If Toronto wants to be a global tech hub, it needs to nurture Black talent

OPINION: The city is known around the world for its diversity, but its Black population remains largely underrepresented in its pool of skilled tech workers. If we’re going to innovate, that needs to change
By Melissa Alice - Published on Oct 19, 2020
In Toronto, the number of tech jobs grew nearly 52 per cent between 2012 and 2017. (iStock/RossHelen)

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“Never before in history have 50 designers — 20- to 35 year-old white guys in California — made decisions that would have an impact on 2 billion people,” says Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. The lack of diversity in technology is both dangerous and disturbing, and it is the result of a system built on exclusion under the pretense of merit. Black tech talent is severely underrepresented in Toronto, too, and that’s hurting us economically. As the city emerges as a tech-industry powerhouse, it has a unique opportunity to capitalize on its diversity and foster an inclusive form of innovation.

According to Sabrina Geremia, the VP and country manager for Google Canada, Canada’s digital economy is 5 per cent of the total economy, more than the forestry, mining, and gas sectors. This will only increase over time. In Toronto, also known as “Silicon Valley North,” the number of tech jobs grew nearly 52 per cent between 2012 and 2017. With recent government investments in startups through venture capital and in Black entrepreneurs, now is the time to develop local Black tech talent — doing so is necessary if we want to continue to lead innovation globally.

In Canada’s 2016 census, 51.5 per cent of Torontonians said they belonged to a visible minority, up from 47 per cent in 2011. The city is known around the world for its diversity and for attracting international talent, meaning that it’s well-placed to establish itself as a hub that develops technology relevant to, and reflective of, the global population — especially the emerging markets in Africa, Asia, and, South America. But Toronto won’t be able to fully realize this potential if its Black population remains largely underrepresented in its pool of skilled tech workers.

At first glance, it may seem that Toronto’s diversity is reasonably well-represented in the tech sector. For example, according to a 2020 report by the organizations Talent X and the Black Professionals in Tech Network, tech workers in the GTA and southwestern Ontario say that 50 per cent of their colleagues are white, 43 per cent are visible minorities, and 7 per cent are Indigenous. But it’s important to note that Black Torontonians are not proportionately represented in terms of those who identify as a visible minorities in tech. A 2016 study by the Brookfield Institute found that only 2.6 per cent of tech workers in Canada were Black and that Black tech employees were the lowest paid. Black Canadians make up 3.5 per cent of the overall population and 7.5 per cent of the Toronto population, according to the 2016 census.

In order to amplify diverse perspectives in the city’s digital economy, we need to invest in developing local technology talent in communities that have been previously overlooked, particularly Black communities. Some local incubators have already taken significant steps in supporting the development of Black talent. For example, the internationally acclaimed DMZ accelerator, managed by Ryerson University, launched its Black Innovation Fellowship in 2019. However, more resources are needed for students coming out of college and university — and for students in elementary school, where STEM potential is either nurtured or undermined and where Black pupils contend with inherent teacher biases. We need more mentorship and networking events, and accelerator programs that further develop Black tech talent, from programmers and coders to founders. We need more taskforces made up of industry leaders, such as the newly formed Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism.

If Toronto is to continue its upward trajectory and become the top innovation hub in a world increasingly reliant on technology, we must develop our Black tech talent and leadership. Otherwise, we are missing out on the potential of an entire group of people that could contribute to the country’s economic well-being. Diversity and inclusion are our strength, so let’s truly use them to our advantage.

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