Philly Startup Leaders names an African American executive director to foster inclusivity

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Kiera Smalls has been named the new executive director of Philly Startup Leaders.

Five months after admitting “poor efforts around diversity and inclusion,” Philly Startup Leaders, the advocacy group for Philadelphia’s technology community, has hired as its new executive director an African American woman committed to seeing that “all corners and communities have voices.”

Kiera Smalls said she will work to ensure that PSL’s reach is more encompassing and serves the needs “of all members and supporters” of the city’s tech community.

“It’s extremely important to make sure our impact reflects the demographics of the city,” Smalls, 28, who grew up in West Philadelphia and now lives in lower North Philadelphia, said in an interview Friday. “We’re talking about a really diverse city. The more we continue to have these conversations – and, yes, they will be hard and a lot of work – it’s worth it when you keep everyone in mind.”

Smalls is just the second PSL executive director in its 10-year history. She announced her appointment in a letter posted to the group’s website Monday morning that acknowledged the change she will champion takes determination and persistence.

“There will be challenges and roadblocks along the way but together, we can learn, build, and grow with each other,” Smalls wrote.

A graduate of West Chester University, where Smalls majored in criminal justice, she began her career in human resources before joining Bike Transit, a local start-up that operates bike-sharing systems across the country. In her three years there, Smalls built and maintained a marketing program for the city’s first bike-share initiative, Indego.

She is also co-founder of City Fit Girls, a fitness and wellness community for women of “all ages, backgrounds and body types,” as Smalls put it.

The PSL job appealed to her because the organization does for the tech community what Smalls has always done in her career, she said: connect people with resources.

“I was most excited to continue to do that work in a different industry,” she said. “I’m also excited to show that women and people of color belong in this space. If they don’t see themselves reflected, they might think it’s not for them.”

Smalls was selected from nearly 100 applicants, said PSL board president and serial entrepreneur Robert Moore.

“I’m so excited for Kiera to start because she is so good,” he said. “At the end of the day, it was her qualifications that got her the role.”

Precipitating PSL’s search for a new executive director was public criticism about its diversity efforts, made at the Black & Brown Founders Conference in October. During a panel discussion titled “How to Plug into Philadelphia’s Tech Ecosystem.” PSL’s then-executive director, Yuval Yarden, who is white, was on the panel with Tayyib Smith, cofounder of Little Giant Creative and Pipeline Philly, and Webjunto co-CEO Liz Brown. At one point, Smith characterized Yarden’s responses as “whitesplaining,” causing her to grow tearful and later say: “It is extremely difficult walking into a room where you’re really one of the only white people.”

In announcing Yarden’s resignation a few days later on PSL’s Slack and Google channels, Moore and PSL chairman Rick Nucci said she had “exemplified behavior and made statements … that were disappointing, inappropriate and unacceptable” and apologized, calling the incident “a reflection of our poor efforts around diversity and inclusion. We have serious work to do.”

In an interview then, Moore called Yarden “one of the most prolific and successful connectors of people and creators of good content in the start-up community” and said she would be an “amazing hire” at many companies. She is currently director for ecosystem engagement at Washington-based Global Entrepreneurship Network, which fosters entrepreneurship in 170 countries.

Recently, PSL, which has a staff of three, has doubled the size of its board to 11 directors and two special advisers to better reflect the needs of the start-up community it was formed to serve, Moore said. More than half  the board is nonwhite. When Moore took over as president last April, it had six members, only one of whom was black, he said.

Moore would not discuss Yarden’s departure other than to say the events leading up to it were enlightening.

“What became really clear through the experiences of late last year was we as an organization were in a position where we could be doing a much better job,” Moore said. “The best way to improve on what we were doing, rather than try to fix it ourselves or put our heads down, was to make sure we had the right people at the table helping us move forward.”