Creating tech equity in communities of color
Drone racing, 3D-printed jewelry, and virtual reality. These might sound like things from the plot of a science-fiction film, but that was the scene at “Community TechFest,” which took place on November 11 in downtown Minneapolis. Black Tech Talent’s third annual event was held at Coco, a coworking space located near the U.S. Bank stadium, and showcased several different activities for young people to learn about cutting-edge technology.
Michael A. Jackson launched TechFest in 2021, a year after he founded Black Tech Talent, a company dedicated to connecting Black tech talent to opportunities with corporations that are trying to close the hiring gap and create a more diverse workforce. By the end of their first year, Black Tech Talent had recruited 20 companies to their platform and plan to expand to locations outside of Minnesota.
To further the company’s mission, Jackson held a summit in 2021 to bring tech enthusiasts together and allow like-minded people to get together online and in-person through a three-day hybrid event. Attendees were able to partake in a pitch competition and speed recruiting sessions, putting talent directly in front of the hiring team at some of Minnesota’s largest companies.
After the summit, Jackson was approached by people who expressed a desire to see a version of the summit geared towards children, an idea that he believed would broaden the experience for those who may feel intimidated by technology.
“There’s still a part of the community that hears tech and they turn their brains off. So what I’ve done is I’ve heavily focused on advertising this as family friendly. It brings little kids out because people do it for their kids,” he said.
– ADVERTISEMENT –
Jackson sought out to find vendors and sponsors later that year and launched TechFest with the aim of creating a pipeline that would put young Black children on the path to rewarding tech careers.
Several vendors were present at the event, many of them introducing tech activities to young children and their families. The large hall that serves as an operating base for several startups and entrepreneurs was lined with video games and remote-controlled vehicles. Children were able to make their own 3D designs and learn the beginner aspects of writing code.
Doc Woods, a father of three from Brooklyn Center, brought his son and his friend to the event to give them more insight into the creation of their favorite video games. He left the event surprised with the level of access young people have to technology today.
“What caught my attention was the equity and the availability of those types of technology pieces,” he said.
Woods shared that he’s had conversations with White counterparts who have enrolled their children in coding classes, giving them a leg up in the future compared to Black and Brown children who haven’t been introduced to such programs. He stated that he’d like to see more resources allocated to communities of color to give young people the ability to learn about tech career options early in life.
– ADVERTISEMENT –
“I think public dollars should be put aside for more access for our children to that type of technology and those workforces that we don’t necessarily have access to,” he said. “That starts with people like us being in those rooms to make those decisions about where those public dollars go.”
Nimco Abdi had heard of the event on LinkedIn, and as someone with a background in tech she thought it would be a great way of introducing her two young girls to her field.
Abdi came to the United States seven years ago with a degree in computer science, but because of the language barrier she found herself back at square one. Abdi graduated from Metro University this past spring and has used Black Tech Talent as a platform to network and learn more about opportunities such as TechFest to further her career.
She believes that immigrant parents should especially take advantage of tech resources for children as a tool for their development. “You often have a divide in Somali families where parents might not have a degree or speak English,” she said.
“Seeing all of these new technologies will open their eyes. Having them involved and a part of these types of events will help them developmentally.”
– ADVERTISEMENT –
Jackson envisions a plan to diversify the country’s tech landscape, a plan he sees taking decades but that will lead to young people having the chance to work in a tech-based role straight out of high school.
“If we’re looking at it as a 20-year play, then that means the kids that we’re bringing to TechFest now, hopefully they do something amazing, continue accessing the tech,” he said. “Our goal is that those same youth will not only be able to get jobs, but they’ll be scouted through us the same way we’re scouted for being athletes [and] for entertainment.”
Jazmine Darden of Sparkz 3D and Sam Hightower of Make with Sam were two vendors showcasing the practical uses that 3D printers can have in day-to-day life. Darden, an instructor at Dunwoody College, shared the importance of introducing young people to tech early in life.
“It’s so important to expose them young because they will lose interest in math and science probably by middle school, and by high school it’s too late,” she stated. “I have a slideshow showing over there talking about how 3D printing is being used in the medical field, how it’s being used in sports, how they have concrete 3D printers that are 3D printing houses.”
Outside of Dunwoody, Darden holds workshops at Minneapolis Public Schools and collaborates with organizations such as the YWCA and Big Brothers Big Sisters. Hightower also spends his time demonstrating 3D printing and other tech activities such as virtual reality and augmented reality at community centers and libraries.
– ADVERTISEMENT –
Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, Hightower didn’t have access to the sort of workshops he now facilitates. Through technology and design, he was able to find career independence and hopes to pass on that same experience.
“That’s what I would give any youth, the ability to carve your own path,” he said. “Do you want to make software? Do you want to make hardware? Do you want to make physical products? The 3D printer can give you access to all those worlds.”
Jackson is looking to take his company to New York City and has been investigating the resources on the ground to best build out the infrastructure needed to launch a new chapter. In the meantime, he hopes to work with state officials to find ways to help develop an educational and workforce program aimed at diversifying Minnesota’s tech industry.
“For this to grow to the level it needs to grow and for it to be sustained, we need the state of Minnesota to see the value in it and to invest in it,” he said. “We need the government to get involved and be a partner in making sure this happens as it continues to grow.”
For more information, go to www.blacktechtalent.org.