Native American Heritage Month: Indigenous Tech Leaders Strive To Uplift Tribes

Native American tech leaders from Google Cloud, Clutch Solutions and Second Derivative talk about inspiration from their roots and efforts to bring more indigenous people into the field.

For Renita DiStefano, CEO of services provider Second Derivative and a member of the Seneca Nation, growing up with women as the center of the community has served as an inspiration throughout her career in technology.

Garrette Backie, founder and CEO of services provider Clutch Solutions and a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said he employs his tribe‘s philosophy of making decisions to benefit descendents to come into how he runs his business and helps customers.

And Jason Hinds, a Cherokee and leader for Google Cloud’s customer engineering organization for North America, keeps a chalk drawing of his grandfather’s grandfather in his office to celebrate his background.

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These three leaders in technology are just a sample of Native Americans who hold influential roles in IT and the channel. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, DiStegano, Backie and Hinds spoke with CRN about the influence their backgrounds have had on their careers and the efforts they support to introduce more Native Americans and underrepresented people to the field of IT and the channel.

[RELATED: Native American Heritage Month: Celebrating Indigenous Influencers In Tech]

Native Americans In Tech

But while we celebrate these contributions, it’s important to remember how much work remains to create greater equity in tech.

Despite more than 600 Native American and Alaskan Native tribes in the U.S. making up more than 1 percent of the population, indigenous people are less than .005 percent of the tech workforce in the country, according to Cisco.

Organizations that strive to create more opportunities in tech for Native Americans include the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), Natives in Tech, Sisterhood of Native American Coders (SONAC), The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and Native American Capital (NAC).

Women A Force In Seneca Nation

DiStefano founded Lake View, N.Y.-based Second Derivative just in September, according to her LinkedIn account. Second Derivative provides strategic business and technology alignment, information security strategies and portfolio management services. DiStefano herself is a specialist in IBM iSeries information security.

She worked at Seneca Gaming Corp. – established by the Seneca Nation – for more than 16 years, leaving in September with the title of chief information officer and vice president of information technology, according to her LinkedIn.

Growing up on the Cattaraugus Territory within New York state, DiStefano told CRN in an interview, families were tight knit and women did everything from canning to beadwork to leather work to holding office in the community. She was taught that the most important person in the room is the one speaking. These lessons “became the fabric of my leadership style,” she said.

“We never had to ask for a seat at the table, or to legislate for the right to vote or have a say in what happens within our communities. … that kind of culture is deeply rooted in the principles of respect – respect for women I just talked about, respect for elders, for the environment, relationships,” she said. “I learned those things as a way of life, not just as a theory on business management. But at an early age from the wisdom of elders. So that is, for me, what we call a competitive advantage.”

Groups to bring more women into cybersecurity and regional organizations dedicated to diversity in tech such as TechBuffalo are making a difference, DiStefano said.

Hiring based on someone’s experience and not an Ivy League education will also help increase equity in the field, she said.

“I will hire somebody who has been through adversity all day long over somebody who‘s got an Ivy League education – not that those two things are mutually exclusive, but somebody who’s had to tough it out and grind it out and make their way in the world, they have skills that you can‘t get anywhere other than through life experience,” she said.

The Seventh Generation

In 2017, Backie founded Mesa, Ariz.-based Clutch Solutions – No. 385 on CRN’s 2022 Solution Provider 500. Clutch has more than 1,000 vendor partners, including Microsoft, Dell, Cisco and Lenovo.

Growing up in Michigan, Backie was taught about the philosophy of Seventh Generation – one has to make decisions that not only benefit people today, but seven generations into the future, he told CRN in an interview. The Seventh Generation is a principle among multiple indigenous groups.

The philosophy has been with him in his business practice, but he wants to see organizations engaged in diversity efforts remember the philosophy. Organizations should be prepared to help Native Americans and other underrepresented groups in technology with complex issues, such as lack of access to broadband and health care, that prevent them from entering jobs in the technology industry.

He wants changemakers to help Native Americans not because they can gain financially, but because it’s morally right, he said.

“We want to be able to deliver, not a box, not a solution, but progress tomorrow,” he said. “When we talk about my tribe, being the Seventh Generation – what‘s the Seventh Generation to come? What are you preparing yourself for? And so the best wishes I have is for people not to do it because it’s a good time to do it. They should do it because it‘s a good thing to do. And it’s not just the Native Americans. It‘s any culture out there that really needs a focus, money or no money. We really need to just take the time.”

Someone who helped to instill the importance of community and giving back in backie was his father, Robert, who died earlier this year. Backie’s father used to help financially support tribe members going to college. Backie has continued his father’s efforts with a scholarship through Clutch Solutions, he said.

“Us as a company, now we‘ve taken that idea and we named it after my father and made it a scholarship to where we can go to tribes that maybe don’t have that position and place and have not done that for their own – but yet there’s people that are qualified to be able to have a better education.”

Remember Where You Came From

Hinds, who grew up in East Texas, told CRN in an interview that Mountain View, Calif.-based Google has an aboriginal and indigenous networking group whose efforts include donating to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, mentoring Native Americans and showing young people how they can have a successful career in tech.

“It’s a group that, for the first time in my career, I’ve felt like we actually are starting to make a difference in this area for the people that I grew up with,” he said.

Efforts like Google Fiber’s push for internet connectivity in rural places also helps diversify the tech talent pipeline, he said. For employers looking to help, recruiting from state schools, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), aboriginal schools and away from Ivy League schools should help with equality.

“We’re very, very early in where we need to get,” he said. “And it’s going to take a long time of dedicated effort, but we‘re getting there. And the focus is in the right place. And it’s one of the better parts of my job today.”

Hinds has been with Google for about three years and in his current role since January, according to his LinkedIn account.

He focuses on joint solution design and implementation of platforms for connected devices, web applications, containerized applications, hybrid cloud, multi-cloud, machine learning, legacy enterprise applications, high-performance computing, security and more areas. His solutions are built on Google Cloud Platform, Google Workspace, Android, Chrome and other Google offerings. He works with partners and to further build out Google’s channel presence.

He previously worked at EY for about a year in the company’s cloud digital advisory, leaving in 2019, according to his LinkedIn. Hinds worked at Microsoft for more than 11 years on and off, most recently leaving in 2019 as a senior director responsible for the Azure business for the U,S. Central and West regions for the tech giant’s financial services wing.

And Hinds worked at Amazon Web Services for almost two years, leaving in 2016 as a senior leader responsible for the specialization solutions architecture team supporting AWS’ global sales organization, according to his LinkedIn.

Everywhere he’s gone, he’s kept a picture in his office of his grandfather’s grandfather – ᎠᏓᏟᏒᎢ ᎠᏫᎢᎾᎨᎡᎯ, pronounced in English as A-da-tli-sv-i A-wi-i-na-ge-e-hi and roughly translated as “Running Deer.” The picture is meant to show pride in his heritage, he said.

“No one should be in any way ashamed of where they came from because their experiences shaped who they are and how they got to this point today,” he said.