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Crunchbase Spotlight: Jenn Van Dam, Digital and Community Manager, Innovation Works

Crunchbase Spotlight is a series that celebrates diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship, venture capital, and tech by profiling people of color, women, and individuals who identify as LGBTQ.

Crunchbase Spotlight: Jenn Van DamThe Steelers, the first emoticon, the world’s first movie theater… these are just a few of the things Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is known for.

Over the last five years, Pittsburgh – like many cities around the country – has undergone a transformation as more tech companies are establishing offices in the area. With this growth comes the inevitable issue of diversity and inclusion, which no tech hub is immune to.

To get the lowdown on the growing Pittsburgh tech scene, we met with Jenn Van Dam. Van Dam is the Digital and Community Manager at Innovation Works – the most active seed-stage investor in Southwestern Pennsylvania with over 370 portfolio companies – and a champion for diversity and inclusiveness in tech.

The Early Days

Originally from New Jersey and born into a blue-collar family, Van Dam wasn’t a “techie” growing up. Tech, as a profession, just wasn’t on her radar until she went to Chatham University in Pittsburgh. “In college, I worked at the help desk, which made me think about tech in a different way. It wasn’t something that I thought I was going to do as a career, but it helped me to start thinking about tech as something that’s acceptable and something I can do.”

Moving to New York for grad school, Van Dam found her way to the Third Wave Fund, a feminist fund for activist-led organizations that support women of color and individuals who identify as LGBTQ. This was the first time Van Dam was exposed to how an organization raises funds and uses that capital to fund other organizations. Her experience at Third Wave Fund would prove vital for the work she would soon embark on.

As time went on, Van Dam came to the same realization many people living in cities like New York do – it’s expensive to live there! Paying for grad school on top of living expenses in New York isn’t easy, leading Jenn to the fateful day she officially entered the tech industry.

Van Dam made her way to Squarespace, a tech startup that enables anyone to create a website with little-to-no technical skills. There she was on the team’s customer support team, working closely with entrepreneurs and small business owners and helping them develop their websites.

After two years, Van Dam said goodbye to the Big Apple and moved back to Pittsburgh.

Making Tech More Diverse and Inclusive in Pittsburgh

There’s a severe lack of diversity and inclusiveness in the tech industry, but that’s not news to anyone.

There isn’t a tech hub in the world that has diversity and/or inclusion figured out. As Pittsburgh’s tech scene has grown over the years, they’ve inevitably run into the same hurdles as many before them.

For instance, Van Dam told us about A Black woman named Kelauni Cook who moved to Pittsburgh for a coding bootcamp years ago. Realizing she wasn’t meeting many black people coding, she started asking questions and imagining what it would be like to have more people of color who coded. Her questioning the status quo helped Kelauni form Black Tech Nation to explore solutions and create a community for black coders.

When Van Dam moved back to Pittsburgh, she was hired by Innovation Works to serve as a Program Coordinator for the company’s software accelerator program, AlphaLab. There she helped tech startups with their marketing and business plans. Her experience at Squarespace was a big value add in this area as she had experience helping entrepreneurs.

When she was promoted to her current role as Digital and Community Manager, she leveraged the community side of her responsibilities to create opportunities to further the conversation around diversity and inclusion in the Pittsburgh tech scene. As Van Dam explained it, “When I first moved back to Pittsburgh, I heard a lot of ‘there aren’t a lot of Latino people in Pittsburgh.’ So, I went out and connected with different Latino organizations and put together an event that highlighted Latino people in Pittsburgh who work in the tech and media industries.”

Not only is she championing diversity and inclusion through her role at Innovation Works, but she’s also doing so outside of work through speaking engagements at local and national conferences, including the Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco and the TechUp Summit in Washington, DC.

Beyond speaking, Van Dam has also helped startups develop more inclusive cultures through live events and an Innovation Works podcast she co-hosts called Caffeinated Innovation.

Finally, thanks to her hard work and passion for a more diverse and inclusive tech industry, Van Dam was highlighted as one of HBCUvc’s 31 under 31: The Future of Venture Capital. This Fall she is upping her skills in the Venture Capital industry by attending NVCA & Berkeley Law’s VC University online program as a scholarship recipient. Van Dam notes that there is more work to be done and she’s excited about what the Pittsburgh tech ecosystem will look like when even more barriers are broken down.