A section of Google’s Chicago office was buzzing with the eager chatter of more than 200 young professionals Wednesday night at the Chicago Urban League’s second Young and Ambitious Speaker Series hosted by the organization’s Metropolitan Board. Six high profile black leaders in Chicago’s blossoming tech industry gathered to talk to the crowd about empowerment, success and the future of tech.
One of the keys to success for Blue 1647 founder and CEO Emile Cambry is having “intellectual curiosity.”
“Are you going to look for the answer,” Cambry said, “or are you going to wait for someone to give you the answer?”
Cambry was careful to note, however, that the intellectual curiosity one needs to be successful does not have an age bracket. He mentioned two Blue 1647 students, a teenager who Cambry said he sees at nearly every event he attends and another who is in his 70s who is learning to write code, as examples.
But even with seemingly large availability of free online resources or local tech incubators and business that provide programming, the number of blacks in tech professions is “ridiculously low,” said the events moderator Google Sr. Brand Consultant William Morris.
About 1-2 percent of tech professionals are black and about 25 percent of college students studying STEM subjects are students of color. Of those students many of them not only drop out of the program, but out of school entirely, Morris said.
“Which city do you think has the most diverse population,” Morris asked during the panel discussion. “New York?” He waited for the crowd’s response. A few hands went up. He did the same with Los Angeles and Chicago. “All those are wrong. It’s Oakland,” he said.
Oakland, Calif., just for reference, is right across the bay from Silicon Valley.
There are groups such as Qeyno Labs in Oakland, though, that aim to create opportunities in the world of tech for “low opportunity” students. Qeyno Labs founder Kalimah Priforce launched the first My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon in February 2014 in partnership with President Barack Obama.
Amid staggering statistics about the lack of diversity in the tech industry and low retention rates in STEM programs, however, panelists agreed that more children, teens and adults of color need to see tech leaders who “look like them” and are succeeding in the field. That requires other key attributes that bring success.
“Stack the odds in your favor by building a product where success cannot be denied,” We Deliver founder Jimmy Odom said.
Odom, who admitted he only gets about four hours of sleep a night, continued to reiterate that having passion and drive is key to seeing one’s dreams materialize. Others on the panel, such as CDW supervisor Rondell Newcombe, advised that networking and establishing relationships are important skills to have.
“People already put you in a box,” Candid Cup founder Thomas K.R. Stovall said. “When you destroy the box they will want to connect with you.”
Stovall also suggested creating metrics for a concept even without capital for the business yet.
The only woman on the Speaker Series panel Microsoft Senior Project Manager Shalanda Greene said that as a woman surrounded by mostly white males at her company she has to have characteristics that set her apart. She said that proving herself to be reliable, having strong core values and “adaptable technical knowledge” have been key.
The days of labeling kids nerds or geeks need to be over, Cambry said, suggesting that the rhetoric used toward high achieving students needs to change. Those same students should be recognized as professionals, he said.
Changing the narrative of what tech professionals look like means primarily helping the next generation gain access, panelists said, through obtaining the appropriate knowledge and applying the practices and attitudes that bring successful results.