#BlackTechMatters—gaming, coding and apps; African Americans face obstacles
Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 5/25/2017, midnight
Anari Sengbe, who comes from a family of immigrants from Sierre Leone, is now one of the most sought after coders and app creators in America. He is part of a class of burgeoning “techies” rising from all walks of Black life.
Sengbe, for example, got his start playing games on a PlayStation when he was a kid, coming from the African coast to equally sunny California.
Late in April, NBC News reported a growing hashtag #BlackTechMatters. According to the news network and other media sources, more and more Blacks are getting into advanced technology, and the result is a new class of developers being sought after by major companies.
But it’s not all good news, say some. Sengbe says media coverage, even in Black media, and the awareness within the Black community of the opportunities in the app development and coding arenas remains disproportionately low. And then there’s the issue of funding for programs to attract Black students.
But talk to Sengbe and you will hear an amazing array of accomplishments that have companies such as Mercedes and DirectTV hiring the Sierra Leone immigrant to develop apps that attract young consumers enthralled with new technology, especially if it revolves around their smart phones.
Sengbe believes that if former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had given him the time of day, she would have won the election.
“If she’d used my app, she would have won,” Sengbe claims while talking about GoVote, an app he built for the Clinton campaign. GoVote allowed volunteers to wait in line for voters and it also allowed donors to cover the ride share cost of voters unable to make it to the polls on their own for health or other reasons.
“If only three people volunteered to wait in line in Pennsylvania… then we know something is up in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Companies, schools making effort to develop Black techies
Some companies, such as Google, despite the political climate revolving around a current president who is distinctly unaware of the alarming disparity of African Americans in high-end technology positions, are seeking diversity for their work forces and designing programs to make that happen.
And right along with those companies is a bevy of universities also developing programs - along with scholarships - to expand the class of Black techies entering a high-paced and well paid work force devoted to advancing technology even beyond today’s saturation.
In fact, California was host recently to the first ever Silicon Valley Black Youth Hackathon, sponsored by the Silicone Valley Black Chamber of Commerce, Jack and Jill of America, Yes We Code, Rocket Fuel, Bay Area Tutoring and Black Enterprise. It was open to Black youth ages 16 to 24 years. At the “code fest,” attendees were divided into teams that included coders, engineers, product designers, marketers and presenters who had to learn to collaborate to develop a solution to a problem.
“This event brought together some of the most talented young African American minds in the Bay Area,” reports Carl Davis Jr., president of the Silicone Valley Black Chamber of Commerce. “We are gathering to design, create and present the best software solution to a pre-determined challenge using not only STEM, but also business principles.”
Involving roughly 150 African American young people and 50-plus Silicon Valley techies, the techfest included two challenges around app development: one, to help the San Francisco Bay Area African American community use technology to enhance opportunities for employment, entrepreneurship, and education; and another, to increase awareness of fitness activities, events and exercise.
The East Coast is getting in on the app and coding movement as well. Google, for example, has partnered with Howard University and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser with a program called In3, which provides space and opportunities for people of color to develop their skills in the arenas of coding, gaming and app development.
Aaron Saunders, founder and CEO of Clearly Innovative, wants to transform the tech landscape while giving Black entrepreneurs a seat at the table with Inclusive Innovation Incubator, known as “In3,” a co-working space for tech entrepreneurs who are in their launch phase or wanting to grow a business.
With 60 workstations, 11 offices and five classrooms, the 8,000-square-foot space comes with free Wi-Fi upon reservation, and daily and monthly membership plans.
Saunders says he designed In3 to “train and educate entrepreneurs in underrepresented communities so they can develop skills without having to be in Silicon Valley. In3 is on the campus of Howard University and is easily accessible to students and those living in the District.
During its recent grand opening, In3 hosted more than 25 free sessions on coding, fundraising and developing business startups for tech industry professionals.
“That’s why having a physical space is so important, you can point to something and say, ‘Here’s where we can help you solve your problem and introduce you to entrepreneurs,’” Saunders told NBC News. “Our goal is build the community, prepare the entrepreneurs and slowly introduce other individuals into the community to address some of the other things we’re lacking in the community and one of the biggest things is capital.”
Sengbe agrees that capital to build centers such as In3 and provide scholarships is an issue. He also believes race is an issue when it comes to hiring Black techies. But he also faults Black media for failing to showcase the Black techies who do exist.
“Any Silicon Valley investor will tell you it takes more than an idea, it takes something special in the founder to execute that idea into a job creating a profitable company. That can be a bit more of a challenge for products targeting Black society,” Sengbe recently told BlackNews.com.
“I would argue that Black techies are the most discriminated against demographic in Black media… because for the most part, no one knows we exist. No Black media talks tech, not Ebony, Essence, Vibe, BET… you name it. In the last eight years, a revolutionary technology like bitcoin has been the most profitable investment asset, yet you’ll find nothing about it in Black media.”
Sengbe added: “You can ask 100 Black folk reading this article to point to one app on their phone by a Black developer and you’ll likely get 0 out of 100. Out of sight, out of mind is a real challenge that’s costing Black American society thousands of high paying tech jobs and billions of dollars. By paying attention to the free games/apps you download, you can play a part in shifting millions of dollars in ad revenue to job creating startups in Oakland, Detroit, Chicago, etc…”
According to Bowser’s office, there is a great need for places such as In3. Advanced technology is a field that is heavily dominated by Whites, even in a city such as Washington, D.C., which has a substantial Black population. The report indicated that 49 percent of tech workers in D.C. are White men and 25 percent are White women while only nine percent are Black men and 8 percent are Black women. In addition, the report says that only 10 percent of Black people under the age of 30 work in tech in the District.
Bowser told NBC News that the creation of In3 is important because it opens doors closer to home for tech entrepreneurs and puts “Chocolate City” on the tech map.
Last year, The Source initiated a story that said that there’s never been a better time for young Blacks to become techies.
“Historically, female students and students of color have experienced discrimination, particularly in the areas of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). These careers are often higher paying and more stable, and also carry significant opportunities for career advancement and entrepreneurship,” said Ginelle John, Ph.D., a university administrator, researcher and lecturer whose research focus includes educational attainment and persistence in STEM fields for female, minority and immigrant students.
Ginelle, a graduate of Cornell, Columbia and New York universities added: “Disparities in educational funding, a lack of encouragement, discrimination in graduate school study awards and hiring have all been some of the culprits identified. We all have to be partners and advocates in identifying practices, approaches as well as program designs and institutions that produce success for female and minority students. At every stage we have to identify barriers and help students overcome or work around them with the necessary support.”
Groups such as Black Girls Code have been set up to engage young women early, noting that, even though young girls show the same interest in science and technology as boys, that interest reportedly disappears by junior high. The goal of these organizations is to keep women engaged so these interests turn into careers, reports The Source.
Sony Entertainment, for instance, now offers a scholarship to women on both the undergraduate and graduate levels to pursue a career in video game design.
The effort to get Blacks involved in advanced technology, however, didn’t come easy, and is moving at a snail’s pace. In fact, it took Howard University more than 10 years to get Silicone Valley companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon to take notice and initiate programs, reports Bloomberg.
According to Vauhini Vara for Bloomberg Businessweek in January 2016, “Pressured by employees and the press, companies began disclosing the demographics of their workforces. One figure stood out: African Americans, about 13 percent of the U.S. population, made up no more than 1 percent of technical employees at Google, Facebook and other prominent Silicon Valley companies. This was at least partly because of the way companies recruited: From 2001 to 2009, more than 20 percent of all Black computer science graduates attended a historically Black school, according to federal statistics—yet the Valley wasn’t looking for candidates at these institutions.”
But the hard work of Legand Burge, chairman of Howard’s computer science department finally began paying off. Recruiters from Google, Facebook, Dropbox and Pinterest began to get in touch, and this year the partnership with Google, and D.C.’s mayor’s office, was launched.
Black coders and app developers popping up every day
Many smart phone users and high-techies use apps every day developed by Blacks and may not even know it.
Spendwith is a relatively new mobile marketplace app, (also known as a “buy, sell, trade” app) launched in April 2017 in Atlanta. It is similar to platforms such as Letgo, 5miles, OfferUp and Craigslist, allowing users to quickly take a photo of an item to sell or offer a service. However, Spendwith is different because it targets buying and selling within specific cultures or demographics by providing a dedicated app for members of that demographic community. “Spendwith: Black.” is the first of a series of cultural marketplace apps to be released within the app, which was developed by African American Jibril Suliaman. “For two years, I’ve pondered how to increase intra-cultural commerce in the Black community,” Sulaiman says. “After researching commerce trends in other demographics, I realized that many other nationalities, ethnicities and groups also promote the need for commerce within their respective communities. Therefore, if I was going to present a solution for the Black community, why neglect in presenting the app as a solution for other communities as well.” Spendwith’s primary purpose is to be a hub for online and offline commerce between individual-and-individual, and individual-and-business. The app is free to use, free to post and allows sellers to accept payment for services or items sold, outside of the app. Spendwith is available for download on Google Play and on iTunes.
Find My Everything Inc. Founder/CEO Taylor Baloney is the young inventor of the Gotcha GPS tracking device. Using a downloaded smartphone application, the device will help track and find anything, including purses, backpacks, luggage and even kids. Available in variety of styles, designs and colors, the tracking device is about the size of a keychain, which can be attached to handbags, wallets, pets and other important items with a small clip. The tracking device is linked to an app on a smart phone or tablet to assist when needing to find misplaced or stolen items. Users will be able to locate items using the GPS map on their screens. The app will also activate a beeping sound from the tracking device, so the closer the user is to the missing item, the louder the sound. Users can input multiple trackers onto the app, and each one will have a different picture or name on the GPS map. “I have a passionate sense of pride about this concept,” Baloney says.
Safe2Meet.com is a Black-owned Atlanta company that has launched what it calls “the world’s first peer-to-peer identity verification and background check platform.” The company is headed by Founder/CEO Patricia Wilson-Smith and Co-Founder Tavonia Evans, two African American technology professionals who came up with the idea a few years ago. “Safe2Meet.com is the first of its kind”, Wilson-Smith said. “We’ve created a platform that will provide a way for anyone who wants to make sure that any stranger they need to meet for any kind of interaction - to show a vacant property, for a classified ad sale, a date, anything at all - is who they say they are. Real estate agents in particular are especially excited about our solution.” The app generates a digital badge for Safe2Meet members that can be scanned with their proprietary mobile app to confirm its authenticity and refreshes a user’s identity and background information every 30 days to provide an up-to-date status on an ongoing basis. The service launched in public beta on April 10th.
Black Trade Lines is an app that assists users in locating the nearest African American-generated business deals, events and activities. The app utilizes a voice-activated search along with a built-in GPS locator. The app also allows Black business owners to list their own businesses as well.
Stephanie Lampkin has developed an app designed to help to curb discrimination in hiring, the app works to eliminate even unconscious bias from the hiring process. Called Blendoor, her app uploads resumes without a name or a picture so that candidates are judged entirely on their merits and their technical abilities. “My company resonates more with White men when I position it as, ‘hey, I want to help you find the best talent. Your unconscious mind isn’t racist, sexist - it’s totally neutral, and we’re trying to help you circumvent it,’” she recently told Forbes magazines. Lampkin has 19 large tech firms signed up to use the app, which will also collect job data to see how those who are seeking jobs are matching up with positions they would be qualified for.
Selfie Radar was developed by African Americans Jamal Wilson and Alexander Logan. Wilson is a 25 year old from Palm Beach, Fla. who moved to Tallahassee to pursue a degree in computer technology but started educating himself on the methods of computer programming. He approached his cousin, Alexander Logan, about an idea that would give anyone in the world access to people based on activity and location. Alexander saw the vision of Selfie Radar and the huge potential it had to change the way people meet. Between Wilson’s sales and marketing experience and computer savvy, and Logan’s financial and modeling expertise, the Selfie Radar developers think the app has the potential to be the next big tech company on the market. With the app, users have the ability to like selfies, search other users, send private messages to other users, follow other users and view another user’s gallery. In addition to the aforementioned features, Wilson and Logan wanted to reward users for their participation within the application. One element in which Selfie Radar prides itself is being an extremely safe and positive form of social media. Wilson and Logan decided to eliminate the ability to comment on other user’s selfies. With bullying being such a widespread act on social media recently, the duo wanted to provide a safe and positive alternative to the option to comment on people’s photos.
Three Black software engineers and entrepreneurs - Cassandra Sarfo, Esther Olatunde and Priscilla Hazel - recently launched Tress, an app that looks to become a one-stop shop for Black hair needs. “We do this all the time: We see a hairstyle that we like. We stop people on the street just to ask them where they did their hair, how much it cost them, or ask them for their stylist’s number,” Hazel told The Root. So the women came up with Tress. The app is a platform where users can find hairstyle inspiration, interact with the people who posted the hairstyle, be able to purchase products for that particular hairstyle and then eventually be able to book stylists, all in one place. Women can also upload and share photos of their own hairstyles and contribute to community discussions about best hair-care practices and other tips. All three women behind the app are currently based in California. Sarfo and Hazel, are originally from Ghana, and Olatunde is from Nigeria.
Atlanta-based startup Ximzee, a tech company founded by entrepreneur Aleeta Bell, recently launched Pluhg - a new mobile app designed to allow users to connect friends and associates without revealing personal contact information. The app goes a step further by allowing a user to connect two or more people from a user’s circle together and introduce them while being the “trusted connection.” Pluhg is free to download. It’s the result of a three-year effort to produce a dynamic platform that has a social, and user friendly “twist” to networking and making real connections.
Black celebrities are getting in on the movement as well. Three-time NBA Champion Dwyane Wade launched a fitness app called Dwyane Wade Driven, which offers customized training programs and video for basketball players as well as other athletes.
Long road ahead
Some say there is hope that more and more African Americans will get involved with advanced technology as a career option. The pressure that is coming from the general media and social media to diversify corporate America and its work force is helping, but the pace is slow and there are still many schools with high tech programs that lack funding to recruit and offer scholarships to minorities.
Sengbe believes part of the solution is right in front of African Americans. “I firmly believe bitcoin and cryptocurrency are the leg up Black startups need to compete both in price and engagement with Amazon, Walmart, etc., and we have to be first in making it a casual web experience. If you are not open to new tools to gain a competitive advantage, it may cost you a good long-term partner.”