Majora Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx and Green for All to help move Americans out of poverty through green-infrastructure projects, policies and job training and placement systems. She’s continuing that work in the tech space now with StartUp Box, a social enterprise that creates opportunities for low-status communities across the US to join the tech economy.
At a recent BlogHer Conference, Carter’s 60-second video pitch for StartUp Box won top honors, a testament to the importance of the opportunity she’s creating. “Investors invest in the entrepreneur,” says Kathryn Finney, a judge for BlogHer’s pitch and founder and managing director of digitalundivided. “Majora pitched StartUp Box in the face of stiff competition from an extraordinary group of businesswomen, in a way that made the judges and crowd believe in the opportunity of developing the untapped potential of our urban communities.”
EBONY: Why did you move from urban revitalization to working in and helping to ensure diversity in tech?
Majora Carter: That’s funny, I never thought of it in that way. The same template I used with sustainability, environmental restoration and climate adaptation to economically revitalize underperforming communities, is how I am now using the tech sector assets available. I am not an expert in green or tech, but I work hard to uncover and leverage connections that others might overlook. Coming from an overlooked community, I guess that comes naturally.
Increasing the chances of a diverse tech sector doesn’t rest on “training.” Peer-to-peer relationships need to be built in a practical manner that serves business needs first, social goals second—otherwise, you’re just social, not enterprise.
It turns out, making that happen can also economically revitalize areas if we put those businesses in geographically strategic places.
EBONY: When people think of the South Bronx, they still see the SoBro of the late ’70s and ’80s with its urban decay and devastation: violence, drugs and a slew of housing issues. How does the South Bronx fit into the digital revolution that’s happening now in Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley?
MC: Well, it doesn’t fit into either of those. The Bronx is not burning, but tech investment capital is not burning a hole in anyone’s pocket to invest here either.
EBONY: Why Hunts Point specifically?
MC: It’s where I am from, so I know it well. My community is like our own R&D lab. The green infrastructure work I pioneered there served as a launch pad for my consulting practice, allowing my business to bring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy each year from all over the U.S.
EBONY: How does bringing technology to Hunts Point help revitalize the community as a whole?
MC: We designed our approach to take advantage of low rents in underperforming commercial storefront spaces found in low-status communities across the USA. By placing our commercial activity in these spaces, we breathe new life into the streetscape. Pedestrians can look into our big windows and see folks who look like them doing tech work. You can’t be it if you don’t see it.
Since September 2014, we are putting tech dollars in the pockets of South Bronx residents that would not be there otherwise.
In addition, we like to turn the space over to special events during non-business hours, such as dance competitions, video game tournaments, cyphers, book launches, art and design exhibitions, etc. It’s an informal community center in a commercial corner storefront, so we get walk-ins who are not normally attracted to a typical “community center” niche audiences.
It supports our business model by allowing us to spend less resources on talent recruitment, plus some of those events generate extra income. It’s been such a positive addition to the street life that we are opening a new cafe two doors down. Our building permits just cleared and we start construction of the StartUp Box Café in August!
EBONY: Many programs have launched teaching underrepresented communities in tech to code, but you’ve come up with the idea of teaching people to become software testers. Why software testing?
MC: “Coding” is sort of a buzzword at the moment, and I have a feeling some people are throwing the term around without a clear definition in mind. There are many tech and digital media related jobs out there that people who are unexposed to the field do not know about. But if all they hear is “code code code,” they may assume heavy math and engineering is required, causing most to self select out of the field because they think they are not equipped to compete.
Quality Assurance software testing is an area that can start with very modest training and no major math skills, but can lead into far more advanced forms of software testing, project management, data architecture, UX design, sound design, customer care and more.
Exposure to large amounts of commercial product failure is a great learning opportunity that you don’t get in school. Learning how best to communicate with our client product teams is also a great advantage that our employees gain while on the job.
And that’s the best part: it’s a job. We pay people to perform these tests and report steps to repeat when they find errors and slowdowns. We can do that, because we devoted our energy to designing a solution that a healthy segment of the industry wants. It allows us to proceed in a Minimum Viable Training mode, which is cheaper for us. There are many training options out there for our employees to take advantage of, and they can do so with far more sophistication after they get their feet wet with our work.
EBONY: Showing that a population of people normally thought to be consumers can actually be producers really shifts things. How does testing software create viable opportunities for people?
MC: Well, in addition to the consumer/producer divide, there is also plain old statistical hiring biases. A double-digit percentage of our job applicants have completed some college or even graduated with CS degrees, but still can’t get hired. Technically speaking, they are overqualified for the jobs we offer, but they make really good testers.
So the entry-level jobs I mentioned are one aspect of how we create opportunity. But equally important is our QA Lab’s ability to expose our clients to these higher skilled individuals in a “soft onboarding” mode. Our staff handle the clients’ products and are in constant communication with the client team in a way that demonstrates their skills and builds trust, which some would say is more valuable than a good résumé.
We have structured our contracts so that all our employees are regarded as potential candidates for hire. We take a recruitment commission like any talent placement company. In this way, employees who stay with us get better at their job, while those who get hired off result in some additional revenue for the company. Either way, our clients get great services, qualified diverse talent, or both.
EBONY: You guys bring in various business and tech leaders to speak to your participants. What is the importance of mentorship in preparing a diverse workforce to get and keep jobs in the tech industry?
MC: Models of success in any form are more rare in low-status communities. One often hears anecdotes from people who have broken the cycle of poverty and expectation, about that “one person who looked like them and was making it” that set them on a different path. We can provide that. We started the 500+ member Bronx Tech Meetup to reach out to the Bronx Diaspora and give some people a chance to do that too.
I think one of the unintended consequences of the Civil Rights movement was the economic segregation of Black communities. Pre-1960s, racial segregation meant economic diversity could exist in Black communities. The Black doctor lived nearby and went to the same church as the Black janitor because they were prevented from going elsewhere. When more affluent Blacks could leave, they did, leaving concentrated poverty in their wake.
Those examples of success, if not exactly “mentors,” are a crucial first step. More formal mentorship is also really important, but we don’t have the bandwidth as a small company to do that. Thankfully I connected with the Respect Institute at BlogHer this weekend, and we are going to address this together!
EBONY: Do you see this work you’ve done and that you’re doing now as being on a continuum?
MC: Yes. For me, it’s about reducing brain drain. Gentrification happens long before people see it. It happens when we tell our brightest and hardest working young people to measure their success by how far away they get from their communities. We hemorrhage all our income generating potential, and that keeps communities in an economically downward cycle.
People talk about the economic development potential in attracting the “creative class.” I believe we need to keep and build on our own creative class.
I started working on keeping them by building world class, award-winning parks and greenways to improve quality of life and make people think twice about leaving. Now we are building tech businesses, cafés, and the lifestyle amenities (like parks) ahead of typical real estate development curves.
If we can keep and grow talent in place, we can reduce displacement 10 years from now.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.