Janelle Monae, NASA, and Diversity in Tech by Phillipe Charles

Janelle Monae, NASA, and Diversity in Tech by Phillipe Charles

Most people didn’t know Janelle Monae would be attending Moogfest 2016 in Durham. It was a well-kept secret that I was only privy to as an American Underground staff member. But as soon as I heard, I RSVP’d for every session she’d be at and every show I thought she MIGHT show up at…just in case. (Sorry, not sorry.)

In my mind, I was going to bump into Janelle in the middle of a Professor Toon show and be like, “Hey, Janelle! Fancy seeing you here.” And we’d laugh and flirt over cocktails until finally, after a sobering discussion about why it would never work between us, we’d part ways, fondly holding onto the memory of that enchanting evening at Motorco.

But alas, this article isn’t about the alluring conversation between me and Janelle that could have but didn’t happen. It’s about inclusion and diversity in technology, and the role Durham is playing to combat disappointing numbers worldwide. So what does that have to do with the Electric Lady? EVERYTHING!

At a Moogfest session, Janelle spoke about Hidden Figures, a new movie she will be starring in with Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer. The movie centers around three female African-American mathematicians whose calculations helped launch some of NASA’s earliest missions, including John Glenn’s orbit around Earth and Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. As Janelle and screenwriter Allison Schroeder explained, despite the tense racial climate in the Jim Crow South of the 1960’s, the vibe within NASA was more progressive. If you could help them defeat the Soviets in the Space Race, you could be part of the team, regardless of race or gender.

As I sat there and soaked in this discussion, I couldn’t help but find parallels between that story and the “all hands on deck” nature of Durham. Durham is a place where all are welcome to contribute to its legacy. It’s a city where residents of all shades, genders, orientations, and backgrounds can proudly wear a Black Wall Street tee and come together to share Durham values through a music or arts festival.

Here at American Underground, we’re not launching space shuttles, we’re launching companies. And of those companies, 29% are female-led, as opposed to 8% nationally. 22% are minority-led as opposed to 1% nationally. I’ll be the first to say that this isn’t enough. But it’s progress. It’s a deviation from the norm. And as Durham continues to gain momentum and establish itself as a major contender in the national and global startup scene, I am confident our inclusive mindset will continue to propel us forward and distinguish us from the crowd.

After all, having a diverse company is not simply a noble goal, but also a competitive advantage and business asset. Innovation is most rich when it’s birthed from a mix of mindsets, backgrounds, talents and life experiences. So how do we each foster that sort of an environment, where everyone’s contribution is welcome? This is our mission.



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