Hillary Clinton dropped some big technology objectives last week when she released her all-encompassing “Initiative on Technology & Innovation” policy agenda.
The ambitious list of initiatives reads like an innovator’s dream, with proposals to connect every U.S. household to high-speed internet by 2020, train 50,000 new computer science teachers in the next decade, and even minimize the worries of budding entrepreneurs by deferring their federal students loans for up to three years.
In Philadelphia, the presumptive democratic nominee’s platform could do a lot to further the city’s commitment to attracting and retaining entrepreneurs. While some industry leaders say Philadelphia is already a microcosm of Clinton’s plan, others are skeptical about whether the stated initiatives can ever materialize here.
Computer Science for the Young Ones and Their Teachers, Too
Building the tech economy with investments in computer science and STEM education is a major facet of Clinton’s platform, pushing for more “makerspaces,” and teachers dedicated to computer science. The plan recognized Philadelphia’s own Science Leadership Academy as an innovative school model that “produced impressive results and engaged underrepresented populations in science and technology.”
The plan claims to build upon the Obama Administration’s “Computer Science for All,” but some say that the benefits of that initial program are barely visible on the ground.
“Obama proposed we train 100,000 new computer science teachers about five years ago and that didn’t happen,” said Tracey Welson-Rossman, founder of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit TechGirlz, which aims to get young girls interested in technology. “And now we are down to training just 50,000 new computer science teachers with Clinton’s plan.” Adding, “There’s a higher-level policy discussion happening, but then we need to look at actual execution.”
In Pennsylvania, a computer science certification for instructors doesn’t exist. Teachers in the discipline are only required to possess a Business, Computer, and Information Technology state certification, and schools will often throw a math or science teacher into the computer lab, a School District of Philadelphia representative told Philadelphia magazine, and courses related to computer science and technology are often not mandated.
“Regionally, with Tech Girlz, I see that our participants don’t have the teachers who have the expertise, said Welson-Rossman, “Our parents see it as important but our schools aren’t prioritizing computer science.” Welson-Rossman says TechGirlz, now in its fifth year, has worked with 5,000 girls to date. A recent survey by the program found that close to 80 percent of participants had changed their minds about a career in tech after one workshop. “It’s all about how we teach and present these skills and this industry to our students,” Welson-Rossman said.
Another program in Philadelphia is already aligned with Clinton’s mission to train new teachers and get them into the classroom. This fall, the Coded by Kids Teaching Fellowship will launch, placing college juniors or seniors, recent graduates, and freelance tech professionals with backgrounds in computer science, web development, and graphic design, in the classroom with middle and high school students for several hours each week.
But programs like TechGirlz are extracurricular and must be sought out by students. Clinton’s plan could do more to forge partnerships between such outside organizations and schools.
“Philadelphia needs to create public partnerships with the nonprofits that are already delivering these resources to kids, said Welson-Rossman, adding that to move forward with a plan like Clinton’s in this city, a lot would need to happen first.
For example, computer labs in Philadelphia schools are being used for testing, and there’s a divide in the way girls and boys learn and relate to technology that Welson-Rossman says might not be addressed at the classroom level.
“Philly could be the place to incubate and test out the ideas of the plan, and Clinton would find a welcoming space to try things out,” Welson-Rossman said.
She added, “It isn’t an accident that TechGirlz has grown. That one of the largest women in tech conferences is here is no accident. A lot of [Clinton’s] ideas like increasing diversity and women in the tech space, those have been part of our discussion all along.”
Pumping Up the Talent Pipeline
Stemming directly from training students in computer science is the city’s ability to retain, recruit and diversify its tech pipeline and workforce, another large area of Clinton’s plan. The agenda calls for increasing access to capital for growth-minded small businesses and start-ups with an eye for minority, women and young entrepreneurs. And access means anything from deferring federal student loans for young entrepreneurs to attracting talent from around the world by removing barriers like visa backlogs.
“There’s a lot of talent here,” said Archna Sahay, director of entrepreneurial investment for the city, “And Philadelphia’s location makes it a great entry point. We’re in between multiple innovation hubs. Startups can attract talent from inside and outside of the city, and internationally, tech leaders are looking to come here.”
She added, “It’s about getting the word out that innovation is happening in Philly.”
And where Philly is with tech workforce diversity, a recent study ranked the city fifth in the nation for STEM workforce diversity and another study by the same organization ranked Philadelphia as the ninth best U.S. city for women in tech, with one of the smallest gender pay gaps and women filling 30.6 percent of computer occupations.
“Anecdotally, the number of women starting tech businesses here has increased,” Sahay said, “and the number of women in our tech workforce is higher than the national average.”
While Philadelphia has the largest Girl Develop It chapter nationwide, for example, and other programs like LadyHacks, the city could use more initiatives that support and recognize companies committed to diversity, some leaders say.
“There’s room to empower women in Philadelphia more,” said Yuval Yarden, Philly Startup Leaders‘ program director. “The venture capitalists say that when they give money to women, they have found that there is a higher chance that they’ll get a return. But some women don’t even make it to the point where they are asking for money.”
Her solution? Implement programs that target women earlier, “to help women see that they can build their own businesses from the start,” Yarden said, an idea not reflected in Clinton’s plan.
And as a young person who worked at a start-up, Yarden, a Temple University alumna, said Clinton’s plan to defer loans would allow more recent graduates to experiment in the tech sector and potentially stay committed there without the omnipotent burden of loans.
“Starting a business is a luxury,” she said, “and the average person isn’t doing it.”
From Research To Commercialization
Another notable section of Clinton’s plan is its pledge to make technology transfer — the process by which research discoveries translate to commercial products — easier for researchers and innovators.
The plan states that the administration would allot a small portion of federal research budgets for commercialization capacity building and accelerator grants. The initiative would also expand on programs like the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Regional Innovation Program that provides resources like grants and training to help businesses expand.
A 2014 report from the CEO Council for Growth, an initiative of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, found that the region, with esteemed institutions like the Drexel, Temple, and the University of Pennsylvania, is strong in research activity but less effective at turning that technology into innovations that attract venture capital.
“Expanding programs like the [National Science Foundation’s] Innovation Corps [as stated in Clinton’s plan] will provide further resources for institutions such as Penn and the Science Center to focus even more on commercialization and tech transfer, said Luke Butler, Curalate’s strategies and operations manager, “[And that’s] something [that] has become a real priority for our universities, hospitals, and research institutions.”
The report from the commerce department showed that between 2007 and 2014 the region maintained its strong ability to produce students with science and engineering degrees but also maintained its sub-par performance in academic research and development funding. The report also ranked Philadelphia 12th in venture capital investment behind regions like Atlanta, Boston, and Nashville.
The findings call for the region to develop a collaborative cycle of more research activity leading to more entrepreneurial ventures, resulting in more potential deals, more investor attention, and more funding, a cycle Clinton’s plan wants to produce in areas across the country.
“Government at all levels plays an important role in championing and providing resources for startup communities,” Butler said.
He added: “Philadelphia is very well-placed to take advantage of the comprehensive strategy for technology and innovation outlined by the Clinton campaign and for Philly this builds on much of the progress that started with Mayor Nutter with programs like Startup PHL and continues under Mayor Kenney.”
Other facets of Hillary’s platform call for increasing the amount of technology the country exports. In 2014, technology was one of the Greater Philadelphia region’s top five exports, according to the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia. Clinton’s far-reaching plan also calls for high-speed internet in every household by 2020. Some reports have said that about 55 percent of Philadelphia households lack regular internet access.
Clinton’s plan is right on target with what Philadelphia is already doing and with where the city wants to go.