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From left to right: Rutgers Business School Associate Professor Dr. Jeffrey Robinson; REFLX Labs CEO Jose Torres; Urban Research Strategies & Logistics Founder Antwuan Wallace; social impact tech writer Sherrell Dorsey; and TAF Director Zithri Ahmed Saleem.

America’s innovation engine is in trouble if we don’t get more females and people of color involved with entrepreneurship and new technology.

That was one takeaway from the launch event for GREATER, a new Seattle-based non-profit co-founded by Seahawks lineman Russell Okung that aims to expose at-risk youth to technology and give teenagers the tools and mentorship they need to succeed.

Seahawks lineman Russell Okung shares a laugh at his foundation's launch at the EMP in Seattle.
Seahawks lineman Russell Okung shares a laugh at his foundation’s launch at the EMP in Seattle.

The organization hosted its party at the EMP in Seattle, where Okung’s teammates and several members from the Seattle tech community gathered to help celebrate the foundation’s launch.

“I’m very excited to have so much support across the tech sector in Seattle,” Okung told GeekWire. “The people here are very serious about providing into the diverse areas we support. I welcome anyone else that wants to complement our efforts.”

The event also included a panel discussion about the lack of diversity in the tech industry today and how technology can be used to create a more equitable society.

Moderator Zithri Ahmed Saleem, a director at Seattle-based Technology Access Foundation, a 20-year-old organization that runs a STEM-focused school and is partnering with GREATER to help the program achieve its goals, kicked off the the talk by referencing the “Matthew Effect” in tech.

“It is essentially an effect where the rich get richer and poor get poorer,” he explained. “We have to address this is in the current technology ecosystem.”

Jeffrey Robinson, an associate professor at the Rutgers Business School, noted that the diversity problem extends beyond just the tech industry and more into the U.S. economy as a whole. He said that for America to remain competitive with the rest of the world, there needs to be more people of color and women working in the tech space.

“We can’t have a country where the economy is going to be sustained by very few people — we have to broaden that amount and we have to find where the great ideas are coming from,” Robinson said. “You can’t tell me that all the great ideas are only coming from one group of people. You can’t tell me that the abilities aren’t the same. We’ve debunked all those kinds of things. There has to be something else.”

Seahawks lineman and GREATER co-founder Russell Okung watches as Peyton Rentz learns the basic of computer science at the Seattle Urban Academy earlier this week.
GREATER co-founder Russell Okung watches as Peyton Rentz learns the basic of computer science at the Seattle Urban Academy in January.

Robinson pointed out two primary problems that need solutions. First, he said that millions of young folks are missing out on opportunities to go into STEM-related fields because “their schools are broke” and they “come from communities where the primary motive is survival and not success.”

The second problem, he noted, is about how angel investors and venture capitalists distribute their money. Robinson challenged those in the audience to re-think how they make investments.

“We all suffer from the same challenges everyone else does in society,” he explained. “We gravitate toward people who look just like us; we have social networks that look just like us. We suffer from the same implicit biases like everybody else. The challenge is, how do you overcome all that when it comes to money?”

Sherrell Dorsey, a social impact technology writer, noted that “we have to look at people and hustlers of all kinds.”

“When they come up with brilliant ideas, where is the money and resources to help make sure they get them off the ground?” she said.

That’s a serious disconnect, noted Urban Research Strategies & Logistics Founder Antwuan Wallace. He said help can come in the form of a private or public market solution. We’ve seen some of that already, whether it’s tech giants like Intel investing $300 million in diversity initiatives, or the Portland Development Commission launching a $3 million fund for underrepresented entrepreneurs.

But there is clearly more to be done.

“Where are the people who are able to bridge the gaps with stopgap measures, the people who are able to look above the sectors they are in and look across the intersections of the economy to bring people together and add value,” Wallace said.

Before he founded Seattle-based startup REFLX Labs, Jose Torres made a living by selling art. Through his network, he was fortunate enough to meet people that exposed him to a whole new world of science, engineering, technology, and startups.

Torres said he wants those doors to open for others, too. It’s why his company built its wearable technology software as a development kit that can be used as a STEM learning tool for students.

“We need to show young people that have never experienced technology what it’s like to step into virtual reality, or what it looks like when their body is digitized,” Torres said. “It will open up people’s minds.”

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