It started with one question: Where is black tech in Pittsburgh?
Kelauni Cook, 28, moved to Pittsburgh about a year ago to attend a coding boot camp at Academy Pittsburgh. The former high school teacher fell in love with coding and dove into the city’s tech scene. She’s now a software developer and an instructor at Academy Pittsburgh Beta Builders, a high school coding boot camp for girls and minority students.
But Cook would go to events and look around. If there were 60 people there, about 10 would be women and three would be black, she said.
“I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” Cook said.
It nagged at her. So when she saw a callout for topics during the city’s second Inclusive Innovation Week this spring, she pitched her question as a intimate coffee session.
“I was new here so I didn’t know the history, but I knew it was an important question,” she said.
Now, answering that question has morphed into a practically full-time job, as she works to launch Black Tech Nation — starting first with Black Tech Pittsburgh. It begins with a three-part roadmap:
- Community. Making it easier for people share information, updates and opportunities through events and a newsletter. It’s also a way for people and companies to meet each other.
- Partnerships. Working with companies to make hiring more inclusive and to build relationships with the black tech community.
- Policy. Working with city council on strategies and legislation.
Less than two months after the Inclusive Innovation Week event, the Black Tech Nation website launched Wednesday. Cook is also looking for volunteers. “Anyone interested in making tech a more equitable and inclusive industry is more than welcome to join,” she wrote in the first #BlackTechPGH newsletter.
Pittsburgh is in a real “sweet spot” to make a difference and be a national model for tech inclusivity, Cook said. Pittsburgh City Council is having a post-agenda meeting on “black technology in Pittsburgh” at 1 p.m. June 15.
Plans for 20 people
After pitching her question as an event, Cook said she imagined a conversation over coffee for a small group, maybe 20 people.
RSVPs started rolling in. The April 1 event ended up with 80 people from across the tech community, local politics and elsewhere.
People came together to discuss a taboo subject and exchange ideas, Cook said, adding the conversation attempted to bridge the gap between those who didn’t feel included and those who didn’t know why no one came to their events. There’s a history of segregation and assumptions about what it takes to make people feel welcome and included, Cook said. “It’s not a one-sided issue.”
When it was over, Cook said she thought her question was answered.
But then, the emails started almost right away. They came from tech companies, nonprofits, universities, elected officials and others all wanting to help. Cook said she really realized it wasn’t just her question because she was new.
“This is really something that is missing here,” she said.
City council member Theresa Kail-Smith said she was impressed with Cook’s energy and the work she was doing. At the event, there were so many people that the city isn’t connected to and discussions of ways to be more inclusive, she said. Kail-Smith offered a post-agenda meeting to have dedicated time to continue the conversation in a more public forum.
Fellow council member Corey O’Connor agreed that he was impressed by the number of people willing to discuss the topic and work together. He added that city can come up with policy to make space more accessible for startups and to help those new companies navigate red tape.
Starting in Pittsburgh
The momentum was unavoidable, Cook said. She didn’t want to pass it up.
So she began working on Black Tech Nation, a network of cities with similar diversity goals and efforts that would start with Black Tech Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh can be the national example, Cook said. The city is small enough to get enough leaders on board, and although it can be segregated, the diversity is here, she said. The tech industry is growing and accessible, too.
It was that accessibility, as well as the beautiful city and nice people, that made Cook want to stay in Pittsburgh after moving here. She said the city should be attractive to other young black professionals. too.
Pittsburgh was a leader in steel, and it can be a leader in diversity in tech, too, Cook said. She said that with more diversity, there will be more unique ideas and companies that could create things that would disrupt the way tech is done, even in Silicon Valley.
“Little Pittsburgh could make that happen,” she said.