Miami’s Black Tech Week becomes a year-round effort to nurture diversity

Communities / Article

That the technology industry has a diversity and inclusion problem is not news.

The continuing work being done to change that state of affairs is.

Launched just two years ago, Black Tech Week, a six-day South Florida event focusing on technology, entrepreneurship and people of color, is significantly expanding and deepening its efforts.

Last week, Knight Foundation, a founding sponsor of Black Tech Week, announced $1.2 million in new funding for the organization over the next three years to support its expansion. With the new support, Black Tech Week will grow into an umbrella program for several initiatives that promote diversity and inclusion in the sector. Moreover, what started as a local event, will evolve into a statewide initiative. In the process, Black Tech Week will become a showcase for South Florida’s innovation talent to the world.

The main initiatives are Black Tech Week, which this year will take place Sept. 25–30; Black Tech Weekend, a condensed version of Black Tech Week that will take place Feb. 23–25; and a VC in Residence program, in which venture capitalists will spend a month in Miami advising and guiding minority entrepreneurs. The broad spectrum of activities will range from one-on-one sessions for entrepreneurs to working with local city governments and teaching teachers about technology.

Photo courtesy of Black Tech Week.

The expansion of Black Tech Week is a natural evolution of the initial, weeklong initiative, said author and entrepreneur Felecia Hatcher, who with her husband, Derick Pearson, co-founded Code Fever, an educational program that teaches minority youth coding and entrepreneurial skills and Black Tech Week’s parent organization.

 “We took a look at the impact of our work so far and we decided it was time to focus in some specific areas. That’s how Black Tech Weekend came about,” Hatcher said. “For Black Tech Week, we have a commitment to always keep that here in Miami, but [Black Tech] Weekend is going to go on the road, to the rest of South Florida and then the rest of the state. [Its] theme is going to change as it goes into other cities… it will morph with the speakers and the audiences — but always under the umbrella of getting more of the African-American community engaged in the innovation economy.”

The highlight of the inaugural Black Tech Weekend this month will be a talk with Michael Seibel, partner and CEO at Y-Combinator, the leading business accelerator. In April, Black Tech Week will launch its VC in Residence program, bringing to South Florida Marlon Nichols, who describes himself as “a former enterprise software startup guy and strategy consultant turned venture capital investor, who loves to partner with entrepreneurs that seek to change the world through truly disruptive technology and process.” Nichols is a founding partner at Cross Culture Ventures, and will be the first resident VC offering guidance and one-on-one coaching.

Black Tech Week is just one of Knight Foundation’s investments to help promote diversity in the South Florida innovation community and nationwide. Other initiatives include support for CODE2040, a Bay Area nonprofit working to create access, awareness and opportunities for African-Americans and Latinos in the tech industry; the Babson Women Innovating Now Lab, a South Florida residency program for women entrepreneurs; and Digital Grass, a business accelerator in South Florida that focuses on closing the diversity gap.

Leigh-Ann Buchanan, founder and executive director of Venture Café, said that her organization is focused on “the macro level growth of the startup and innovation community.” They work with partners such as Black Tech Week “to make the ecosystem more inclusive and more diverse but also more accessible.”

As surveys have underscored, the percentage of African-Americans and Latinos in the innovation industry is still in the single digits, “not numbers commensurate to the percentage of black people or other people of color in the population at large,” said Buchanan. “So the question is, how can it be increased? We need more people in positions of hiring, in positions of authority and senior leadership in larger tech companies. That would increase what we call more opportunities to develop ‘inspiration capital’ and ‘social capital.’ I know you need the financial capital, but you also need people to be in your corner, people who look like you, who might have had the same experiences you had [to] open your doors for you.”

Some of those issues, from access to funding to navigating the process, are what led to creating the VC in Residence program, said Hatcher.

Photo courtesy of Black Tech Week.

“Ideally we would like to host four of these [residencies] throughout the year here in Miami, but for different groups,” said Hatcher, mentioning Backstage Capital, “a woman-led fund specifically targeting women” or Troy Carter, Lady Gaga’s former manager turned digital and social entrepreneur. “The problem with our communities is not lack of ideas but lack of access and knowing how to work the process.”

For Matt Haggman, Knight Foundation’s Miami program director, the lack of diversity is both a social issue and a practical challenge for the innovation and technology world. Addressing it is a matter of enlightened self-interest, and not just for a particular business sector—but for society at large.

“Innovation is built, ultimately, on diversity, on a diversity of ideas, of backgrounds, of personal concerns and life experiences, connecting and colliding,” he said. “In Miami, where the building of an innovation ecosystem is still in its early stages, the intent from the start is to focus on diversity — especially given that diversity is our great differentiator. At the end of the day, for this to really work, it has to be about the entire community. Black Tech Week is directly impacting that.”

Fernando González is a Miami-based arts and culture writer. He can be reached via email at [email protected].

Photo courtesy of Black Tech Week.