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African Americans in Seattle Tech: Bright Future, Complicated Past

By Jeffrey Rindskopf

The postwar economic boom was kind to Seattle’s black community, or at least marginally kinder than in many other American cities. With the help of a Kennedy-era minority employment program Plans for Progress to which Boeing signed on, the city’s rate of black homeownership reached 49 percent in 1970, compared to the national average of 42 percent.

That national average remained at the same in 2017, while Seattle’s own rate has been tumbling downward for decades, so now just 28 percent of African Americans in King County own the homes in which they live.

Many have been priced out of their former neighborhoods within city limits. The Central District (CD) east of downtown, for example, was once the heart of Seattle’s black community, due to discriminatory “redlining” procedures that forced them out of other neighborhoods. Today African Americans account for less than 20 percent where once they were more than 70.

It was at Garfield High School in the heart of this rapidly changing neighborhood that the first Hack the CD hackathon was held, convening aspiring entrepreneurs, coders, artists, and other participants for the stated purpose of answering one question: “How might we create fertile ground for the African American community in Seattle to grow with the city’s current tech boom?”

By then, Seattle’s ever-expanding tech community had become a frequent target of blame for this gentrified state of affairs, and it’s easy to understand why—the tech boom epitomized by local success stories like Amazon and Microsoft brought new residents and pricey developments, while longtime minority residents were this time more-or-less left behind by Seattle’s rising tide of economic prosperity.

Photo: Facebook / Black Dot

Photo: Facebook / Black Dot

Though African Americans still make up eight percent of the city’s 600,000+ population, they account for less than two percent of King County residents working in tech. This aligns with an industry-wide lack of diversity, as in 2014, African Americans occupied only two percent of tech jobs across the nation.

At least two minority-owned tech-oriented businesses were launched from the first Hack the CD. The next year’s pitch contest went to a proposed organization called Black Dot, now a black coworking space and community hub on South Jackson Street. The next year, the event evolved into a full-time organization called Hack Nation.

We started it as basically a support group for these underrepresented entrepreneurs,” says Kenny Shelton, Hack Nation’s Director of Business Development, “to wrap professional services and community around young startups, so they get whatever they need to get them to that next stage.”

As well as pitch contests, Hack Nation’s events often offer dedicated stations where startups receive hourlong consultations on subjects like marketing, software, and business development. But they’re not alone in trying to improve minority access to opportunities in Seattle’s tech community.

Photo: Facebook / Black Dot

Photo: Facebook / Black Dot

HERE Seattle hosts events to advocate for diversity in tech and provide professional development for members. Apprenti runs mentorship and job placement programs to “bridge the talent gap” for underrepresented groups including women and veterans as well as minorities. Through offices in Oakland and Seattle, Floodgate Academy provides world class technical education and on-the-job experience to aspiring tech workers with similar backgrounds.

In the Central District, there’s also the Seattle Business Education HUB (SBE HUB) working to educate small business owners in financial literacy and entrepreneurial development, and to provide easier access to capital for low-income communities. It was founded last year by Felix Ngoussou, who while working at Boeing, noticed how many companies failed to fill out their applications to bid on contracts correctly.

Those businesses aren’t getting these contracts because nobody told them how to complete their paperwork,” Ngoussou says. “So when I got laid off, I opened the consulting firm to get minorities who are missing out on those contracts to learn how to do business the right way.”

Both Shelton and Ngoussou are not from Seattle—the former moved from the Bay Area, whereas the latter immigrated from Chad. But being from elsewhere puts them in good company among Seattle’s small population of black tech workers.

When I see black population actually contributing to or benefitting from the tech boom, they’re mostly not from here,” Shelton observes. “The folks from in town, I don’t know if they kind of turned their backs to it a little bit.”

One explanation for the flood of outside talent may be Washington state’s deficiency in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, specifically for minorities. Whereas the state ranks first in the nation for concentration of STEM related jobs, it’s 34th in production of health and computer science degrees relative to those job openings.

Our achievement gaps in these field for low-income and minority students are the 12th largest in the nation, leading Washington STEM to conclude it would take African American students another 150 years at the current rate to reach their peers’ level of academic achievement. No wonder Washington is now the nation’s largest importer of degrees by proportion of population.

Washington STEM is one organization advocating for greater equity in education to help level uneven employment fields like the tech industry. Another is the Technology Access Foundation (TAF), which runs a STEM-focused neighborhood school for sixth to 12th graders in Federal Way, trains teachers seeking to integrate STEM into their curriculum, and partners with public school districts to impart best practices.

Meanwhile, big tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have tried to match their progressive posturing by undertaking efforts to recruit more minority employees for their overwhelmingly-white workforces, but with few verifiable effects so far. Some explain their diversity difficulties away by focusing on the “pipeline problem,” or lack of educational or foundational assistance for minority workers.

Financial resources is always a big constraint,” Shelton explains. “Capital is definitely limited, and there’s no immediate friends or family who are flush and have money to spend on ideas.”

But tech companies must bear some responsibility for hiring biases (i.e. white people hiring white friends) and unwelcoming workplace cultures, though many would prefer not to—as a Fortune survey of 1,400 tech employees found, while 83 percent said diversity in tech was important, only half believed improvements should be made at their own companies.

Though Hack Nation isn’t exactly a recruiting service, Shelton says many prominent tech companies have turned to them in their search for employees from underrepresented backgrounds, so now entrepreneurs and other young talent coming through their channels have an easier pipeline to land jobs and gain experience.

“Once you work there, you kinda understand how things go, what the system looks like, and you can use that knowledge to run your own business,” Shelton says.

Going forward, Hack Nation and SBE HUB both have big plans to continue fostering diversity in Seattle’s demographically-stagnant tech community.

Ngoussou is working to convert a coffee shop he owns into a co-op space for tech companies and aspiring entrepreneurs to pitch and hone their business proposals. He’ll also be serving on a new small business advisory board for new Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose tech-savvy strategies he believes can help improve matters.

Hack Nation is expanding beyond exposure programs to offer full-fledged courses and curriculum to develop their businesses.

I do think things will improve,” Shelton says. “The students and companies that come through our channels really just need that support or communities to help them through things. They have the ideas, they have the drive, they just need a few dots connected.”