By Lyric Esparza
Imagine a world where every tech meetup wasn’t just a bunch of nerdy millennial males playing ping-pong. That’s the kind of world HERE Seattle is striving for.
At its inception, the nonprofit was a grassroots meetup founded by four black tech professionals aimed at gathering people of color in their industry. Over time, it has become a variety of other things:
- a space for diversity advocacy (representing the number one underrepresented demographic in tech: women)
- a place to find professional development
- a hub for philanthropic opportunity
Boasting corporate sponsors such as Microsoft, HERE is becoming an authority on the matter of diversity in the tech industry. HERE Seattle was founded a mere two years ago by a group of southern transplants seeking to develop relationships with people like themselves.
“I was sick and tired of going to ping pong tournaments.” Says Seth Stell, a co-founder from Texas. He describes going to events that seemed aimed at 25-35 year old white males when he first moved to Seattle. “There was a year when it seemed like every event I went to was like, ‘Hey, bring your best ping pong player from your office.’ Not every office has a ping pong table! They’d ask me in interviews – hey, you play?”
“I race; I play real tennis.” Cuts in Todd Bennings, fellow co-founder and senior product designer from Georgia.
“We wanted to create events that celebrated working in the tech and creative fields, but weren’t being offered. We were like, let’s bring in higher quality and more curated art, more sophisticated events.”
So they did: the group had just returned from a cruise around the Puget Sound which offered attendance to their corporate sponsors and members. Tickets were $30 a pop, and all the proceeds went directly to WAPI (a local non profit benefiting Pacific Asians and youth of all colors) in a philanthropic effort that is becoming more of a focus for the group.
It took about three months before the founders realized the group was comprised of 36 black men, a different kind of homogony.
“We jumped on proactively identifying other people interested in our work,” Stell says.
“It was September of 2014 that we pointedly started recruiting women.” Adds Dre Bearfield, whose work at HERE focuses on building relationships with other local nonprofits.
“We asked ourselves, how are we going to have a group that celebrates diversity in tech when we are ignoring the number one minority in the industry: women?”
Now, the group has over 1,000 members.
It’s not about what you are, but what you believe
“If you are going to be a professional in this industry, you have to be able to mix with people of diverse backgrounds.”
The funny thing is, when people of primarily Caucasian backgrounds hear about HERE Seattle, the common reaction is: “I’m white – can I still come?”
The group challenges this question. Stell explains: “Every week there are a bunch of other meetups like ours. Why can I attend those events which are primarily white, due to the landscape, without a posture of exclusion? But when we put on our event people ask whether or not they can come. For the last five years I’ve been going to events knowing I would be in the minority and trusting there are still going to be good people there. Why can’t you approach our event in the same way?”
And this hits on a very interesting point of action for HERE – one begins to realize that these men and women, while they happen to be people of color, are simply here to create a diverse space that rolls out pretty ballin’ events aimed at tech professionals.
“This isn’t a story to us,” says Bennings, “We wear the skin every day. The story is intelligent people coming together and breaking barriers. None of that has to do with our skin color.”
“It’s not if you are ‘X’, you can come,” Stell asserts, “It’s: if you believe in creating environments where people are more inclined to celebrate their differences as opposed to hiding them, join us.”
It also becomes clear that the organization has become inadvertently aimed at transplants who don’t immediately know how to adapt to Seattle’s relaxed professional atmosphere.
“We held an event on top of the Columbia tower,” Stell continues, “And for the first time required a dress code – suit or dress, and if you ain’t got it don’t come. Not only did we sell out, but people came looking like kids at Six Flags, so excited because they hadn’t had the opportunity to dress up in a long time.”
Turns out that the Seattle standard of tanks, Star Wars shirts and shorts while developing innovative software isn’t so common down South. In this way, HERE acts as a cultural translator for new residents.
“People come around who have only been here for two or three weeks, and they ask questions like where do I get my hair done? Where is the fried fish joint? Where should I live knowing that I have two black kids? At the surface level, this is a service we can provide,” Stell explains.
If I owned a large profitable tech company, HERE Seattle is one of the first places I would invest in. Why? Stell gave one of the most targeted elevator pitches I’ve heard in awhile:
“On an average [companies] are moving 15% of their workforce to Seattle. Employees sign a two year contract and after it’s up, they can leave. And we know most of them do leave. How can you make a home for them? Your internal programming is failing. People don’t show up to your mixers because they’re already at work for ten hours. They don’t know where to start building a social life. So in two years, it’s pretty easy for them to walk away. But what if you invested in and directed your staff towards this group that is specifically targeting transplants? Over two years they build relationships, move into a neighborhood with some of the people they’ve met. Now, they’re not leaving Seattle.”
That’s a pretty compelling argument in an area where tech startups boom and collapse quickly with issues like turnover and retention. If you want to make your staff stay on board, invest in what makes them want to stay: a community.
Want to attend HERE’s next event? Check out their calendar and make sure to RSVP online.