February 7 – 9, Oakland will host the first-ever Startup Weekend – Black Male Achievement. Startup Weekend is a globally-adapted model that begins with Friday night pitches and continues through brainstorming, business plan development, basic prototype creation, and culminates in demos and presentations. Oakland’s version of the event is designed to support mentoring and collaboration between young students of color and established technologists.
“Most hackathons allow you to form a homogenous team with little to no diversity,” said Kalimah Priforce, a principal coordinator. “We don’t. We’ve been met with a lot of a resistance for that. I’m literally getting emails from techies saying, ‘I see we’re supposed to be partnered with black kids, are we going to be prepared in any special way for that? I’m nervous about that.’ So it just proves to me how necessary this event is.”
Priforce has positioned his professional life right in the gap where tech industry prosperity fails under-served communities, and black youth in particular. He designs educational software as the founder and CEO of Qeyno Labs and is part of the team behind The Hidden Genius Project, a free-admission tech program for young black men and men of color
The Startup Weekend event will be a rare opportunity to bring techies and local youth of color together in a shared collaborative space. As tensions rise between techies and anti-gentrification activists, Google employees and Google-bus protestors, those benefiting from development and those who have been its casualties, Priforce and his partnering organizations are engaging technologists in the making of local solutions, rather than condemning them from Oakland.
“There are techies that want to engage with their larger community; they just haven’t really figured out how to do that. We’re giving them the perfect venue,” said Priforce.
Priforce spent most of his childhood and adolescence along with his brother in a group home in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. But while he went on to Oxford and tech entrepreneurship, his younger brother was shot and killed at eighteen.
Priforce decided he wanted to be an educator when he realized, “the only difference between us [my brother and me] was that I was exposed to people who believed in me, and when I gained an interest in computers – they fostered my curiosity.”
After success in the private sector, he became one of the educators at The Hidden Genius Project. The two-year-long after-school and summer program provides black and brown male youth with the mentoring, skills and resources to obtain and create technological jobs — for free.
“Young black youth statistically consume and use social media at higher rates than any other group,” said Priforce, “but you can’t find them in the industry. Hidden Genius helps them become the architects of the platforms they use every day.” In this way, THGP doesn’t just empower its individual students, it works to correct the biases of our digital infrastructure, a digital infrastructure that has largely been coded by white and Asian men.
“I never thought I would learn this kind of stuff. I never thought I could learn how computers work,” said Mohammed Abdulla, a sophomore at Oakland Tech and a Hidden Genius student who was born in Yemen. “We came into the program kind of disorganized and unfocused, just sloppy… I think learning how to code was also really learning how to think. My homework is easier, I know how to talk and be brave. The growth is enormous.”
Ayori Se, another collaborator on the Startup Weekend event, believes that only people from under-served communities will innovate the technological solutions particular to life in those communities. “We ask questions like, ‘could an app have saved Trayvon Martin’s life?’” said Se.
Se is the founder of Pitch Mixer, a typical Entrepreneur Forum, in which participants are given the opportunity to hone their pitches and pick the brains of investors and peers, the twist being that Pitch Mixer is free.
“It takes courage to participate in a hackathon or a forum, and it takes even more courage to be the one Black person participating.” However, she explained, “Just the fact that a Black woman is hosting the mixer goes a long way in making other people of color feel like they belong. So of course there’s a gap in resources, but there’s also these more surmountable problems like perception and inclusion and getting to be in the room.”
Se grew up “rice and beans poor,” taught herself computer programming, forged a way in, and now works as Product Manager for Salesforce. She says that she continues to be confused for an intern.
Pitch Mixer brings together entrepreneurs from all markets and sectors to find ways to benefit from adapting tech solutions to their particular business. The way Se sees it, supporting people of color in tech is not merely an issue of diversity in the workplace or affirmative action, because the tech industry represents more than a sum of lucrative manufacturing jobs.
“All industries have been forced to adopt and adapt themselves to tech,” she said. Tech insinuates itself and reshapes from within, not just existing industries but almost every aspect of our lives, down to the most subtle ideologies embedded in the software. To hear Se describe it, her work is not merely about jobs, it’s about a ensuring that the tools with which we are building the future are not entirely in someone else’s hands.
Startup Weekend – Black Male Achievement is open to all. Sign up here!