What if There Were More Black Tech Leaders?

HACK the CD takes the hackathon to a population that isn’t used to seeing itself in tech.

For the 2015 edition of Best of Seattle, the Seattle Weekly staff looked back on the past year and selected the five innovations that we feel will do the most to make our city better. This is one of them. To read the rest of Seattle's Best Ideas, go go here.

Black people don’t study computer science.” It’s a common refrain when you talk about diversity in the technology industry.

It’s also wrong.

According to the National Science Foundation, in 2012 just over 10 percent of all computer-science degrees in the United States were earned by African-Americans (who comprise 13.2 percent of the population overall)—a figure that has remained fairly consistent as more and more of the nation’s workforce attends to code.

And yet the number of blacks working at some of the most prominent tech companies, including Facebook and Amazon, is notably low. Figures are particularly grim at Facebook, where 1 percent of the company’s tech workforce is black, compared to the 53 percent that is white and 41 percent tht is Asian. Its non-tech workforce is slighty more reflective of society, at 2 percent black.

To these firms’ credit, they are being more transparent than most about their racial makeup, and are embarking on seemingly sincere efforts to make it right. But the fact remains that as a new world was being created on microprocessors in our phones, whites had a disproportionate say in what that world looked like: what the rules were, whom it would serve, and how it would do it.

Enter HACK the CD, a tech-driven social-innovator collective based in Seattle’s Central District.

For three days in late July, about three dozen people gathered at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the CD for the second “hackathon”—patterned after the gatherings in which coders meet for a few days of intense work on a particular problem—under the fledgling organization’s banner. The goal was to figure out ways technology could better serve the community. Over that weekend, a predominantly black crowd discussed new business ideas for their neighborhoods, networked with those who could help them achieve their goals, and provided critical feedback to others about their business models and ideas.

The CD has traditionally had a strong African-American presence. But the area is changing rapidly, as older housing stock is bulldozed to make room for new condos. Kitty-corner from the Institute is a development under construction that announces on a large sign that all but one of its units has already been sold.

It’s little surprise, then, that the stemming of gentrification is at the forefront of many minds at this Saturday-morning workshop asking how the Black Lives Matter movement can address economic justice.

“We talked about coming up with an app that highlights black businesses, like a black Yelp,” one man tells the crowd following a roundtable brainstorm.

A woman affirms that she’d use such a product. “I live in Des Moines,” she says. “I don’t know what black businesses exist in my area.”

"We're disrupting the status quo, because things as they are aren't working, no matter where you look."

At another table, conversation turns to findings by the U.S. Justice Department that Honda charged minority customers higher rates on their car loans than white customers. Since no one knows how much everyone else is paying on their loans, this kind of discrimination can be difficult to detect. Perhaps they could set up a system that crowd-sources that information, to detect discrepancies more quickly. An app in which people anonymously submit their salaries could serve as a model.

In a similar vein, a table of mostly high-school and middle-school students talk about ways they could use technology to track how students of different races are disciplined by teachers. As it is, one boy says, when kids suggest that white students are shown more leniency than black students, “No one believes you. It’s like you’re telling a ghost story.”

HACK the CD co-founder David Harris says that while hackathons are attended mostly by people who already have strong tech skill sets, HACK the CD is designed to welcome all comers from the area to foster ideas and solutions that address the needs of the community. “What we’re doing with HACK the CD is disrupting the status quo, because things as they are aren’t working, no matter where you look,” Harris says.

Harris’ day job is at the Seattle-based Technology Access Foundation, where he develops “authentic learning experiences for students of color” in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). He says he’s taken students all across the world, and that includes to the tech campuses on the East Side. “The students really tell it like it is, and they comment that no one looks like them when we’re there,” he says.

Harris notes that when it comes to diversity in tech, “a lot of the focus has been on percentage of the workforce. But one glaringly obvious thing that doesn’t get talked about is that a lot of these companies are founded by white men. It’s no surprise that they hire white men.”

“How do we create more black founders?” he says.

It should be noted that no ill will is directed toward Seattle’s large tech companies at the event. It’s sponsored in part by Amazon, and several black Amazon employees are on hand to offer attendees advice and guidance.

Last year’s HACK the CD spawned at least three start-ups, and Harris set a goal of seeing five businesses start from this year’s event.

There is certainly no shortage of ideas.

Amari Garrett, a high-school sophomore, stands before the Saturday crowd to give a compact elevator pitch of his idea for an app that would better explain what can and can’t be recycled and composted in Seattle—with an eye toward a new law that will fine people if they put too much food waste into their trash bins.

“We don’t have the most information in our community, and if we get fined, that’s another way they could extract money from our community,” Garrett tells the crowd. He then lists what skills he’ll need to get the app off the ground, at which point those in the crowd with those paticular skills raise their hands.


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