Bill Generett Jr. has no problem having a full plate.
The former CEO of Urban Innovation21, who now serves as vice president for community engagement at Duquesne University, has added another important title—a member of Pennsylvania’s Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority (BFTDA) board.
The BFTDA, one of the largest state technology development programs in the U.S., was established to promote an entrepreneurial business environment, advance technology innovation and create a technology-ready workforce. The board’s mission is to encourage and coordinate programs and investments which advance the competitiveness of Pennsylvania companies and universities in the global economy.
Generett has an established track record in spurring economic development, particularly with African American entrepreneurs. During the decade or so as leader of Urban Innovation21, Generett helped fund, foster and support many entrepreneurial startups by economically-disadvantaged residents in the city, and launched new entities such as the Citizen Science Lab, which was Pittsburgh’s first life sciences community laboratory. Generett also developed a partnership with Reed Smith LLP that provided $1 million in pro bono legal services to Urban Innovation21’s entrepreneurs.
Over the years, Generett has served on several nonprofit boards and advisory committees including the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Energy Innovation Center, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Pittsburgh Economic Industrial Development Corporation, Neighborhood Allies, and The Heinz Endowments African American Male Initiative Advisory Committee. In 2014, he was appointed by then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzer to serve on the U.S. Department of Commerce National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Generett’s appointment to the BFTDA board makes him the only African American on the 21-member board. An opening became available when Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian, PhD, vacated his seat.
“After our steel and manufacturing industries collapsed in the early ‘80s, our state was able to transform its economy to one based in large part on technology and innovation. Our state’s transformation was better than many Rust Belt states, like Michigan or Ohio, because of the successful work and investments made over several decades by the BFTDA,” Generett told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview. “Unfortunately, what some of us noticed in the early 2000s was that a ‘rising tide’ did not lift all boats. While Pennsylvania’s economy was well on its way to being ‘transformed,’ the vast majority of African Americans throughout the state but particularly in Western Pa. were not connected to that transformation. Although today, we are seeing some real and tangible progress, in terms of the number of African American tech entrepreneurs and those working in ‘good jobs’ in the tech and innovation sectors in part of BFTDA investments, as we know we still have a lot of work to do.”
It’s well-documented the miniscule numbers of African Americans in the tech field. Facebook, for example, reported last year that just three percent of its total workforce was Black. Forty-nine percent were White, 40 percent were Asian. The three percent Black number was actually an increase from two percent in 2016. The Hispanic employment population at Facebook increased from four to five percent.
“We aren’t where we’d like to be, but we’re encouraged that over the past year, representation for people from underrepresented groups at Facebook has increased,” said Maxine Waters, an African American woman who is Chief Global Director of Diversity at Facebook, in an August 2017 statement released by the company.
And Google, a tech company so large that one almost can’t help but to have some type of association with it—whether via email, search, YouTube, etc.,—recently reported that their Black employees total only two percent.
Here in Pittsburgh, Kelauni Cook, a self-described millennial with an appetite for tech, recently started Black Tech Nation, an organization geared to unite African Americans in the tech fields and to promote tech professions to younger Blacks. After all, the technology field is growing, and so are the number of jobs.
Generett, a Pittsburgh native who’s also an attorney, said that one of his main goals since returning to the Steel City was also “to make sure African Americans were connected to the good entrepreneurial opportunities and jobs in the tech and innovation sector.
“I will bring my unique experiences working in academia, technology-based economic development, community development and the private sector to the BFTDA board,” Generett said. “I will work to make sure BFTDA continues to support programs and provide positive benefits to African Americans and other populations underrepresented in technology and innovation sectors.”
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