“Educate yourself on the issues, then create a strategy that fits your organization.“
What do you do?
fivestar* develops custom software solutions that centralize workflows, optimize processes, and enable decision-making through real-time data and business intelligence. My focus is business development, account management, public outreach, and team building.
What keeps you passionate in the tech industry?
I love that the tech we build makes an impact on the people who use it. Whether it’s developing an application that helps a worker in transition find a new career field, or a workflow management system that helps someone be more productive and get home on time. It’s that personal impact that keeps us motivated and excited to do the work that we do.
What do you like about the company you currently run/work for?
My friend and business partner Dave Colaizzi and I started fivestar* 22 years ago. Our goal was to create an environment where creative people can do challenging work, for interesting clients, in an environment that supports work-life balance and personal/professional growth. I feel we have successfully created that environment and maintained that philosophy over the past two decades. Cory Seaman, our Vice President of Research and Information Technology, has been with us for the entire 22 years. We also have our first second-generation employee, Jordan Jennings, whose father worked for us in the mid-2000s. I am also pleased with the large number of long-term client relationships we have maintained over the years.
What are some initiatives that your company is taking to create a more inclusive workplace?
Angel Lehrian, our Director of HR and Talent Management has been with fivestar* for 14 years. She is the main steward of our culture. Angel has reduced the bias in our job descriptions based on feedback from the Gender Decoder for Job Ads tool accessible on the WITPGH website. She also expanded our job posting networks to make sure we are reaching the widest possible audience. When we work with recruiters, she talks with them about the importance of a diverse applicant pool. We have seen a significant uptick in the diversity of our applicants. We also have flexible schedules and work from home policies. Many of our out-of-office social events are family-friendly and we happily participate in National Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day every year. We also recently added a gender-neutral restroom policy.
What does being an ally to underrepresented folks in tech mean to you?
It means being intentional, present, and action-oriented. There are a lot of organizations doing great work in this area. WITPGH, ProtoypePGH, BlackTechNation, the Pittsburgh Tech Council, Flexable, and Moms Can: Code, to name a few. I’m heavily involved with two others, RedCHairPGH and Social Venture Partners Pittsburgh. Both of these groups are doing hands-on work with underrepresented folks. I’m also involved with PCTV and PGHEF, who also provide a lot of support to underrepresented groups. Additionally, I attend a wide range of events around the city, and strive to have the events I’m involved with have wide representation.
What is the importance of making sure the tech community is inclusive?
Aside from being the right thing to do, if you need a business case, Pittsburgh has negative unemployment in the tech sector, so we all need people. Women and people of color are under-represented in tech. Research from Forbes Magazine in 2017 showed that diverse teams solve complex problems more quickly and make better business decisions than homogeneous teams. Fully inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 29% of the time, make them 2x times faster with 50% fewer meetings, and deliver 60% better results. Diversity is good for business.
A lot of people are afraid to publicly learn, but it’s important to be transparent about moments of unlearning. This shows others it’s okay to admit your wrongs in order to grow. Can you share one or more “a-ha!” moments you’ve had where you realized “this is wrong” or “this way of thinking is biased”?
I grew up in a fairly homogenous environment, where people were not exposed to much outside of their community. In those pre-internet days, your worldview was pretty narrow. There was one non-white kid in my school, and no one talked about being gay. Very early in my career, I worked in an organization as diverse as you could imagine, even for today. It exposed me to a community of people that I had never interacted with. That was a total game-changer for me. Every day, I see posts on social media about people being impacted by bias that remind me to be more aware.
What results have you seen from your tech equity and advocacy actions?
About 40% of fivestar*s team members identify as female. We are not where we want to be with people of color, however. RedChairPGH, and our founder Julia Poepping, are raising awareness and providing support to women in tech. We recently released a study we conducted with Thrive.io that gauged how Pittsburgh women in tech experience workplace culture. We are using the data to create targeted programming like our upcoming Negotiation and Maximizing Mentor Relationships workshops. Through the support of sponsors, we provide yearly scholarships to the EDGE Women’s Leadership program, executive coaching sessions, and leadership development materials. We are also launching a mentor/mentee matching website that we developed with all-female team of Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science students this past spring. We’ve accomplished a lot, but there’s still a great deal of work to do.
Some research shows that it’s hard to have empathy and, in this case, practice tech advocacy without being exposed to some form of human suffering from someone different from yourself. Have you ever had an experience like this that has helped you to prioritize tech equity in your life and career today?
I experienced something very impactful when I first came to Pittsburgh more than 20 years ago. I was waiting in line at a store and the white cashier passed over the person of color in front of me to attempt to wait on me first. Back then, I would also attend tech events with hundreds of mostly white men. These were small things but were impactful to my worldview and how we’ve shaped fivestar*s culture to what it is today.
What is some advice you’d give to other men in tech, older or younger, who are seeking ways to be more inclusive with their actions?
I encourage them to participate in events with groups like RedChairPGH to build your awareness and grow a wider network of diversity-inclusive folks. If you are not sure if it’s a gender mixed event, simply ask the organizers.
What is some advice you’d share with diversity-starved organizations?
Spend time on the National Center for Women in Technology website https://www.ncwit.org/ to educate yourself on the issues, then create a strategy that fits your organization.
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