BLOG: Diversity is a given not a challenge – a vision for Birmingham Tech Week 2030

Birmingham Tech Week 2020 was yet another inspiring celebration of the thriving tech industry in the West Midlands, the spirit of collaboration, and the diversity of our innovative talent. The Innovation Alliance WM was delighted to host two events during the week – alongside Digital Innovators, TIN Smart Social, and GBSLEP – that focused on how we can grow the diverse talent pipeline and specifically the question ‘how do we ensure diversity is a given and not a challenge by Birmingham Tech Week 2030’

The two ‘Birmingham Tech Week 2030’ events thus looked at the current mechanisms and support in place that seeks to nurture new talent in the West Midlands, as well as an examination of the actions needed to further implement this change and overcome existing and future barriers to ensure diversity ceases to be a challenge in our region. 

Next Generation and New Voices of Innovation

Our first event took place on 13th October and celebrated the Next Generation and New Voices of Innovation. We were thrilled to welcome 6 young innovators that have recently been supported by two fantastic training programmes in the West Midlands: Digital Innovators and Digisheds. Each of the speakers praised the invaluable support they received from the programmes, with Mohammed Ghaleb (Digital Innovators) remarking: “I cannot stress enough how much the programme has benefited me”, and Kobi explaining how it changed his life for the better: “Before Digital Innovators I was a whole different person.” 

It became apparent that what had struck the majority of the young innovators was the discovery of the amount of skills they hadn’t realised that they already possessed. The emphasis on soft skills throughout the programmes opened them up to a world of possibility and opportunity and instilled in them the passion and confidence that enabled them to go onto achieve further employment. This need to put further emphasis on the value of soft skills was echoed throughout the two days. 

We then heard from three of our New Voices of Innovation – a platform in development by Innovation Alliance WM that aims to promote a range of innovators that reflect the diversity of talent in our region. Anwar Almojarkesh (Sound Classification Expert), Naomi Robinson (Analyst at Capgemini) and Hamza Ali (Digital forensic analyst) spoke eloquently about their experience, top tips for success, and shared insights that they wish they had known when they started their journeys. 

Anwar in particular emphasised the importance of collaboration, and how understanding how to build a successful team is key to producing a successful innovation. Naomi reminded us to ask ourselves critical questions about our own personalities and what we want from a workplace – ensuring we realise our own soft skills, values and work ethics. Finally, Hamza encouraged us to not be afraid of making mistakes: “A mistake is only a failure when you do not learn anything from it.” 

Panel Discussion – Growing the Diverse Talent Pipeline

Our panel discussion the next day drew on some of the ideas and discussions from the previous session, tackling broader questions about how we as a region can champion diversity in innovation. The questions posed to our panel were as follows: 

  1. What barriers do we need to overcome to ensure diversity is a given not a challenge by Birmingham Tech 2030? 
  2. How do we create more innovators that self-identify as entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs? 
  3. How do we develop a diverse talent pipeline that meets the employability needs of the future? 

We were delighted to welcome a fantastic panel: Dan Hoff Rodrigues (Founder of {CX}2 Talent solutions); Kari Lawler (Youth4AI Founder); Darren Campbell (Director at Capgemini); Harry Paige (Engagement & Delivery Manager at Digital Innovators), and Chaired by Pam Waddell OBE (Director at Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands). 

There was agreement amongst the panel that we need to start engaging and nurturing young talent at a much earlier stage, and employers need to be more involved in this process at all stages of education and training. Digital Innovators and Digisheds are excellent examples of programmes that recognise the need to engage with and train young students for tech careers, but also, critically, to address aptitudes and attitudes that prepare people to be innovators. The question was raised though: are we responding directly to the needs and perspectives of young people and supporting them in a way that is relevant to the world they are growing up in – leading from behind? 

There are still evident gaps that need to be addressed.  Kari, for example, explained the gender split that develops between the ages of about 11 to 17 that suggests a growing disillusion and lack of engagement among young females towards the tech industry. More awareness of the importance of soft skills throughout schooling, and more encouragement and transparency from potential employers, may work to address this gap and reduce potential stigmas and stereotyping surrounding the industry.

But we also need to look further up the pipeline, into the workplace. Harry expressed the need to ensure that the tech industry is actively promoting the possibility of flexible working to ensure that it isn’t unknowingly creating barriers for certain people or groups. This transparency is also needed in relation to available roles – as Naomi had stressed previously, it is entirely possible to pursue a career in the tech industry without having a technical role.  So perhaps more emphasis on aptitudes and attitudes rather than experience is needed when recruiting or promoting, along with more in employment mentoring and support for people to move into tech and innovation roles who have come in to organisations through non-tech routes. The diverse range of opportunities available thus needs to be emphasised and opened to more diverse candidates. 

Finally, and perhaps crucially, we need to ensure that the tech industry and world of innovation reflects the diverse talent it wishes to attract. By showcasing the diversity already present in the industry, younger people and those new to tech and innovation can envisage themselves more clearly in these roles – and ensure it is plainly evident that anybody can be an innovator. 

The pandemic will inevitably bring further challenges – particularly now that remote working may mean that employers will be more likely to employ people with mainstream tech experience – but it is nonetheless clear that there is plenty of work that we can do in our region to ensure we are continuing to champion diversity and helping people to ‘see it to be it’ in tech and innovation.  

You can read more about our Next Gen and New Voices and watch the discussion here, and you can read more about our panel here.