Local Trailblazers Advance Diversity in The Corridor’s High-Tech Industry

March 30 | insights

Across Florida, countless people and organizations are working to build a more diverse and inclusive innovation ecosystem that catalyzes the growth of creative ideas — regardless of who’s behind them.

The Corridor is proud to partner with two trailblazers who understand the power of diversity as a proven driver of innovation and its ability to result in more profitable outcomes. Their work to bridge gaps, create new pathways and advocate for underrepresented minorities is undoubtedly shaping our high-tech industry into a vibrant community where different viewpoints are not only welcome, but encouraged.

Rose LeJiste

Rose LeJiste, Executive Director

Black Orlando Tech

In her day job, Rose LeJiste serves as the CEO of RL Engineering and Tech Solutions, but it’s as the executive director of Black Orlando Tech (BOT) where her passion truly shines. BOT is a nonprofit committed to accelerating minority economic advancement through careers and entrepreneurship in technology; it’s here that she and a team of volunteers work to bridge the gaps many minority groups face in the tech field.

“It’s important to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves,” she explained.

Inspired and determined, LeJiste and her BOT team aim to empower the underrepresented and often underestimated black community through a series of meetups to help participants grow their support networks, accelerated training programs for adult learners seeking to change or advance their careers, and educational programming for first-time entrepreneurs.

When LeJiste crossed paths with The Corridor in 2021, collaboration was imminent. With Corridor leaders, LeJiste began exploring potential partnerships and immediately identified an opportunity to join The Corridor team in mentoring students at Oak Ridge High School as they studied business leadership in 3DE by Junior Achievement. Several months later, The Corridor and BOT teamed up again when LeJiste leveraged experience of The Corridor’s team to apply for grant funding.

These types of authentic connections are crucial to bridging the industry’s diversity and inclusion gaps, said LeJiste. They support the formation of an equitable industry that respects and meets unique needs and unleashes the potential of all participants.

As BOT gains traction in fulfilling its mission, LeJiste’s vision for what the team can achieve continues to grow. Someday, she would like BOT to find a physical home – as she described it, a hub where students can gather at a computer lab or studio to create and develop ideas and be mentored by industry leaders who can also utilize the talent and space for their entrepreneurial endeavors. Overall, she’d like to expand on the successes of current programs, too, including BOT’s Tech Skills Cohort and Startup Series, where individuals can earn specific technical certifications and significantly increase their income. As LeJiste says, the people and organizations that are working to build up the tech industry and workforce are changing lives and elevating communities.

Wanda Eugene

Dr. Wanda Eugene, Director

Collaboratory for Inclusive Entrepreneurship at UF Innovate

Dr. Wanda Eugene is a triathlete and actor who thought engineering would be a hobby until she realized as an undergraduate student just how much she loved to build things. Ever since, her work has centered on building more inclusive innovation communities in the STEM world.

As the director of the Collaboratory for Inclusive Entrepreneurship at UF Innovate, Eugene is on a mission to empower minority entrepreneurs – especially women and people of color. Her passion stems from firsthand experience navigating entrepreneurship as co-founder and managing director of DEEP Designs, a consulting company that offers human-centered product design support, mobile app, and software development and technical writing services to its clients.

Eugene considers the mantra, “lift as you climb,” while applying her experience as a successful entrepreneur to her work supporting others at the Collaboratory. Her team leads a variety of initiatives to build more inclusive entrepreneurial communities while bridging gaps and removing the barriers that women and people of color often face as they begin their startup journey. Ultimately, they hope to create an equitable tech entrepreneurship ecosystem for all. It’s vital to develop pathways for nontraditional participants, she explained.

Since September, Eugene has been helping create new pathways for women business owners to participate in the region’s innovation economy by securing Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards. Together with three other university-based entrepreneur support organizations and The Corridor, Eugene’s team is establishing a structured network of mentors and role models, equipping women entrepreneurs to develop competitive grant applications and streamlining commercialization pathways for their resulting STEM innovations. The hope is to help more women secure a portion of the $3.5 billion SBIR funds available.

“The most exciting part of my work is seeing entrepreneurs gain confidence in their abilities and learn skills that will help them grow throughout the program and beyond,” said Eugene.

America’s Seed Fund Catalyzes Innovation for Women-Owned Companies

With partners at the University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida, the University of Florida and the Florida Institute of Technology, The Corridor established a network of support organizations, role models and resources to help women-owned businesses develop competitive SBIR grant applications and streamline commercialization pathways for their resulting STEM innovations.