City of Toronto director of strategic initiatives Siri Agrell speaks during the inaugural Elevate Toronto conference on Sept. 12, 2017. (Photo courtesy Elevate Toronto)

Published: September 14th, 2017

TORONTO – Before becoming Toronto Mayor John Tory’s director of strategic initiatives, Siri Agrell served as an urban affairs reporter with the Globe and Mail, and her presentation calling out the tech industry’s lack of diversity during the city’s inaugural Elevate Toronto conference dripped with journalistic candour.

“There are a lot of words that are fun and easy to say without actually doing anything,” she said, standing in front of a projected quote – “I care deeply about diversity in tech” – credited to “pretty much every one in this room.”

“A lot of them are swear words,” Agrell added, to laughter, before citing a frequently-dismissed example dear to many in the tech industry: Innovation.

“In politics, it’s easy to go to events pretty much any day of the week and stand next to tech founders and talk about innovation and people who are building companies and creating jobs, and I imagine it’s annoying for those of you who work in the sector to hear people talk about you and pay lip service to what you do without really understanding you, or what you’re trying to achieve, or what you need, or who you are, and without announcing any action that they’re taking to make you succeed,” Agrell said.

“I would imagine it’s especially frustrating to hear a word thrown around like that if you’re in a sector that prides itself on being doers, on resisting the status quo, on actively introducing new solutions and new ideas, and resisting the urge to be complacent.”

“Yet ‘diversity’ is a word that we all filter around in the tech sector, without really doing anything,” she continued. “People say it’s important without actually engaging in it.”

Tech companies must take diversity seriously, Agrell said, for the same reason legacy companies in industries such as retail, banking, and energy must take digital transformation seriously: it’s becoming the present and future whether they like it or not.

Diversity is important because there are more Canadian women than Canadian men. It’s important because immigration has driven Canada’s population growth over the past half-decade. And its important because not all of your customers are white, straight, male, or able-bodied.

In her second slide, Agrell backed her words up with the following statistics:

  • There are 17.9 Canadian women, versus 17.6 Canadian men
  • 20 per cent of Canada’s population was born outside the country;
  • Immigrants represented two-thirds of the increase in Canada’s population growth between 2011 and 2016;
  • 48 per cent of Toronto’s population was born outside the country;
  • Immigration is expected to be the dominant source of Canada’s growth by 2056; and
  • Ethnically diverse companies are 35 per cent more likely to outperform their homogenous counterparts.

“Even if you don’t care about diversity because it’s been shown again, and again, and again that companies are more profitable and have better outcomes if they have higher diversity, you should care about it because our population is diverse, and our population is who you are trying to sell shit to,” Agrell said. “If you’re not exposed to… a lot of points of view, then what you hear will be muffled, and what you see will be skewed, and what you sell will be limited in its reach.”

The people calling for greater representation in the tech industry aren’t just doing so because they want a seat at the table, Agrell said: They’re doing so because they know it can lead to more opportunities, products, ideas, and successes.

And if you don’t listen to them, she added, you’re no different from the many newspapers in the media industry that assumed Craigslist’s online classifieds wouldn’t make a dent in their profits at the turn of the century.

“The tech sector likes to say it’s about pushing through by challenging expectations, asking questions, demanding something new,” Agrell said. “So why suddenly resist evolution, and expansion of thought, when it’s being demanded of you?”

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