Creating an Inclusive Ecosystem: Colleen Liebig of PluggedIn STL

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Colleen_Liebig_IMG_3379_s300x300Nationwide, the need for increased diversity and inclusion in the startup space has (rightfully) gained more attention. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal government’s anti-discrimination watch dog, recently held a rare public hearing to examine disparities. We asked local leaders in the innovation class to weigh in on what St. Louis is doing right and how the city can improve as we move forward.

Colleen Liebig is CEO of PluggedIn STL.

From your perspective, what is the current level of inclusivity in the tech/startup community in St. Louis?

There are strong indicators that we are becoming more and more inclusive on the talent front. For instance, startups are hiring female coders through groups like LaunchCoder Girl. I believe the number of (aspiring) female entrepreneurs is very close to matching the number of male entrepreneurs, particularly among university students. We are always connecting foreign-born jobseekers with startups hiring for positions that require very specialized skill sets. It may not be evident that we have a diverse ecosystem, but we are certainly moving the dial.

What would a more inclusive ecosystem look like?

Leveling the playing field for women and minority investors, founders, and employees in the startup ecosystem requires intention and commitment to building an inclusive ecosystem and I believe we have the leadership in place to get there. Organizations such as, the International Institute of St. Louis, Mosaic Project, Prosper Women’s Accelerator, and Coder Girl, are helping to advance that mission.

What are a few things that could be done to get there?

From a hiring perspective, it’s important to consider building a diverse team. I think one of the mistakes startups make is hiring people who are a lot like them (same school, same group of friends, same religion). You’re not going to get the diversity you need to go about business because you’ll look at problems with very similar points of view.  Hiring people with different cultural & socioeconomic backgrounds, from different countries, who see the world very differently brings the diversity you need to come up with creative solutions to tough problems. Avoid the natural tendency of ‘birds of a feather flock together’  when building your team. You may get along easier, but if you can learn how to  understand, how to work with different types of people and unlock that harmony, that’s where real magic can happen on those teams.

What are some wins that you’ve already seen that show we’re taking the right steps as a community?

Startups are hiring students with F1 visas. They are taking the chance on them knowing that they are up against the grueling and costly visa application process. It’s assuring to know that startups are taking a leadership approach towards retaining foreign-born individuals in the St. Louis community. We are also seeing more females in leadership positions with local venture capital firms, management teams, and entrepreneurial support organizations.

In your role as a leader in the startup space, how can you use your influence to further progress and make STL’s ecosystem more inclusive?

At PluggedIn STL, we help companies understand their options when it comes to building their teams and provide resources for hiring international talent. Through our relationship with the International Institute, we are including immigrants with advanced degrees in our talent pool and helping them navigate the startup ecosystem. We also focus on helping women identify resources for developing their skill sets, launching new business ideas and pursue leadership roles.

This story appeared in EQ’s Summer 2016 issue.

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Kelly is Cofounder/Managing Partner of EQ and Cofounder of ALIVE Media Group. After earning an M.A. in literature at Washington University in St. Louis, Kelly cofounded ALIVE in 2002. He believes becoming an entrepreneur can change not only the life of that entrepreneur, but also his/her community and the world, and that being able to tell stories of transformation like that is the best job one could have.