Tech Incubators on a Mission of Diversity

Tech Incubators on a Mission of Diversity

“I spent almost a year in Silicon Valley meeting with people, getting advice on our business model. They all wanted me to play it safe,” said Ms. Benton, who was a teenage mother and went from graphic design to helping start B20, a black tech innovators site, in 2007. “I don’t come from that background.”

Ms. Benton said she discovered that some of the most talented entrepreneurs weren’t aiming to create the next billion-dollar start-up. Rather, the entrepreneurs of color were content to begin a company worth a few million dollars.

Over five years, the NewME accelerator has helped businesses raise more than $20 million in venture capital funding. It offers one-week programs and has more than 20,000 members so far.

Many established accelerators and start-up incubators tend to be in regions and cities dominated by existing tech or business firms. For the new entrepreneurs, a key to success is setting up in underserved areas.

Emile Cambry Jr., the founder of the nonprofit tech incubator Blue1647, chose to open its first location in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, a primarily Hispanic neighborhood southwest of the city’s bustling downtown.

The classes are not for dabblers. The company developed its curriculum to train students in Java, Ruby and other computer languages. It also provides a shared work space for entrepreneurs and connects students with internships, jobs and networking opportunities.

Since its founding in 2013, the nonprofit has expanded to Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, as well as St. Louis and Compton, Calif. A low-income area of Austin, Tex., is next.

Some alumni have interned at Google, and other tech companies, while others have started their own businesses or landed tech jobs, Mr. Cambry said.

The organization has trained more than 2,400 youths and adults in its sequential classes or 12-week boot camps, the majority of whom identify as black or Hispanic.

Even with tech backing, many of these ventures initially faced hurdles, like raising money or finding the best way to publicize community outreach.

Kenneth Watkins, chief strategy officer at Blue1647, said he noticed that the Hispanic girls shone the most at the group’s internship accelerator programs, but there weren’t enough organizations catering to their specific needs, like bilingual skills. So in 2014, he started Latina Girls Code, which also offers training in 3-D printing and creating wearable tech. The program has only trained 83 Latinas, most of whom are third-generation, in HTML, CSS, Javascript and other programming languages.

But working with overlooked communities comes with unexpected challenges. For example, Mr. Watkins noticed that Chicago workshop locations discouraged some students and their families from participating because some feared being targeted by immigration officials or the police while traveling to the city.

“We now have to do an Aurora thing and a Joliet thing — we have to do two different events, because they just can’t travel but so far,” he said.

To expand, the founders of such ventures realize that collaborating with investors and tech companies like Microsoft, Apple and Google brings in more resources for their programs.

Doing so takes networking in tech circles and reaching out to companies who aim to diversify their staff and directly asking for their support, Mr. Watkins said. For him, it meant going to meet-ups and emphasizing to tech giants that supporting his organization could help close the diversity gap.

“A lot of people like what you do until you start asking for money. Then it becomes quiet,” Mr. Watkins said. “You really have to have people in those positions who can really be advocates.”

In addition to supporting NewME, Google has worked with ventures like Code2040 and Manos Accelerator through Google for Entrepreneurs, which financially supports community start-up programs. That initiative is separate from its diversity team, Roya Soleimani, a Google spokeswoman, said in an email, adding that the company had increased the number of universities from which it recruits.

She said the company continued to search for “people who can bring new perspectives and life experiences to our teams.” She pointed to a Google blog post from June 1, 2015, reporting that 2 percent of Google employees were black and 3 percent were Hispanic.

Some of the most successful graduates of the start-ups would never have considered careers in technology. Nehemiah Bishop, a Chicago South Side native who earned his accounting degree at the University of Illinois-Chicago, “slept in hotels and lived in vans at one point” in his life, but he received help from his brother and others to finish college.

An accounting internship made him realize that it wasn’t the field he wanted to pursue. He enrolled in Blue1647’s HTML, CSS and JavaScript class and a Ruby on Rails class, which helped him land a Google internship. He was hired as an industrial engineer at UPS in May.

“At Blue1647, when you come in to take a basic coding class, to get help with a start-up or to just come in for help with your homework, you come in to a family environment,” Mr. Bishop said. The incubator provides “that extra help of guidance from individuals that look like you, individuals that care for you as much as your parents care for you and who believe in you without a doubt.”

Many of these ventures say that to really make a difference, more collaborations with established tech companies are necessary.

Dominic Liddell, founder of Tech While Black, a Chicago nonprofit organization that provides job and networking opportunities for black designers and developers, said he still faced an uphill battle in reaching out. The group has secured GitHub, Code Climate and other software companies for sponsors, but he has hired a business development manager to build more relationships. The nonprofit was founded in 2014 and has helped more than 1,300 members through workshops and meet-ups.

“There’s enough out there for everybody to eat,” Mr. Liddell said. “If we stay in our neighborhoods instead of moving out, we get the jobs and go back and hire from our neighborhoods and train from our neighborhoods, then we have a better outlook over all.”


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