Carving out what the black tech community actually looks like is similar to solving a lengthy equation if you’re reading the news; there are many variables and few discussions about how to solve for economic inequality. The shocking stories and headlines about the lack of diversity at large tech companies, like Google, paints the following narrative: A few black people work in tech, but there is no black tech space for black entrepreneurs. After chatting with Felecia Hatcher-Pearson, founder of the tech non-profit Code Fever (in Miami, Florida), it was clear that it shouldn’t be about replicating what we’ve already seen. It was about continuing to support a movement for black entrepreneurs to flourish.
Created in 2014 by Felecia Hatcher and husband Derick Pearson, they noticed that there was an "innovation economy" in a historically black neighborhood in Overtown, Miami. However, black people weren't being included. In an email, the Code Fever team said, "Hatcher and Pearson wanted to change the condition of the black community through technology; to make a drastic change in the way that the black community is valued and adds value to the innovation economy."
Code Fever’s focus is to provide the tools for minorities to be competitive in the digital space, but also to provide the support they need to launch their big ideas, or find the right opportunities. Building a stronger relationship between the black community and tech industries doesn’t have a quick fix or band-aid. “You have to tackle it from both sides—hiring young people and creating a pipeline where they can get skills and training,” said Hatcher-Pearson. What she described was a plan to uplift the community with a “for us, by us” mentality. Hatcher-Pearson said that “people are tired of knocking on locked doors,” referring to how few minorities are represented in Silicon Valley. Code Fever’s vision to address innovation deserts and create resource magnetism in the black community isn't just loaded terminology dropped into a fancy mission statement. Code Fever’s primary focus is different from the “train and pray” approach that doesn’t support black entrepreneurs after they gain the skills they need.
The alternative was to continue to try our luck in Silicon Valley, an environment that isn’t so conducive to POC’s success. Not only is Silicon Valley characterized as “toxic” for people of color, but demographics like African American women make up only 15 percent of the tech workforce. At companies like Facebook and Google, black and Latinx people only represent a combined 3–5 percent of employees. Not only is it difficult to work for a top tech company, but recent studies show that lack of diversity and unfair treatment are among the top reasons POCs are also leaving Silicon Valley. Code Fever wants to tell a different story, one where marginalized people can help create an ecosystem of black-owned tech companies.
During our conversation, Hatcher-Pearson quickly checked the illusion that the key is not to simply change the tech world from inside affluent companies. The key is to tackle innovation deserts where training and resources are scarce, so that black men and women can have more control over their destiny.
Hatcher-Pearson said, “We are familiar with a food desert—that certain things don’t exist in the neighborhood. That also happens to be the issue with being engaged in technology, other than being an Uber driver. Often times those opportunities of being part of the field aren’t available, other than in service work.”
And she has a point!
She mentioned that there are cultural norms in communities of color that other companies have cashed in on. Ideas like uberPOOL are akin to gypsy cabs, or dollar vans, in neighborhoods where it’s more cost effective to carpool than trying to take a taxi. Other ideas like collective fundraising or saving, (i.e. Kickstarter or Digit), have become a savvy way to fundraise and save. But this idea can also be found in African/Caribbean communities, in the form of savings clubs known as “sou-sous.” Hatcher-Pearson mentioned what a lot of us know to be true. She said, “Black people dictate culture and trends. If you look at top technology, let’s be honest, it’s been stuff that black people have always done.”
Code Fever wants to tell a different story, offering startup and coding bootcamps, support services and a national conference called Black Tech Week, that supports the economic empowerment of black entrepreneurs. The idea is not only to support black owned tech businesses, but to put more minorities in a position to benefit from their ideas, launch their tech venture and even employ more people within their community.
One way to accomplish empowerment in the black community is to build our own. Similar to the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, creating a black Silicon Valley seemed like the obvious solution to an inclusive tech space. However, Hatcher-Pearson disagreed about how to truly lift as we climb. “If you look at pockets of black wealth—we have wealth outside of silicon valley—we can retool that to support innovative people of color, but they are in colloids,” she said. Hatcher-Pearson added that Silicon Valley has proven it isn’t the perfect model, and it isn’t enough to just make Miami or Detroit or Atlanta the next Silicon Valley. There are pockets of black business owners and tech enterprises all over the U.S., and building robust tech areas could help support black people who already have right the ideas.
“Silicon Valley has been around 40–50 years, so saying we want to rebuild it, you lose what makes our communities unique. We need to use tech to leverage what we already do. We need to be innovation hubs and resources, and wrap tech around it,” said Hatcher-Pearson.
Hatcher-Pearson thinks the right way is to teach black people to incorporate tech to scale their businesses—even if it isn't a tech enterprise—and to create an environment where black businesses could fail. She said, “No one ever said white people can’t do something because they failed.” And the luxury of failing would allow black entrepreneurs to test their ideas, and even rebuild better ones.
As Code Fever celebrates becoming an Echoing Green Fellow and gears up for another Black Tech Week in October, Hatcher-Pearson shared that there is more to come. She talked about building black co-working spaces to promote collaborative community work, expanding Black Tech Week to other cities, hosting hackathons and using new support to impact policy changes that champion minority innovation. According to Hatcher-Pearson, Code Fever can help the black community create sustainable economic growth on our terms. She said, “We are a non-profit, but we are definitely a movement.”