A community-wide discussion on the Evolution of Milwaukee's Tech Ecosystem.
In most social systems, we collectively produce results that no one wants. These results show up in the form of environmental, social, and cultural destruction. One of the more pressing and forefront social issues that communities face is building more equitable systems within our community cultures.
This includes the tech ecosystem in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In response to the cultural demands of our time, we engaged in a community-wide workshop that included representatives from each major stakeholder group - Government, Corporate, Non-Profit, Community, and Education.
Part of a larger culture evolution program, we look to blend new tools, social change processes, and multi-local community-building efforts to catalyze and scale societal renewal.
This community-wide panel event’s mission is to break down walls and initiate new architectures of collaboration and connection within our ecosystem. In dealing with the complex challenges of our time, we realize that there is nothing we can do alone. Sustainable solutions must include the entire global ecosystem of partners.
One of the first questions we asked our group of stakeholders was, “what does equity mean to you?”
This is always an interesting question because equity can be thrown in any direction, and having an aligned language and definition is essential to aligning stakeholders in a progressive way. We heard responses that included the need to agree that inequalities exist in the first place and demonstrate concrete areas of them. This will help stakeholders pinpoint key inflection points through the complexities of our social systems. Equity was also described as equitable access and distribution. Primarily of power and resources. This was an interesting point as we discussed what is “power” and what resources are we talking about?
It became clear that everywhere we are - home, school, work, nature - we are embedded in complex and often interconnected systems. There are many micro-systems that make up our cultures and equity itself.
For example, here is a snapshot of the many micro-systems of equity within an organization.
“Any system that was designed by people can be redesigned by people.” - Antionette Carroll
Understanding that the world of equity is made up of many micro-systems, we initiated this program with system thinking activities in a way that creates a human-centered approach to our solutions. This empowers us to understand the collective experience of the social system and each stakeholder’s experience from each micro-system. Resulting in a view that allows you to see the system as a whole from the edges and the ability to zoom in and see the smaller complexities.
To set the stage a bit more here, we had a few core impact areas that we wanted to discuss. These included, but were not limited to;
- How might we empower underrepresented entrepreneurs in the Milwaukee tech ecosystem?
- How might we build a more inclusive ecosystem in the overall culture of Milwaukee?
- How do we ensure equity remains paramount in the advancement of Milwaukee’s tech community?
To ensure this discussion was as productive as possible, we also took a look at two critical aspects for each impact area. These included, what are the current outcomes and inputs, as well as, what are the leverage points within our social system. Once we’ve done our work to better map out our current state, we can begin to make different choices and begin changing these systems, of which we are both architects and residents.
One of the first things I noticed is that there was this sense of slow-moving solutions and resource allocations going on within each stakeholder group as individuals but also as a collective group. There is a lot of small ball at-bats going on and there is a dire need to up our game. Our Non-profit representative noted that collectively the non-profit, government, and corporate space has been investing in pilot programs that are un-scalable and slow-moving. Saying that it is time to align on a few core strategies, or outcomes, and go for them.
For example, our Government representative mentioned that there has been this conversation around data transparency for quite some time, yet a lack of true investment. Clearly noting that it’s time to actually enable innovative solutions into the culture of our governmental entities. This includes evolving our tech stacks internally as well as, the shared resources with our community. With the outcome of having shared data and open transparency around our current society. An initial connection that should be made here is data-sharing collaborations with non-profit entities. We saw how successful this was during the COVID crisis. Working more closely with each other and sharing information with each other would empower us to be more consistent with where we are spending our money, with policy development, and the generation of innovative solutions related to the social impact sector.
Corporations noted similar experiences. Noting that we need to challenge the conversations we are having. So far, corporations have put a lot of energy into some of the lowest impact practices when it comes to really improve diversity, equity, and inclusion across the organization. They might feel monumental, but they aren’t actually effecting change. Most of these low-impact practices include general DEI programs, where most of the time company leaders don’t get involved, don’t engage in listening to the groups, and don’t hold themselves accountable. DEI training is another common one that helps bring exercises that seem helpful on the surface, but most of these are stand-alone events and are not integrated into the daily course of work and life at the organization. The increase of hired Chief Diversity Officers is another common theme in the corporate space. Most of the time this individual struggles to be positioned in the hierarchy that enables them to influence and hold other leaders accountable. My personal experience has been more involved in the talent attraction process of the employee experience. Employers have invested heavily in diverse representation in their recruiting strategies but fail to take into account the culture employees will enter, nor recognize the support systems that may be needed for success. The external facing actions around diversity are far less important than creating a space where employees feel valued, secure, and heard. We found three key impact areas for shifting internal cultures around DEI. This included strengthening HR capabilities that bring them into being a true business partner. The need to emphasize senior leadership commitment - ideally having the CEO set the tone from the very top. And lastly, measure what matters and create accountability for outcomes. This means providing hard metrics for gauging future progress and creating accountability at all levels throughout the organization, including the C-suite.
“You can't just take bias out of the person; you have to take it out of the system.”
- Kathi Enderes, Vice President of Research at the Josh Bersin Academy
Our Education stakeholder reported similar challenges when it comes to developing the belonging side of the equity coin. Noting that even if we do build a bigger table, that doesn’t really mean they feel that they belong there. To make real progress on the systemic issues we face, we must all learn to do our work with a DEI mindset. This is challenging as there is a need to shift the mindsets both at the employer level as well as at the student level. Many upcoming students still live within this paradigm that they do not belong in STEM-related fields. A solution our education stakeholder proposed is to unlock ongoing mentoring programs and develop other collaborative solutions with corporations to build a sense of belonging for POC. We could accomplish this by creating active collaborative hubs between corporations and education stakeholders that provide regional insights and alliances. A result of these hubs could be active mentor programs, internships, and entry-level positions that develop a sense of safety for POC and make them feel like they have a place for a job once their education is completed. For corporations, this would enable them to build co-creative talent pipelines and tap into another market of talent that is available. Helping them overcome the many talent shortages that are relevant in the Tech industry.
“Inclusion is not simply opening your front door a little bit. It's actually making your table bigger.” - Daniel Shannon, Chief Activation Officer
Our community stakeholder strongly noted this but was consistent across the board - a dire need of capacity building at all levels and dimensions of the community. Almost every representative stakeholder group felt incapable of driving change. Asking themselves, how can we be an advocate and a change-maker? How do we live up to the values that we are looking to instill in our cultures? There is this natural tendency to point the finger and say that it’s someone else’s role to fix these problems. “It’s up to the government!” “It’s on the corporations and corporate leaders to solve this!” At the end of the day, this is a collective effort. It requires the collaboration and advocacy of everyone. The communities role is to continue to share information, hold each other accountable, develop ourselves as community activists and change agents, and rally around shared impacts. This in end, unlocks the power of the collective, creating a natural culture of co-creation within the community itself.
Closing thoughts -
When it comes to developing the actual solutions, we also need to think at a larger scale. At this point, most solutions have been very targeted in small pockets of the community. We need to create scalable examples and solutions. These will include expanding our partnerships and collaborations beyond the local providers to a regional level. Having larger-scale discussions allow us to create new solutions and potentially eliminate outdated ways of being that are barriers to our goals.
Having this shared dialogue at a community-wide perspective is essential to removing barriers and enabling new types of alliances and collaborations that will unlock the next round of profound innovation and system change. We must continue the dialogue and enable these partnerships to form. This stakeholder-wide event was a great ignition, but my fear is that we will stop the dialogue and snap back into our day-to-day lives without evolving.
Imagine these solutions as seeds for the future. For it to develop and evolve, you need to attend to the quality of the soil in this ecosystem. Our society is full of innovative projects and ideas - but they rarely scale. We need to dive into this environment and create the collaborations and environment that allows our seeds to grow to their best potential. This includes bringing together the right players in the system and operating as a true ecosystem.
Thank you so much for joining us on the journey! We are thankful that you are with us.