Every year, over 1,600 black entrepreneurs gather in Miami for Black Tech Week. Here's what motivated BTW founder Felecia Hatcher-Pearson to blow up a false narrative.
The perception is that black people make great consumers. In November, Fortune published a clip declaring African Americans the "ultimate early adopters" of new tech products. The article cited a laughable and frankly offensive statistic: "70% of Black Millennials are fascinated by new technology." Wow. You mean they like smartphones too?
The tone-deafness and condescension of this perspective is what Felecia Hatcher-Pearson is fighting against with her creation Black Tech Week. As well-intentioned as Fortune's article may have been, it paints African Americans as creative consumers, not creative creators. While the media loves to report how black communities have defined the way we use popular products like Twitter ("Is Twitter the Underground Railroad..." - SALON), Vine ("Here's Why Black People Are the True Heroes of Vine" - Buzzfeed) and Snapchat ("Is Black Snapchat Replacing Black Twitter?" - VICE) it's that side of the equation, and only that side, that gets all the attention. What you don't hear about is that black entrepreneur who's VR company recently opened its Series A. There isn't much clickbait about Africa's thriving startup scene, about how it's solving much more pressing problems than your new fav chat app.
Black people aren't just "fascinated" by technology like wide-eyed children. They're also making it, and that's what Felecia is here to declare. We spoke with her about how Black Tech Week is peeling back popular perceptions of race in the world's hottest industry.
So, as an expert, which new tech products do you use?
I use Fancy Hands a lot, which is valets on demand for small tasks from "call this person" to "schedule this meeting" to "buy this thank you gift and e-mail it to somebody." I use that a lot. Aside from the social stuff, I use this thing called Night Owl. I use it to spy on my daughter at school!
Wait, there’s an app for spying on your kids at school??
Yeah, they have cameras in all the rooms. Then there's an app that you can download to access the cameras. Kind of Big Brother-ish, I know, but I just peek in on her every now and then, see who's bullying her, or if she's a bully! Or if the teacher's falling asleep.
How do you handle being a mother while juggling this crazy life?
Some days I get a gold medal and some days I don't get it right at all. I'm definitely not one of those work-life balance people. Yeah, I don't think that exists. I think it's the quickest way to drive yourself to insanity, if you're trying to achieve that. I live close enough to my parents and they're fantastic help. I have some amazing friends. I made a rule when my daughter was born that she’s the one thing I can't reschedule.
One of our best interviews was with Trabian Shorters of BMe. You ever come across that guy?
Yeah, yeah. I love him! My husband is a BMe fellow.
We had a fascinating talk. From what I understand, you’re doing very similar things, basically changing the narrative around race and perceived success?
There's definitely some similarities. From a narrative changing standpoint, we’re similar because for us it's about changing the perception of what you think an innovator is, what you think a techie and or a creative is.
But fundamentally day-to-day we’re pretty different from BMe. We started as a coding organization to meet a need that was not being met as Miami's start-up ecosystem was starting to bud. We realized the black community was completely left out and we wanted to do something about it. Over the years, we’ve morphed into economic development and inclusive innovation engine.
What are some of Black Tech Week’s recent victories?
We had a guy come down from Detroit that left the company that he was working with and launched a video game start-up with his friend. He was able to connect with a VC at Black Tech Week and raise about $125,000. Now he’s getting ready to close a pretty significant seed round with that same fund. We had a girl, Lenore, who was working for City Year and absolutely hated her job, but wanted to do something in tech. Had no idea what, she just wanted to be there. She didn't even have enough money to pay for the ticket. She wrote me on Facebook. I'm like, "Just come and say my name. I'm sure you'll get in. It'll be fine." Was able to, through that, get a better understanding of the broader start-up ecosystem in Miami. Went to Wyncode, which is a 9-week coding bootcamp here, and then was able to get a job as a UX designer with a software company within three weeks of graduating that program. Again, that would not have happened with Black Tech Week, because a lot of these organizations exist here, but their outreach sucks.
Do you worry that it creates more division to coalesce on the grounds of color?
I don't, and I've had this conversation with a lot of people. What you have is a group of people that haven’t been engaged in tech because they don't have the confidence to stand in that room and possibly be the only one that looks like them. On one side it looks like, hey, they're not interested otherwise they would be here. But then those on that other side are thinking “well, they don't want me there.” There's this huge disconnect.
What we do is build confidence. What's a seed round? A Series A and a Series B and a VC and an angel investor? You need to know that terminology to confidently be in a room and be yourself so that you can build relationships and eventually get something out of it.
Take eMERGE for instance. Over the past three years, from the work that we've done, you've seen an increase in the number of black start-up founders that at that conference, because they were incubated by our monthly events. They can now go to that and be able to thrive.
Are the attendees at Black Tech Week all African American?
Of our 1700 attendees at the last Black Tech Week, we had 60 different nationalities and ethnicities. We’re not monolithic. I'm half Jamaican and half African American. It brings a lot of groups together, and it connects them with other groups in the Caribbean, in Africa, across the United States and in Latin America.
Also, our speaker lineup is extremely diversely. We had the founder of Magic Leap, one of the most impressive augmented and virtual reality companies. That guy never speaks at anything and for him speak at Black Tech Week was a really big deal. One of the founders of Priceline, Jeff Hoffman, was also one of the keynote speakers. They realize how important it is to connect these groups.
The black community is quite often early adopters of the technology that defines American culture, like with Snapchat or black Twitter. But, on the other hand, it seems like you’re saying they’re underrepresented as developers. How do analyze that disconnect?
In Jamaica, Jamaicans do not consume reggae music, but they do influence its cachet. It’s then consumed and purchased everywhere else around the world, but if you’re a Jamaican artist relying on Jamaicans to buy your music, you're screwed. The black community's the exact same way in America. They influence and dictate culture, then that’s turned around and monetized by other communities. The black community's just like, "What the heck? We invented twerking. When we do it, it's horrible, and then when this lady in a yoga studio says, 'I'm gonna offer a twerking class and charge people $50,' people eat it up."
My point is that the narrative that blacks are consumers and not producers isn’t entirely true. That's why the conversation you had with Trabian is so important. In Miami, we have Little Haiti, right? They still have the jitney taxi, and the jitney taxi is extremely popular on the continent of Africa as well as in the Caribbean. That's a van, a bunch of people pile into that van, they're paying a dollar and it's taking them from one location to the next. That's very similar to Uber Pool right? These communities have been doing that out of necessity for forever, but they haven't scaled because they don't have the right resources or the context to realize that it’s actually a very innovative approach to solving a real problem. Then Uber comes along and figures out how to scale it, how to provide the right wraparound, the right resources, and now they have a globally dominant company.
"The black community's just like, 'What the heck? We invented twerking. When we do it, it's horrible, and then when this lady in a yoga studio says, 'I'm gonna offer a twerking class and charge people $50,' people eat it up."
You mentioned Africa earlier. I'm wondering, is there cool start-up stuff going on in Africa that I have no idea about?
Oh yeah. I mean, heck yeah. I visited South Africa for the first time this year. There's a lot going on in Johannesburg. There's a lot going on in Nairobi. There's a lot going on all over the continent. Kenya has some really amazing stuff. Ghana has some really cool start-ups coming out. We've brought in some speakers from different parts of Africa.
What are some differences between African tech companies and American ones?
Here, I don't always see technology solving real problems. There, tech is helping communities survive, connecting people that don’t have access to technology at all. What they're doing with mobile pay, I think, is fantastic, because we're still trying to figure out mobile payments and get people on board with that here. One other thing that I thought was really cool was this guy created a company, and I think he recently sold it, but it's allowed people to essentially barter for things that they need using credits from their cell phone. Say I have $100 in credit on my cell phone, but I really need, I don't know, 10 pounds of sugar. There's a marketplace for me to be able to barter for the sugar that I need to someone who else needs credit on their phone. Or they give me the funding for the sugar and then I give them some of my credits on my phone. That's cool as shit. Think about Netflix and HBO Go, if I had a friend that has Showtime, is there a way that we can barter or something? It’s bred out of necessity there, but, trust me, it’ll come here and we’ll be eating it up just the same!