While attending the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and spending a summer working as a janitor instead of landing an internship in his chosen field of marketing, Fabian Elliott founded the United Black Professionals to ensure that no one else would experience that same plight. A self-proclaimed marketing and tech wiz, community builder, and thought catalyst, Elliott went on to land a full time job in advertising technology at Google, out of its Chicago offices.
After spending some time in Chi and becoming involved in professional organizations like the Chicago Urban League, the 100 Black Men of Chicago, and co-chairing the Black Googler Network, he realized an opportunity to transform the city into the Global Black Tech Mecca. Elliott explains.
EBONY: We keep seeing these dismal diversity hiring numbers for high tech companies. How did you manage to break through and land an opportunity at Google?
Fabian Elliott: I often ask myself the same question. The odds are so slim to make it into such a company that it can take some time for disbelief to wear off. Especially since I was the first person from my university, UNC-Charlotte, to participate in Google’s BOLD Internship Program—designed to provide exposure into the technology industry for students who are historically under-represented in the field. I was able to leverage the BOLD opportunity to earn a full-time position. However, I think my curiosity and passion to make a difference found a way to shine throughout the process and help set me apart.
EBONY: Did you always know you wanted to work in the tech space?
FE: My career path actually started out with a passion for marketing and a dream of being a successful businessman, which at the time I thought was the exact opposite of anything in the technology world. However, through my internship at Google, I was introduced into the world of digital advertising and technology, which was one I never could have imagined existed. A world where almost anything was possible even beyond our wildest dreams.
EBONY: With so few African Americans in the high tech space, how has Google managed to retain you?
FE: Google is a special place to be. For me, the people I have the opportunity to work with every day make it that way. Also, employees are afforded numerous opportunities across the company to pursue their passions, either in a full-time or part-time capacity. We also have numerous employee resource groups (ERGs) that help create a sense of community for various groups in the company. Our Black employee group has been quite impactful on my experience and many others by helping to make us feel more at home and providing opportunities to impact the communities we care about.
EBONY: As a student, you already realized that opportunity and resources weren’t always there for people of color in terms of a pipeline to a Fortune 500 career or entrepreneurship. What inspired you to tackle that problem, and how did you tackle it?
FE: I was inspired to tackle the problem because it quickly became personal. Reality hit hard: based on the statistics, not only did I have a distance shot at succeeding, but others that I cared about or simply just looked like me did not either. I tackled the issue in college by creating a campus organization, the United Black Professionals, my sophomore year to help students prepare for their future career endeavors. We assisted students with identifying and capitalizing on both on- and off-campus resources. Success is a planned event with very deliberate and intentional action, so we wanted to instill that in students on campus.
EBONY: And you’re also a part of efforts at Google to attract more talent from underrepresented groups. What’s that like?
FE: In short, the work is amazing. It goes without saying that landing a job in the tech space can literally alter the trajectory for generations of some families from underrepresented groups. The company affords so many outlets for employees to engage in these type of activities and diversity initiatives. My main activities include serving on our global leadership team for our Black employee group, speaking to numerous student groups that come by the office, and doing outreach in the community.
EBONY: So now you want to turn Chicago into the Black Tech Mecca. But the Midwest always gets a bad rep for lack of employment opportunities for African Americans, as well as a lot of Black youth violence. Besides, people don’t normally think tech when they think Chicago. So why Chicago?
FE: Chicago has an exacerbated ordeal, with a 25% unemployment rate in the Black community making it the highest for Blacks among the nation’s five most populous cities. But it is also the top U.S. city for growth-stage technology companies. This perceived chaos actually presents a unique opportunity for dramatic change and the ideal location for the Black Tech Mecca.
We were not the first to notice this, which has led to tremendous existing support displayed by the many great tech-industry initiatives for underserved communities happening locally at the city and state level. There are many in the workforce development space, such as BLUE1647 and Chicago Public Schools CS4, all along with phenomenal start-up resources and incubators. Also, the large Black population provides a conducive nucleus to mold and develop.
The tremendous city-wide tech momentum and Black populous foundation are even more coveted due to diversity in tech being one of the industry’s hottest issues, not only locally, but internationally. It is time for thriving tech hubs to start being erected and nurtured where there are viable large Black communities, growing tech scenes, and established economy. We think Chicago is the perfect place to start
EBONY: What actually is the plan for Black Tech Mecca? Will it connect education to opportunity?
FE: One of the key outcomes from our initiative is to serve as the extra reinforcement to ensure education does lead to opportunity, because education itself is just half the battle. Black Tech Mecca will tackle these three missing elements from the current ecosystem by implementing a “connect and direct” strategy, defining a universal metric system, and executing a supportive branding initiative. In short, we aim to strengthen connections within the Black tech community and help provide direction on how to best navigate the Chicago tech ecosystem while we measure progress and tell the world about it.
EBONY: You’re talking about building a global network. Why would a Black-founded tech company from New York or Silicon Valley or South Africa or Ghana want to be a part of Black Tech Mecca?
FE: If a Black-founded tech company anywhere in the world was not receiving the support required to excel in their current location, we would want to present the ecosystem in Chicago as a place where they could create success. We are building something very special. We are creating a highly collaborative, local Black tech ecosystem that will have thriving global ties. While our focus is on building a thriving Black tech ecosystem in Chicago, we realize that would honestly not have a large-scale impact on the rest of the world. Our long-term vision is to be able to launch and refine a successful framework for ecosystem development in the Black community that other cities and communities could emulate.
EBONY: Who were some of your mentors, and how did they influence who you are today?
FE: On this journey, I have had countless mentors. But a few were quite pivotal in relation to the initiatives I have taken on today, spanning college, Google, and my time in Chicago. I had a mentor during college that encouraged and inspired me to take action on campus. He was really key to lighting my passion for creating change.
I also had a mentor that I worked with closely during my initial work with our Black employee group at Google. He provided critical guidance and opened doors for me to serve on our global leadership team. Lastly, I owe a lot to a few key brothers in the 100 Black Men of Chicago. Many of them taught me so much about the city without even being aware. They inspired me that change could come to the city and in a very big, meaningful way.
EBONY: Who and what inspires you daily? Like, why do you get out of bed every morning?
FE: I get out of bed each and every day to help move my people forward. I am heartbroken by the fact that the issues that African Americans face in the U.S. are not isolated to our country, and that it is a global phenomenon. In countries where people of African descent are the minority, they are often times disproportionately in lower socio-economic situations. In countries where people of African descent are the majority, they are often some of the poorest in the world, with 18 of 20 poorest countries in the world actually located in Africa.
I am driven by purpose to improve this situation. I believe that we all have a purpose and that you don’t start really living until you have identified it. I have a vision for the world and a clear understanding of the role I want to play in bringing it forth. This provides me with a burning sense of purpose, and more importantly identity, of knowing who I am and what I am here to do.
My heroes—such as Carter G. Woodson, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X—inspire and motivate me. I am inspired by my ancestors and the generations that came before me. I am inspired by the people that are counting on me that I may or may never meet.
EBONY: You’re handling a lot of things. Are there any particular mobile or computer apps you’re using to be productive and stay organized?
FE: I am a heavy user of Wunderlist as my to-do list app. I love that I can categorize my tasks and leverage other key functionality. I also leverage Evernote for my daily journal that I have been keeping since 2012. It is therapeutic and aids with reflection. Also, it is a given that for all the initiatives I am involved in, our teams use Google Apps to function effectively.
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.
Photo Credit: Rosalind Cummings-Yeates