The 6 issues black tech leaders in Pittsburgh brought before City Council

Theresa Kail-Smith was the only council member present at Thursday’s post-agenda meeting.

black tech
mj slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

A commission or task force focusing on black technology in Pittsburgh may soon be suggested to City Council.

During a more than 90-minute conversation Thursday at a City Council post-agenda meeting, council member Theresa Kail-Smith — who requested the meeting— said the creation of that task force or commission might be the first legislation she’ll propose on the topic.

The post-agenda meeting stemmed from Kail-Smith meeting Kelauni Cook, who spearheaded an April event during the city’s Inclusive Innovation Week to answer the question “Where is black tech in Pittsburgh?” From there, Cook realized there was momentum and created Black Tech Nation, which starts with Pittsburgh.

The government sets the precedent of what’s important, Cook said during the post-agenda. “You guys set the rules for what you expect your city to look like when it comes to tech,” she said, later adding that she supports a task force or commission continuing public conversation.

Multiple members of the black tech community, city employees and others spoke during the meeting Thursday, but Kail-Smith was the only council member present. During introductions, Don Charlton, founder of software company Jazz HR, said he’s never been to City Council before but didn’t know what to make of the empty seats — and if that indicates what the topic means to the city.

Kail-Smith said several members of council were sick or out of town and would likely watch the meeting on TV. “I don’t want anyone to perceive their not attending as not caring,” she said.

While speakers acknowledged good work already happening, they also said there is work to be done to create more opportunities. These were six concerns speakers brought up during the meeting.

1. ‘Culturally induced prejudice’

“I’m very concerned about diversity and inclusion as buzzwords,” said Diamonte Walker, who works at the Hill Community Development Corporation and soon the URA. She said diversity is about more than having different faces at the table — it’s about having those people making decisions, too.

“Whenever we talk about diversity and inclusion, that’s not what we’re trying to solve,” added Charlton. “It’s culturally induced prejudice.”

2. A lack of respect and funding

Charlton said he’s been on multiple boards where an advantage is given to the person who looks like the other board members.

“You can’t ignore that successful tech CEOs are typically white or Asian males,” he said. Investors give millions to tech companies that fail, but there is less opportunity to get funding and make mistakes before correcting course for people of color, Charlton said.

3. Missing early education

There is a pipeline issue, Cook said. Black students can be at a disadvantage from the start if they don’t attend a Pre-K that puts a focus on science. They can’t learn about something they aren’t exposed to, she said. Several others agreed, adding that it starts young and in school. Walker said she’d like to see the conversation about tech in schools run parallel to the conversation already happening at City Council about early childhood education.

4. Short programming

Programing and investments need to be more long-term, said Josh Lucas, the coding camp founder from Work Hard Pittsburgh and Academy Pittsburgh. He said programs can’t just help a handful of kids for one summer. It has to also be about what that student does when school starts and for the next summer. Leaders need to acknowledge that tech is changing, so the coding that students learn now many not be the same in five or ten years, he said. Meaningful, job-based training needs to be approached like a startup: there should be a budget for failure and changes, Lucas said.

5. A segregated city

As a black Pittsburgher, Walker said she knows there are certain places she isn’t wanted, so she doesn’t go. But then, she said, she met Cook who moved to Pittsburgh a year ago and didn’t know that. New Pittsburghers like Cook help the black tech community make new connections, Walker said.

“I would be lying if I said that I don’t take a deep breath before I go in,” Cook said of tech events where she knows most people won’t look like her. She said it’s important for those events to include conversations about issues that black people face in the tech sector.

Henry Pyatt, small business and neighborhood redevlopment manager for the city, said it can be difficult to get Pittsburghers out of their neighborhoods and suggested more events aimed at bringing people into different areas.

6. Keeping black tech talent in Pittsburgh

There is a lot of tech talent here that leaves Pittsburgh because they don’t think they have a chance at jobs with some of the bigger companies like Uber or Google, said Marcus Jeter, CEO and president of Resus Technologies, Inc. Then young black children don’t see people like them in those jobs, he said, suggesting that a “Rooney Rule” for tech companies in Pittsburgh would keep more talent in Pittsburgh and raise awareness with students. Companies could also help create STEM requirements in every school, Cook added.