In its second year, Blacktech Week, a week-long series of events highlighting cutting-edge technologies and entrepreneurial innovation, returns to Miami this week. The event also features a three-day technology summit hosted on the Biscayne Bay Campus of Florida International University from the February 17-19. During the week-long event, entrepreneurs can connect with resources, training and access to venture capital funding.
With a mission of increasing the number of startup founders, technology executives and engineers of color, Blacktech Week was started by cofounders Felecia Hatcher and her husband Derick Pearson as a way to make Black History Month in Miami more impactful. After attending tech conferences and conventions and often being the only people of color in attendance, the duo started Blacktech Miami, a monthly meetup for Black tech professionals that served as the impetus for Blacktech Week.
With support from the Knight Foundation and Baptist Health South Florida, this year’s conference features notable speakers like Priceline.com’s cofounder Jeff Hoffman, Snapchat engineer Justin Washington, Twitter engineering manager Leslie Miley, rapper Trick Daddy, George E. Curry, founder of Emerge magazine and Kathryn Finney, founder of Digital Undivided, among others.
Blacktech Week is also an extension of the work that Hatcher and Pearson do with their Miami-based, White House-honored Code Fever, a nonprofit initiative that trains Black youth and adults in technology and entrepreneurship. EBONY.com spoke with Hatcher about Blacktech Week and diversity in tech.
EBONY: What’s your background, and why did you start Blacktech Week?
Felecia Hatcher: I worked with the NBA, Nintendo and Sony before moving back to Miami and starting a gourmet popsicle manufacturing company. I sold the company last year to an Italian franchise, and between that, we were working with organizations outside of Florida. We would come back and no one was doing anything about solving the problems of getting people of color into the tech ecosystem. So we started Code Fever to bring our communities up to code through technology and startup training for youth, and then later for adults.
As we started doing our training and the meet-ups to get as many people in the African-American and Caribbean communities engaged here, Blacktech Week kind of came together to provide all of the other resources needed to successfully launch a startup and then scale it. Also, Black History Month in South Florida had very traditional historic events. But we also have to celebrate the people doing innovative things, and equip us with the tools to build the future that we all want to see through technology, innovation and culture.
Our overall goal is to be a Global Entrepreneurship Week, where every third week of Black History Month every year people are doing programming that supports our community getting more engaged in technology and startups.
EBONY: How do you envision your global rollout?
FH: Because Miami is so close to the Caribbean and Latin America, we already have the diversity here, and we have a lot of the other pieces to the puzzles to get this right and serve as a blueprint to other cities of how to do it.
We’re looking to partner with other organizations in other cities, and from there do something like Entrepreneurship Week, where they have the big main event but then people are creating the innovative programming they want in their communities highlighting people of color in entrepreneurship. After this year is over, we’re working on Blacktech Weekend, where we’ll do a tour and then fully expand Blacktech Week for 2017.
EBONY: Is it mainly local involvement?
FH: There are a lot of people speaking from outside of the state and even outside of the country. Last year, we had a startup Havana panel. We also had startup Jamaica. We had a speaker from Ghana. This year, we have speakers from Germany and China and all over the United States, and the local community that we’ve invited are doing some phenomenal things in the space and in entrepreneurship in general.
EBONY: Have you gotten any backlash in terms of why there has to be a Blacktech Week?
FH: We’ve gotten those types of questions. But first, we have Blacktech Week because it’s Black History Month, and the stories aren’t being told in the right way in our classrooms and in our communities. From our experience of doing the work that we’ve been doing, the community needs to understand that it is something that is for them. You know that you’re not going to be the only one in that room and that it’s a safe space. We need that until we get to a place where we can comfortably attend the general events. For some reason, when it’s Black other people think they can’t attend or that it isn’t inclusive enough. But there are so many nationalities that fall under the Black umbrella.
EBONY: How do we make sure folks have real scalable businesses?
FH: For one, it’s definitely holding our public sector more accountable for the programs that they fund and the programs that they support. From my experience with Code Fever, I’ve worked and presented to institutions that don’t understand what I’m talking about. So they’re not funding these things at the rate that we need, so that they are scalable and have impact, because they don’t understand and aren’t taking the time to understand these opportunities.
We have to do technology training like sports training is done for kids, whereas on any given Saturday there should be leagues within every municipality with technology and entrepreneurship training. The cities are supporting sports, but they aren’t supporting these tech initiatives in the way that they should. All of this work we see in getting communities engaged is from a grassroots bottom-up approach, and we need a strategic top-down approach so that we can all meet in the middle and have a real impact on our communities.
EBONY: Critics say coding isn’t enough. It isn’t preparing kids for a future.
FH: That’s not a fair criticism. As a parent, if you take your kid to soccer practice every week, you’re not saying, “this is not preparing my kid for a job or an internship.” You understand that it creates a well rounded child when they’re actively engaged in a number of things. But I do agree that it’s a complete waste of time if you’re teaching a child, or an adult, how to code and not teaching them how to monetize those skills.
We’re so focused on teaching youth how to code that we have an entire population of adults that don’t have tech skills. It doesn’t sound as sexy to run a program for high school dropouts or the unemployed. But these are the people who can take these skills from an accelerated boot camp and immediately apply them to make an economic turnaround for their family and community. You can see the results faster with adults.
When we first started our adult program, we had a lot of challenges we had to overcome, because we also had to work with the social services side of things. Two people were homeless; others didn’t have access to Internet. Some had to take two or three buses, or they were working a full time job. But they were hungry for this and they showed up.
EBONY: What does tech inclusion mean to you?
FH: Silicon Valley represents a small microcosm of the rest of the world. Those are the only stories being told, so it seems like Black people aren’t involved. In Miami or Atlanta or DC, you have a huge population of our people in STEM careers in the military or in non-tech corporations. That’s why we started Blacktech Week, to change the narrative. Black people are have been in tech.
It’s expensive to live in Silicon Valley. Most of our people don’t have the money to get a business started there. We need to have our basic Maslow’s needs met, so that we can innovate. You can do that in the South and maybe on the East Coast. You can also be in a position to solve some real-world problems in your community and make some money, and you don’t have to be a nonprofit to do it.
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.