#StartupsEverywhere: Out in Tech

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Andrew Lowenthal, Executive Director, Out in Tech

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

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Making Sure No One is Left Out In Tech with Out in Tech

June is dedicated as Pride Month, but it’s important to celebrate the ideals of Pride every month. Andrew Lowenthal, Executive Director of Out in Tech, seeks to do this everyday within the tech community. Out in Tech, a global non-profit startup based in New York, works to unite the LGBTQ+ tech community through regular events in 10 cities. To ensure all have access to some of the highest paying jobs in the American economy, Out in Tech is looking to increase diversity in the tech sector -- including gender identity, sexual orientation, and race. It’s also pushing for innovative programs and policies to increase diversity at all levels of the talent pipeline, from intern to CEO.

Why did you get involved with Out in Tech?

I got involved by accident. I had always been tech adjacent. In my role at the New York City Department of Education, I was the business owner of student information systems; I was working with tech everyday. A colleague from City Hall invited me to an Out in Tech event and I just kept going back.

I joined the Board of Directors in 2015. In that capacity, we started working with at-risk LGBTQ+ youth, pulling from my knowledge of Gay-Straight Alliances at New York City public schools. At one event, we had 30 students and 30 members paired up to talk about how to get your first tech internship -- that’s when it clicked. I saw the tremendous potential of Out in Tech as a lever for social change, and I quit my job six weeks later. I have been with the group ever since.

How have you seen it change over the last almost three years?

In one sense, it has stayed the same in the best way. We started as a community and we remain a community.  Out in Tech brings people together in real life — to learn, network, and volunteer. That same ethos spread across the country.

At the same time, a lot has changed. We have had massive geographic expansion.  We are now in 10 cities, with over 20,000 members. We have chapters in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Portland, Chicago, DC, Boston, Austin, and Shanghai. The breadth of our mission has evolved and we have expanded our programs.

Tell me more about Out in Tech’s programming.

We have a youth mentorship program. Our Mentorship Program empowers and encourages diversity in the tech world, pairing students with like-minded professionals working in the tech sector today. We tap into our network of members to find mentors who are passionate about helping the next generation of tech professionals.

We have a coding scholarship in partnership with Flatiron School. So far, we’ve been able to award total tuition breaks of over $100,000 to further coding education.

Digital Corps is our signature impact program. Our members volunteer to help LGBTQ+ activists around the world to build WordPress.com websites. We host several day-long events to build dream sites for LGBTQ+ activists around the world. Through this work, we’ve galvanized hundreds of volunteers over the past two years.

What’s the most exciting or important development that has happened to the startup ecosystem in the last year?

Tech founders nowadays have the potential to democratize old sources of power and wealth. Increased access to venture capital funding is helping -- we’re now seeing more women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks leading startups, and we’ve only seen the tip of iceberg. I believe we’ve gone beyond lip service, and there’s now a recognition that diversity is good for the bottom line.

It’s also amazing that we’ve seen a growth in direct-to-consumer. Businesses can circumvent the traditional go-to-market strategy, allowing startups to reach their consumers with targeted ad placements on social media. It removes the MBA requirement (we’ve seen a decline in applications in recent years) and traditional networks of privilege from the equation.


What’s the biggest challenge you face when working with government?

As a “viral non-profit startup” ourselves, there’s a considerable administrative burden when you run your own enterprise. It’s so out of sync with life in 2018 when you have to print, fax, or mail something to a P.O. box.  We’re living in a paperless society, but the public sector isn’t there yet.

At the Federal level, I think the government has done a somewhat better job modernizing. The Partnership For Public Service has been a strong champion for making the federal government more efficient and effective.  On a local level, there are many leaders focused on creating data-driven cities. Bloomberg Philanthropies has helped to lead this effort.  There has been less attention on the state level.

Overall, the regulation of startups needs to catch up to where society is today. This may be due to a dearth of talent with modernization efforts. State capitals need to recruit and retain top tech talent to move away from things like carbon-copy forms, CD-ROMs, and COBOL. Ultimately, government executives need maximum flexibility in the hiring process. At all levels of government, there are obsolete rules and regulations that make it hard to hire certain qualified people like students and young adults.

From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for your startup ecosystem?

To help underrepresented groups, I’d like to see the government forgive more student loan debt. Particularly those who work at non-profits, socially-minded enterprises, and in government.

Overall, I think everyone should be focused on leveling the playing field, from government leaders to tech leaders at established companies. When the bigger companies speak, everyone listens, including lawmakers.

We know that when Silicon Valley encounters a problem, they work methodically to find a solution. If they treated diversity in tech as an industry-wide opportunity to be leveraged collaboratively and unselfishly, then companies would begin to see upticks in their workforce diversity, including for LGBTQ+ people.  Instead, we’ve seen those numbers remain relatively flat over the past few years. We need to flip the paradigm.

What role can lawmakers play in this effort to level the tech playing field?

Lawmakers can be involved by having an inclusive mindset when setting policy to create more opportunity for underrepresented groups. In order to create more economic opportunity, we need to take action around access to high quality education, including expanding financial assistance for programs like immersive web development and data science bootcamps.

The government should develop incentives for tech companies to hire at the apprenticeship level. There has been some of this, but I’d love to see a lot more. It helps folks get their foot in door and to learn while doing. Talent is evenly distributed yet access to apprenticeship is not. If we can enable people to excel at an early part of their careers, it unlocks a magical chain reaction of opportunity for the future. Nurturing underrepresented tech talent earlier in their careers will allow them to reach their fullest potential.

We also need to see more diversity at the C-suite level. I’d challenge companies to look at their boards of directors, and see what voices may be missing.  The more diversity at the top, the more of a trickle-down effect for a company’s culture. And if there’s an exit that leads to significant accumulation of wealth, that’s yet another opportunity to invest in the power of diversity. I believe policymakers and tech leaders can and should work together to make this happen.

What is the biggest challenge you still face today?

At the moment, we’re still living in a world where same-sex activity is criminalized in more than 70 countries. While we don’t have the power to change the oppressive laws in those countries, we’re working hard to make our global LGBTQ+ family #TechnicallyEqual, with access to websites and other digital assets.

For supporters to want to make a difference closer to home, it all starts with your team.  Become a champion of diversity in tech in your office. Tap into your professional courage and speak up about what kinds of recruiting, hiring, and retention policies you’d like to see as your startup scales.  One “troublemaker” can make a world of difference.

Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email jen@engine.is. Give us your feedback here.