Boosting the ranks of blacks in tech
JOHN PLETZ ON TECH
If you think there aren't many female tech entrepreneurs and coders, there are far fewer African-Americans.
In the heart of Silicon Valley, giants such as Google and Facebook report about 1 percent of their tech staffs are African-American. Apple tops the list at 7 percent of its tech staff. By contrast, the same companies report 15 percent to 22 percent women in technology jobs. (Hispanics are about 3 percent.)
But Dominic Liddell, Thomas Stovall and Fabian Elliott are trying to improve the odds in Chicago.
Liddell leads Coding While Black, a nonprofit that aims to teach more African-Americans to code and help them get tech jobs. Stovall, CEO of Chicago startup Candid Cup, also organized BlackInTech, a series of seminars and panel discussions to help more entrepreneurs get in the game and find help launching their companies. Both recently held gatherings at 1871 that drew 75 to 100 people.
Elliott, a Google marketer, leads Black Tech Mecca, which is building a network to connect the disparate elements of the black tech ecosystem in Chicago and increase the amount of talent in the local tech economy. It's holding a hackathon at 1871 next week.
Neither Liddell nor Stovall know how many African-American entrepreneurs and technologists there are in Chicago. But after more than a year of meetings and events, “it's much larger than I realized,” Stovall said during an Oct. 7 entrepreneur event at 1871 that attracted more than 100 people. He says the group's three events have been sold out. He's gathering input here.
One of the biggest challenges is many entrepreneurs and coders are not connected with their peers because the networks don't exist. That was a common lament about the broader Chicago tech community that helped lead to 1871 and Built In Chicago.
Although meetings seem like baby steps, they're crucial, Stovall says. “It opens up people's minds to what tech looks like.”
TECH AS A CAREER
Liddell can relate. The 33-year-old grew up in Lawndale and went to Northern Illinois University, where he studied early childhood education and psychology.
“I had been coding since I was 11,” he says. “But I didn't see tech as a career. It was a hobby.”
He taught preschool before he found his way back to tech, attending I.C. Stars, launching his own web-development business and teaching others to code at a bootcamp. He's running Coding While Black from 1871.
It started as a meetup group, but now it's taken on a bigger mission of teaching people to code. In addition to monthly “Open Code Saturday” sessions where people can collaborate in coding classes and on particular tech problems they're having with a business or product, Liddell wants to launch a one-year fellowship program that will teach 10 to 20 people how to code and give them experience working on real products for customers.
He wants to offer students a stipend so they can afford to participate, but it will be a part-time program, because he figures students will still have to work to support themselves.
“This is a good time to turn the conversation from highlighting the issue to working toward a solution,” Liddell said.