Cynthia Overton Wants The Tech Industry To Use Social Science To Increase Black Representation
When she was in her 20s, Cynthia Overton had spinal surgery that left her partially paralyzed.
She lost her job and her apartment and had to move back in with her parents. At her brother’s urging, she went back to school. She couldn’t walk the steps to the library.
In the late 1990s, everything was moving online. “Technology really helped me, having a physical disability,” Overton said in a Moguldom interview.
Overton earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in educational technology with a concentration in accessible technology, and a masters in PR/corporate communications from Georgetown University.
She has done a lot of work with underrepresented populations in her job as principal research analyst at the American Institutes for Research. Now she’s doing something that sounds impossible.
She’s gathering just about all the useful research, news and resources out there that relate to diversity and inclusion in tech and assembling it all in one place where people can access and assess it, and take what they need.
It only sounds impossible until you see her website — Inclusion Clearinghouse.
The purpose of Overton’s new repository, in a nutshell, is for stakeholders to spend less time searching for diversity and inclusion resources and more time using them.
Inclusion Clearinghouse is driven by the vision that the talent behind technology innovation will one day reflect our diverse society, Overton said.
The idea for Inclusion Clearinghouse came from Overton’s work with the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Rev. Jackson initiated PUSHTech2020 in 2014 to promote transparency in diversity and inclusion in tech. PUSHTech2020 wants tech workforce demographics to accurately reflect the demographics of the U.S. by 2020. It collaborates with companies to set quantifiable D&I goals, targets, and timelines.
Overton built Inclusion Clearinghouse and she maintains it, “but the opportunity really came from working with PUSHTech2020,” she said in a Moguldom interview. “They’re the ones who really identified this public need — one place where we can identify these things online.”
Overton consults with the PUSHTech2020 tech team on where some of the information should be posted.
“They are not financing it,” she said. “I financed the whole thing and I built it on WordPress.”
On the Inclusion Clearinghouse site, Overton has assembled resources that include D&I rankings, policy and industry data reports, D&I trends, D&I data comparisons, workforce demographic data — and that’s just in the data section.
Inclusion Clearinghouse has sections for news, for action (founders of color seeking funding, accelerators, job seekers), organizations offering community and guidance in the D&I space, events that promote D&I in tech, and more.
Overton spoke to Moguldom about her vision for Inclusion Clearinghouse.
Moguldom: What kind of feedback are you getting for the site?
Cynthia Overton: It was exciting when I showed it to Danny Allen (vice president of tech diversity & inclusion at SAP). He sent it out to his entire D&I team. He’s been in the tech industry a long time.
Moguldom: How is Inclusion Clearinghouse a solution-driven endeavor for the future?
Cynthia Overton: D&I is important for social justice. I’m looking at it as thinking about society and what it will mean when the tech industry is reflective of people with disabilities, LGBTQ, etc. I’m very interested in African Americans and Latinos in tech but my Ph.D. looked at people with disabilities. For 20, 30 years, people with disabilities have been using all the tech we’re talking about today. Captions that you see on TV — that originated with the hearing impaired. Siri — all this tech came from people with disabilities and now we’re seeing it in the mainstream. If people with disabilities had been included in the mainstream, this tech would probably have reached the mainstream a lot sooner. The tech sector has these issues (with lack of diversity) and will continue to have these issues. Bottom line, innovation is great but innovation has to keep pace with the needs of society and you need diversity for that to happen.
Moguldom: How are you going to make money from Inclusion Clearinghouse?
Cynthia Overton: I did not actually create this to make money. I’ve had people in the tech sector say ‘You can monetize this with ads’. I created this to help people in the tech space use this to inform their professional practices. There are too many people out there doing amazing work on diversity and inclusion like the Kapor Center, Leadership for Tomorrow. It’s not something though that I worked on for the money. More so to move things along for D&I, helping founders from underrepresented (communities) find more information, people who want to draw attention to their work in D&I, opportunities for kids in HBCUs who want to go into the tech industry. At this point this is not something that I developed as an opportunity to raise.
I built it and I maintain it but the opportunity really came from working with PUSHTech2020. They’re the ones who really identified this public need — one place where we can identify these things online. I consult with their tech team on where some of the information should be posted. They are not financing it. I financed the whole thing and I built it on WordPress.
Moguldom: How are you populating the site?
Cynthia Overton: I spend a couple of hours online every day. Initially, the content came from a review that I did last year trying to find as much research as I could. Now on a daily basis, I update. Each day I do a search of what’s going on. The great thing about the news being there is that you can identify trends. One glaring gap is that people aren’t talking bout D&I. Latinos are largely underrepresented when it comes to this discussion. Women are very well represented.
The other thing it helps me do: looking at the news tells me what new organizations are out there, what new research has been done. Then I post that info on the site. I typically try to post info on the site that will take users to the full citations. If only the abstract is available, I’ll say so. The whole idea is to be as easy and simple as possible.
Moguldom: Is this a nonprofit?
Cynthia Overton: This is not generating any revenue but I am in the process of building something else that this is informing, empowering African Americans, Latinos, and women when it comes to maximizing opportunities in tech. That’s the next step in the progression of this. This is the foundation leading to something that definitely is for profit. Hopefully, I’ll be able to transition soon.
I’ve identified the need for social science to guide decisions related to D&I. That’s a real gap I’m seeing. Some startups do a great job doing that — Duo, Pinterest does a really great job focusing on the social science research.
This is it in a nutshell: you’ve got computer science driving the innovation in tech. Computer scientists are working on it. My goal is for social science to drive workforce issues. My dream is for all tech industries to draw on social science to drive their decisions when it comes to D&I.
Moguldom: How did your education lead you to this point?
Cynthia Overton: I went to an HBCU back in day. I know how challenging it is for African Americans to get into these tech companies. When I was in my 20s, I had to have spinal surgery and afterward I was completely paralyzed from the waist down. I lost my job, lost my apartment, had to move back in with my parents, got accepted to Michigan, studied educational technology. In late 1999, everything was moving online. Technology really helped me, having a physical disability. I couldn’t walk the steps to the library. (That got me) thinking about people in society and how tech impacts people’s lives. I ended up working for a professional services firm and I’m still here. (I do) a lot of work with underrepresented populations. One of the things I experienced early on is that not a lot of people were reading my boring research reports. I went back to school and got a master’s from Georgetown in PR and corporate communications.
(My work is) getting people in their everyday practices to think about the social science that’s available to them, how to use it, make it available to them to use to inform their professional practices. For example one of the projects I work on is called the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center. I support research in the field of traumatic brain, spinal cord and burn injuries. It’s hard for (them) to access journal articles, but they will look at a video. So it’s about taking research and making it more accessible and available for people to get to. (It’s about making) the most promising practices available.
One applicable practice that we just saw in the news is the Rooney Rule. It’s considered a good practice when it comes to increasing diversity. It stems from the NFL. Amazon recently was in the press over their board. There was a lot of backlash. That has been on my website for a while. The data section has more info that’s actually grounded in research that can be used to inform professional practice. The Kapor Center recently did the Leaky Pipeline report that’s user-friendly. They have an even more friendly site that makes information accessible. That’s my area of specialty. I’ve adapted aspects of the Kapor site, taking the research, taking the best practices and making them accessible to the end user so they can use it to make a decision.
Moguldom: Who is using your site?
Cynthia Overton: My dream is for people in charge of D&I to use the site, the folks (who) develop recruitment programs, for adjusting policy to make sure everyone has an opportunity in their organization. Don’t get me wrong, cultural celebration is really important but I’d love people to use the site to be enhanced, adjusted so the workplace becomes more diverse and inclusive. My dream audience is D&I leaders, people creating programs to encourage young people to go into tech, identify opportunities to partner with another organization so the field will be covered when it comes to D&I. Also journalists. A lot of organizations are doing amazing things and they need the attention, the recognition, they need their visibility raised to broaden their pool of people who can be helped. What are the trends? What are people writing about? What angles are missing?
Moguldom: What’s on your wish list for the future?
Cynthia Overton: The site for me is just a resource. The site isn’t the superstar. The superstars are the people using the site to make change, to make a difference and to make a more diverse and equitable difference when it comes to tech. It’s this next phase that I’m building that I want to be the superstar. In broad terms, it’s a platform that will help underrepresented populations navigate the workplace. It will be a web-based platform.
I’d really like to get more opportunities to speak. I’d love to speak at Afrotech. I spoke at Tech Inclusion last year. I spoke about disability employment, a panel on disability inclusion – making room for disability in the D&I space. I picked the people and moderated it. I just spoke in February about the importance of accessibility of tech at the Black Women Talk Tech conference – a platform for Black female entrepreneurs. Usually, I’m speaking about disability things at disability conferences. But to be at an event that is focused on Black women so they could think about market share and usability — you increase the number of people you can sell to.
Moguldom: Do you have other examples of how D&I professionals could use Inclusion Clearinghouse for their professional practices?
Cynthia Overton: A study by Management Leadership for Tomorrow finds that a lack of information about tech careers is preventing many talented minorities from pursuing careers in the tech sector. Recruiters can draw on findings like this and study recommendations to reshape its outreach to minority populations.
Another example involves research that is cited in the Kapor Center’s Leaky Tech Pipeline report. The study that Kapor cites finds that performance ratings are higher when there is a match between the race and gender of managers and employees. This, of course, has implications for salary, work assignments, and promotions. Understanding this, tech leaders could explore these trends in their own organizations to see if such a dynamic may be benefiting some and harming others, and adjust practices in a way that will promote equality.
So just like innovative products developed by tech companies are grounded in computer science, one of the goals of Inclusion Clearinghouse is to make it easier for the tech industry to use social science to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce. This will lead to products that meet the needs and interests of people from all backgrounds throughout society, regardless of race, gender, disability, etc.