TAI President Brian Waller introduces the audience to Catalyst Louis Moreno on Dec. 5. Contributed photo

At the Technology Association of Iowa’s Catalysts Live presentation on Thursday, seven Iowans challenged the audience to continue forward. 

2019 is the second year TAI has released its Catalysts interviews, which are published in full at catalystsiowa.com. This year’s honorees are recognized for promoting underrepresented groups in Iowa’s technology industries with policies and advocacy to build a more diverse workforce in the state. Published below are a few takeaways from each presenter’s time speaking at the Tea Room in downtown Des Moines.

The 2019 honorees are: 
Ike Brown, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield
Janice Eagle Hawk, former IT director, Meskwaki Nation (unable to attend Dec. 5)
Kerty Levy, Techstars Iowa
Praveen Mohan, Pella Corp.
Shea Daniels, Dwolla
Eddie Etsey, University of Iowa Athletics
Louis Moreno, Ruan Transportation Management Systems
Gary Scholten, Principal Financial Group

Ike Brown, team leader, data center and recovery, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield

In the middle of national polarization, companies can choose to demonstrate unifying values, Brown told the audience. It will take some reflection. 

“It would behoove a company to evaluate their own senior leadership team in order to see if that same team portrays diversity and inclusion. In other words, the faces in the executive boardroom should be as diverse as the faces in the employee breakroom. 

“I’m honored to be classified and characterized as a catalyst … but really, everybody under the sound of my voice this evening is a change agent,” Brown said. “You do that by modeling inclusive behavior, you do that by walking the walk.” 

Kerty Levy, managing director, Techstars Iowa

In 2018, $117 billion of venture capital went into U.S. startups -- and 38% of that money went to startups on the West Coast, Levy said. Only 1.2% came to the Midwest, which was shared among North and South Dakota, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. 

A public report by Crunchbase that year polling 10,000 startup founders learned that 9% of women-founded startups received investment; 1% of African-American-founded startups received investment; and 1.8% of Latino-founded startups received investment. 

“I’ve visited a number of universities, and I’m even sat as a judge on a panel for … a startup weekend at one of these colleges. I can tell you that the students who are out there pitching, they look pretty diverse to me, and pretty awesome,” Levy said. 

Praveen Mohan, senior IT manager, infrastructure and architecture, Pella Corp.

The average life expectancy for a Fortune 500 company is about 14 years these days, which is why Mohan doesn’t take the Pella Corp., founded in 1925, for granted. It continues by building sustainable top-talent recruitment efforts, he said. 

“One question I ask myself when I am ready to hire is, ‘This person, can he or she be the next CIO of Pella Corporation? Can he or she be the next CEO of Pella Corporation?’” Mohan said. “Our current CIO started as an intern with the company. … Our current CEO started in a starting job right out of college 30 years ago. It is possible.” 

Shea Daniels, lead software engineer, Dwolla

“I can predict some things. I can talk about AI, or the future of automation or the impact social media is having on our society. … But I don’t know how to predict the future on things that are really important to me,” Daniels said. “What’s really important to me is whether our society is going to be one that’s safe for people that look like me, and people that don’t look like me. Some people carry an extra heavy burden because of simply who they are in society. 

“When we waffle on policy or we take too long to make progress, real people get hurt,” Daniels added. “I actually think there’s hope. But there’s only hope if each and every one of us does the work.” 

Eddie Etsey, director of sports and information technology, University of Iowa Athletics

In Iowa City, Etsey founded the Council for Black Men in Technology in Iowa to provide supportive framework and relationships for black men who feel isolated in their industries. 

“It’s hard sometimes when you sit in a room full of people, and you look around and there’s so much joy -- but yet you feel so alone because you have nobody else to relate to. It’s the reality of what people live every day,” Etsey said. 

He chose to end his comments with spoken-word poetry. 

“For those of us who live in the diversity world, this is not a buzzword, it’s not a toy. It is reality,” Etsey said. “Let’s talk about equality and identity.” 

Louis Moreno, systems support analyst, Ruan Transportation Management Systems

At age 19, Moreno’s career at Ruan Transportation Management Systems is still emerging -- yet he has already put in 2,000 hours for his IT certification, starting from his high school years, when he joined Ruan’s Registered Apprenticeship Program. 

Other companies should take Ruan’s lead, Moreno argued. 

“We all think about what is going to be the next big technology … augmented reality being the next big thing, bitcoin, blockchain technology, but we need to sort of focus on taking a different perspective. People are going to support that technology,” Moreno said. “What an apprenticeship allows you to do is grab talent before it’s even available to the market.” 

“We want other companies to start apprenticeships. … I didn’t only work for 2,000 hours, I got paid on top of it. I got real work experience,” he added. “Make some big opportunities happen next year.” 

Gary Scholten, executive vice president, chief information officer and chief digital officer, Principal Financial Group

Scholten is nearing retirement after nearly 40 years at Principal, and since at least 2005, he has had the same goal for the state. 

“Before I retire, I want Iowa to be known as a technology state,” Scholten said.

Now he can do that, crediting what he called Iowa’s four "superpowers" in the state: education (particularly STEM education), inclusion, collaboration and fearlessness as demonstrated by startups and major corporations in the state.

“There’s a much better ecosystem for startups now. … When they started, you had to have faith and you had to have courage, because there was not an ecosystem around [10 years ago],” he said. 

“When I compare us to the coastal companies, they may have more of a loud swagger, they may be from Stanford or MIT or Ivy League or Cal Berkeley. We have more of a quiet swagger,” he said. “Here in Iowa, we get s--t done.”