods to its emerging tech sector were being recognized on a national scale. On the other hand, the son of a Hill District entrepreneur who the organization supports was gunned down blocks away from Mr. Generett’s Centre Avenue office only a day earlier.

“That put it all in perspective. Because for all the good work collectively I and our team have gotten to do, there’s a whole lot more work that needs to be done,” he said.

Sitting at the the helm of a public/private partnership focused on economic and workforce development, Mr. Generett can’t deny his job’s inextricable ties to social development. The relationship between income inequality and violent crime has been under the microscope for decades, with study results ranging from loose correlation to 97 percent certainty the issues are linked.

With the nation’s majority poised to become a minority in less than 30 years and minority communities making up only single-digit percentages of the workforce within one of the nation’s fastest-growing economic sectors, Mr. Generett said the notion of connecting all ethnicities to the tech economy has become not a social, but an economic agenda.

“As the population changes and we get closer to 2040 — when the U.S. is going to be majority Latino and African-American, and women will continue to be over 50 percent of the workforce — what you’re going to see is every high growth cluster throughout the U.S., I don’t care what it is, struggle with [inclusion].

“And that’s a little scary, because you can’t have a strong economy if large parts of your population aren't connected,” he said.

Gaining one of the 27 seats on the National Advisory Board on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in mid-October was no coincidence, said Mr. Generett.

The board was created as an independent entity of the Commerce Department’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Its board members will use their two-year terms to recommend policies to encourage global competitiveness among the U.S. workforce.

With the Commerce secretary seeking representatives with a range of experience in various demographics, industry sectors and workforce initiatives, partners say it would be tough to find anyone more qualified than Mr. Generett.

“Inclusion is incredibly important and it’s great to have Bill’s expertise not only here in our local community but on a national stage,” said Rich Lunak, president of the state-funded economic development corporation Innovation Works, an Urban Innovation 21 partner organization.

Alan Seadler, Duquesne University’s associate provost for research and technology, said Mr. Generett’s role on the board could encourage future policies, but could also encourage fellow board members to share their passion for tech and entrepreneurship with future generations.

“Kids need role models, they need hands-on opportunities and they need people like Bill [Mr. Generett] convincing them they can do this,” said.

A tech experiment

In 2007, when Duquesne University and the Hill House Association approached Mr. Generett with the idea to join forces with other nonprofits, businesses and government organizations to spread the wealth created through technology to disadvantaged communities, he had no clue they were on the brink of a first-of-its-kind experiment.

At the time, he was part-time director and consultant with the Hill House Economic Development Corp. but was primarily focused on his own business, ComforCare Senior Services. The leap to nonprofit would be somewhat familiar, but also a drastic change from his everyday affairs.

Fast forward to 2014 and Urban Innovation 21 has grown into a consortium of 20 businesses and organizations with dozens of training programs, internships, grant initiatives and business incentives designed to tie tech sector growth to low-income revitalization.

The organization has a staff of 11 and, this year, worked with a budget of $1.7 million that came from foundation grants and about $300,000 in state and federal funding.

Urban Innovation 21 programs such as the Pittsburgh Central Keystone Innovation Zone — which provides tax credits and other financial incentives to startups that set up shop in underserved commercial zones such as the Hill District and Uptown — is partially credited for transforming East Liberty’s Penn Avenue corridor into a local startup capital. The program is supported through the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

A community-based economic development program led to creation of the $60 million Energy Innovation Center — a revival of Bedford Avenue’s former Clifford B. Connelly Trade School geared toward energy industry research and workforce development — and even the Hill District Shop ’n Save.

A separate program provided $300,000 in grants to local entrepreneurs who went on to raise an additional $400,000 in capital.

When the time came to focus on expanding the tech sector’s economic reach nationwide, Mr. Generett said he was told turning to Pittsburgh was a top choice for the Commerce Department.

Looking for answers

Still, the city owns the highest poverty rate among working-age blacks of the nation’s 40 largest metropolitan areas, according to the 2010 Census. So, what can Pittsburgh offer the rest of the country when it comes to economic inclusion?

“One of the good things about Pittsburgh is we have great foundations here and they will experiment and will allow organizations like ours to be created,” Mr. Generett said.

“After seven years of work, collectively we’ve done some things well and we haven’t done some things well, but we have this environment. We’re able to experiment and we have lessons that have been learned.“

The accessibility of STEM (science, technology, education and math) centered businesses and educational institutions also gives the region an edge, said Mr. Seadler at Duquesne. The university is one of the primary partners that helped Urban Innovation 21 create the Citizen Science Lab, a state-of-the-art life sciences community lab that offers after-school and weekend workshops to Hill District residents.

With the current cohort of students working on an experiment to create “fingerprints“ of their DNA, Mr. Seadler said the hands-on exposure could already be creating a community of future scientists.

Free Internet access for low-income communities is another strategy being considered to close gaps, said Debra Lam, Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief innovation officer.

As Ms. Lam explored the feasibility of providing free public Wi-Fi for all city neighborhoods for the Innovation Roadmap — a comprehensive plan to help grow the city’s tech sector — a Digital Equity Report created in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University showed the region would benefit most by serving areas she referred to as Internet “deserts,” such as Homewood and Larimer.

Citizens should expect to see an outline and potential costs of the plan once the first draft of the Innovation Roadmap is complete sometime this month.

A marathon, not a sprint

Pittsburgh may have a slight headstart in tying the tech sector to struggling communities, but the finish line is still miles away, said Mr. Generett.

He said startup incubator and accelerator programs could do a better job of reaching out to low-income entrepreneurs. Also, there aren’t enough training programs for young and middle-aged adults seeking entry-level tech jobs.

With the biggest tech companies in the region hiring in the hundreds rather than the thousands, it could be years before the number of tech jobs come anywhere near the number of manufacturing jobs once abundant in the steel economy, if it ever happens.

When Mr. Generett meets with the council for the first time in December, he said he won’t pretend he has the answer to an increasingly complex problem. Instead, he’ll bring seven years of successes and failures in the hope that the nation’s thought leaders can help him determine which route takes Pittsburgh and the rest of the nation to the finish line fastest.

“It’s not that we, by any means, have solved the problem here in Pittsburgh — that Urban Innovation 21 has the magic bullet — because we 110 percent don’t,“ he said.

“Tech is really important. Innovation is really important, but it’s really a select group of folks that are at the top of that pyramid and we have to make sure that everybody else is integrated.”

©2014 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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