Let’s be blunt: the high-tech business faces a crisis.

It does not bode well when a major company — let alone an entire industry — loses touch with its customer base. That’s exactly what’s happening in high tech.

Just two percent of technology workers at seven Silicon Valley companies that have released staffing numbers are black. Tech giant Google revealed that its tech work force was also two percent black.

Simply put, the leadership and workforce of the technology industry does not look like America — and it looks less and less like its customer base.

Especially in the Midwest.

Especially in Wisconsin.

“The technology scene in America is not a particularly diverse industry and Wisconsin is not an exception to that,” says Maurice “Mo” Cheeks, who last year joined the Wisconsin Technology Council as the director of its Wisconsin Innovation Network. “One of the things at the tops of the minds for many leaders in the technology industry who are forward thinking is how pressing of a concern that that will become in the next 10 years.

“As our city tries to find ways to prepare for the increase in diversity and growth we need to be really mindful that we are widening our reach and not narrowing it,” he adds.

As the membership arm of the Wisconsin Tech Council, Wisconsin Innovation Network (WIN) is a platform for members and others to learn about and discuss business and policy topics of interest to Wisconsin’s high-tech and high-growth sectors. “My role as director is to create opportunities and do event programming for entrepreneurs, business leaders, investors, policy makers, and folks in the research and development stage to come together, to learn together, and to create learning opportunities,” Cheeks says.

Tonight and tomorrow, Wisconsin Technology Council will host the 2015 Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. The symposium is designed to unlock Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial potential by providing the right combination of ideas, innovation, intellectual property, and investment – as well as hands-on instruction and advice targeted to early-stage companies ready to make the leap.

“We’re going to have over 40 companies presenting to investors. We will probably have over 500 people in attendance,” Cheeks says. “It’s the largest and longest-running entrepreneur and investor event in the state of Wisconsin.”

This will be the 31st year for the conference. Since 2004, nearly 500 companies — including some of the largest technology companies that call Wisconsin home — have presented during this fall conference in one format or another.

As these companies attempt to serve an increasingly diverse and global consumer base, it’s imperative that hi-tech diversifies. The most important ingredient for a tech company is talent, and it would be ill-advised to overlook talent anywhere.

Wisconsin Innovation Network Director Maurice Cheeks
Wisconsin Innovation Network Director Maurice Cheeks

“I’m going to encourage anyone who is a position of privilege who is working in the IT sphere or is an investor or a job creator or has the ability to fund a grant or a start-up …. people who are in a position to create opportunities … we need to be really intentional about identifying and supporting people [that] don’t necessarily have the same lived experiences as us,” says Cheeks, who is also the current president pro tempore of the Madison Common Council.

Leaving blacks and Latinos out of that growth increases the divide between haves and have-nots. As a result, the technology industry risks losing touch with the diverse nation — and world — that forms its customer base.

“Yeah, it is true. It’s a reality that the tech space is confronting right now,” says Mark Richardson, CEO of GigBlender, a social innovation tool for organizations that truly value diversity to find and attract talent of all kinds. “If you look at demographic shifts nationwide – and even moreso when you get to the coasts and big cities – [diversity is] happening even faster. If you don’t find a way to engage professionals of color and women into this world, you are missing a lot of talent. You’re not going to pull a lot of talent into this space until you figure out how to open up the sector and invite them in and make them feel comfortable.”

There is nowhere to go but up, as they say. But there is definitely a movement in Madison working hard to change those numbers. Here are just a few people of color making waves in the hi-tech business.

GigBlender – talent and opportunity
Job search is a very different process today than it was 10 years ago. Even 5 years ago. “We want to make matches that feel like they fit,” Richardson says. “We wanted to create a tool that allowed companies and organizations to see talent of all shapes, sizes, and colors. That’s why we are doing what we are doing. It’s exciting.”

What exactly is GigBlender?

“GigBlender is a mix between Match.com and Pandora or Spotify – but for job searching,” Richardson says. “It takes into account your personality and your preferences and your passions when it comes to job search. It doesn’t just focus on keywords and it doesn’t just focus on job title. It focuses on what you really care about and what you are most likely to appreciate in a job. Then it brings you those job opportunities and it lets you react to them.”

GigBlender goes and it looks on the Internet at websites like Indeed or CareerBuilder or any of the big job sites and it begins to grab things based up on your profile. “The second way that it works is that we’re going to bringing on local and regional businesses and having direct connections between those area businesses and the people who use GigBlender,” Richardson says. “So we call it talent and opportunity.

“Talent are our candidates — the people who are looking at opportunity,” he adds. “Opportunity side are our companies and organizations that are looking for workers – human capital. The better that you can match talent and opportunity, the more likely a company will have a productive worker, a more-engaged worker, and a worker that sticks [around].”

GigBlender CEO Mark Richardson
GigBlender CEO Mark Richardson

GigBlender was formed over a year ago by Richardson and Mark Clear, but they have been staying under the radar as they have been building until recently. It’s a small, five-person start-up team that ranges in ethnicities and ages (early 20s to 70). “We look like what we preach. We range in ages. We range in race. We range in gender. We range in backgrounds and experiences,” says Richardson, who is also the president of Unfinished Business LLC, a company designed to help professionals prepare for, navigate, and accelerate career transition. “Because of that, we’ve built a piece of technology that takes a lot of that into account. It can be challenging at times, but we are making better decisions because of that.”

What’s different about GigBlender is that it’s technology that allows you to target diversity while you’re doing your candidate search. “So we look at demographic information. We look at age. We look at ethnicity. We look at background and languages you speak. We look at orientation,” Richardson says. “Then we ask companies: Could your company benefit from hiring someone from this ethnicity, someone of this sexual orientation, someone who speaks this language? We allow the organizations to target and to value diversity in their own candidate pool.

“Nobody else is taking that on. Everybody is scared to do that,” Richardson adds. “We’re asking those questions. Workforce diversity has been a challenge for this region for years. It’s not happening organically. And it won’t just happen. You have to be intentional. GigBlender is a way to be intentional about looking for and targeting diversity as you are building your business.”

GigBlender is in demonstration stage right now – the basics are all built. “Now we want to bring more and more people on to both sides of the equation,” Richardson adds. “We’re looking for individuals to build out the talent side and we’re looking for companies to build out the opportunity side. We’re looking to have these matches to start happening. We want to test it and then we want to refine it. In the tech industry you are never done. You are always improving and making it better.

“Our goal is to have Gig Blender be the place where people come to be found and to find talent,” he adds.

Get Cheddah
Chris Canty, co-founder of Cheddah, says there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. Cheddah is a new mobile-app platform that awards instant cash credits to students to use at near-to-campus eateries in exchange for responses to five quick mobile survey questions. “It’s a mobile survey platform designed to help brands and companies connect with millennials through quick surveys,” Canty says. “We quickly realized when we were forming this business that there was really a need for brands to have a conversation and direct contact with millennials right now.”

It’s simple. You open up the app and find out who is a Cheddah partner. “Say you’re thirsting for a tea. You click Steep and Brew, answer five questions, and you’re instantly greeted with a QR [Quick Response] code that you scan with our companion app and you instantly save a buck,” says Canty. “The restaurant fronts the dollar and at the end of the month we true-up.”

It’s not like the olden days. Millennials are not watching TV or listening to the radio much. It’s really hard to get a hold of them. “But everyone wants to know what they are thinking,” Canty says. “So, we said: Why not ask them directly? So, our brand partners are paying us a small fee to actually ask questions into the network.”

Chris Canty is the founder of Cheddah.
Chris Canty is the founder of Cheddah.

Millennials open up the app and see a list of Cheddah restaurant partners. “We chose restaurants as the vehicle to earn the money. Millennials are eating out 4-6 times a week. We know that it is something that is valuable,” Canty says. “A dollar is valuable at a coffee shop. We knew that it was something that they were engaging with quite a bit and we felt that if we could interface and not be disruptive — just add and enhance what they are already doing — than it should be pretty simple.”

Canty says that Ian Gurfield of Ian’s Pizza has been a great mentor for Cheddah and their original launch partner. “He’s the one who really pushed us out of the gate and told us that we really needed to start partnering with local restaurants, “Canty says. “He’s really big on the entrepreneurial scene here in Madison and he’s been fantastic for us.”

Cheddah has 10-12 partners right now, but it’s a list that is growing every week. “We’re always looking for new partners on the brand side,” Canty says. “Our sell to them is that we are hypertargeting. We have the ability to reach a market that is, quite frankly, unreachable. We’ve brought them into the fold.

“We are still growing. Our vision is that if we have 100,000 users, a brand could come to us and say, ‘I need 22-year-old college African American males who live in these two zip codes,’” Canty adds. “And, we could say, ‘Boom! We have 700 of them.’ And they could say, ‘Alright. Ship them this survey and we’ll pay you 10 bucks.’ We’re truly at just the beginning for what our vision can be. Our audacious goal at the end of the day is to build the most robust data set of millennials known to man and have the ability of hypertarget with our brand partners.”

100State of Mind
Cheddah and GigBlender are the innovative kind of tech ideas that are dreamed up at 100State, the largest co-working community in the state of Wisconsin with more than 200 members.

Those members includes startups, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and sponsors who collaborate at brainstorming and problem-solving sessions on the entire 6th floor of a building overlooking Capitol Square. “100State is member driven and community driven,” says 100State Executive Director Greg St. Fort. “We take pride in the fact that our members are people who are at the idea phase, people who have had some customers, and people who already have funders and investors. We have people who have moved through those phases and many success stories. We have a lot of amazing talent.”

100State is not just a bunch of people looking to make money. The members of 100State are social justice conscious and community conscious. “We talk about real social issues and real economic issues here and how we can leverage our many skill sets and perspectives to solve some of the problems this city faces,” St. Fort says. “It’s been amazing. When we brainstorm, it really comes from a diverse perspective because we have so many backgrounds.”

100State Executive Director Greg St. Fort
100State Executive Director Greg St. Fort

Born in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and raised in Queens, St. Fort is also the founder of LetsKeepBuilding(LKB), a marketing company that offers products and services to small businesses and entrepreneurs. The LKB mission is to create a worldwide community of entrepreneurs that provide inspiration, support, and resources to creative leaders.

St. Fort has been in Madison for a little over a year and he admits that it was a bit of a culture shock coming from NYC. “I noticed some differences right away when I came,” laughs St. Fort. “New York has 2 million black people and 2 million Hispanics. It’s possible to be in a neighborhood and never see a white person. Here, it’s the opposite. So, that’s something I adapted to. But I’ve always been a huge supporter of creative diversity for entrepreneurs and sometimes you need to be intentional about how that happens.”

Like the others, St. Fort laments the lack of diversity in the tech and entrepreneurial worlds but he insists that 100 State is one of the most diverse places around. “I think we have done a good job of showing off our diversity through our events,” he says. “We had a closed-room conversations that this will be a place that people can trust. That’s big in the minority communities. Whether it’s gender or race, it’s important to have that conversation … and you have to have that trust.

“And trust doesn’t simply happen because people see me here [as the token black guy],” St. Fort laughs. “We all take responsibility in ensuring that we are diverse and welcoming. We embrace diversity here. In the end, we’re all about building a better tomorrow together because entrepreneurs decide what tomorrow looks like.”

Moving to diversify
A robust tech economy is imperative for cities in an increasingly connected and innovation-fueled world and high-tech industries have a large direct economic impact on metro economies. Diversity must be a point of emphasis.

“We need to have role models. Seeing somebody who looks like you doing that thing and being involved in the tech sector … that’s important,” Cheeks says. “The other thing is access. Do you have access to those environments? Are you exposed to it? Have you had a chance to witness it firsthand?”

Madison schools have been majority minority for a couple years now. There is a lot of talent there that needs to be given a chance in the tech and entrepreneurial world in order for Madison to thrive in the future.

“Our schools here in Madison are extremely diverse. We have dozens of languages being spoken in our schools and dozens of nationalities being accounted for,” says Cheeks. “Leaders of industries are trying to proactively train the next generation of our workforce and equip them to get into these fields. Our city, our state, and our country are only going to become more diverse. We are going to need a workforce and a workforce environment that are welcoming and appreciative of a diverse environment.”

Richardson says that we need to be seriously talking about mentoring as we start bridging these divides. “A lot of time in the tech space you are talking about a different language – literally, a different language; not figuratively,” Richardson says. “That’s not counting the language you might be writing code in. So, the vocabulary is different in that sector just as it is in a lot of sectors. But it’s intimidating if you didn’t go to school for it and if you didn’t come up in it. It can be exclusive. We have to find a way for that not bot be so scary for people of color and women.”

Kids have some incredibly creative minds. And they are at a time in their lives where they believe anything is possible.

“We have to reach them at that point. We have to reach out to people at a younger age,” St. Fort says. “The schools play a big role in raising and shaping our kids. They spend so much time in school and it becomes part of what the kids become. Some of it involves things we can do in school and making an emphasis on talking about career possibilities in tech and entrepreneurship. That and parents [need to have] open conversations with their kids. Both parents and the schools need to encourage creativity.”

For most of his adult life, Canty has made mentoring and working with young people in middle school and high schools a priority. He’s a long time member of 100 Black Men of Madison, who are committed to the intellectual development of youth and the economic empowerment of the African American community. “It’s cool when you see kids’ eyes light up when I tell them I’m launching a mobile [app]… ‘What does it do?!?!? Tell us more!’” Canty recalls.

“I know there is a need for positive African American male role models and I have no problem serving in that role,” he adds. “The 100 Black Men have helped shape me into what I’ve become today and I would love to pass that along and be a positive influence to others.”

Building these relationships with young people can change lives. It can introduce possibilities. It can send that important message that you, too, can do this. “Long before I was on the City Council, I was tutoring in the schools. I would come to the schools the same way I came to work – dressed in a suit,” Cheeks says. “At the time, I was working for a technology company. I would come in and tutor the kids on their subject and we got a chance to build a relationship. They got to have a mentorship with a professional person of color who spent his career working in the technology industry. If you don’t have access to those networks and to those type of relationships, it can be really difficult as a young person to imagine yourself in those shoes.

“Our young people need to know that they can do things that will change the world,” Cheeks adds. “That they can be creative and create new process and do amazing things with computers and the Internet. Don’t let anybody ever tell you that you can’t do it. I know it sounds cliché, but it really is true.”

Underrepresented minorities in the entrepreneurial and tech world are up against a series of barriers and obstacles that white men just don’t face. St. Fort’s advice is that like the entrepreneur, you have to remain confident and persistent. No matter what. Plenty of people told him he couldn’t do what he is now doing. He never listened to them.

“Based upon the statistics, I’m probably not supposed to look like what the director of 100State is supposed to look like. It’s just not supposed to happen,” St. Fort says. “But so what? You need to pursue what you want to do and believe in yourself and give it everything you got. It’s that entrepreneurial spirit.”