THE LOOP — When Fabian Elliott strolled Downtown streets during his 15-minute commute from the South Loop to his marketing job at Google, one thing kept bothering him.
“I'd see more homeless people that looked like me than I saw people that looked like me in the office," Elliott said.
Struggling with the glaring lack of diversity in corporate workplaces is a common problem for young African American professionals, but Elliott was prepared to tackle the issue systematically.
“I realized that less than 1 percent of Fortune 500 CEO's were black," he said. "I started to question why there are not more people of color in influential positions. I started to develop a plan. If we're not in positions of influence, I want to be a person of influence to help change that.”
That plan grew into Black Tech Mecca, a bid to transform Chicago into the global headquarters for black tech.
“The mission is to cultivate black leaders, inspire communities and transform technology,” said Elliott.
The group officially launches on Tuesday during Chicago Tech Week, but Elliott has been formulating elements of the organization for years. At just 25, he has been laying the groundwork for a system that will help black people overcome professional and economic obstacles for most of his adult life.
Growing up in Fayetteville, N.C., Elliott discovered his talent for marketing in high school. In his junior year, he won an entrepreneurship boot camp business plan competition. And in his senior year, he snagged third place for a regional marketing competition.
By the time he landed at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he was setting up internships with Target for two consecutive years — but he noticed that his black classmates weren't receiving many chances to expand their professional opportunities.
“I founded the organization, United Black Professionals, to help students prepare for their careers and connect with resources,” he said. The organization became a collegiate affiliate of the National Black MBA Association and remains a vital part of the university.
In 2011, his senior year, he landed an internship at Google. He was the first student at his university to accomplish the feat — such a big deal that he scored a cover story in the local Charlotte Observer.
Although his location preferences were for Atlanta or New York, Elliott was offered a position in the Chicago office, which he feels helped move him towards his plans.
“I had never been to Chicago, never even considered visiting but looking back, it was the best place to start my career,” he said. “I really love Chicago, the culture, the history and pride. It's helped me realize my vision for black America.”
That vision spurred him to start a Chicago chapter of the Black Googler Network, a group founded in 2007 at the company's Mountainview, Calif., headquarters to attract and retain black talent.
But Elliott quickly realized that the group's visibility needed expanding.
“Even though Google has offices all over the world, BGN is only in the U.S.,” he said. “My plan was to expand it globally, I developed a database of people's awareness and re-branded and came up with a different strategy.”
In 2014, Elliott was appointed global co-chair of the Black Googler Network, coordinating a 10-person global team to oversee 800 chapter members.
“I wanted to use the organization to help people get a seat at the table,“ he said of BGN. The international reach of the group inspired Elliott to think about Chicago's global image and the barriers that the city's communities of color face. “Last August, I was thinking about the challenges the city was facing. How can I make the city a beacon for the communities that I care about—black, tech and global?”
Elliott considered the 25 percent unemployment rate in the city's African American community as well as the 34 percent living under the poverty line.
“I was thinking of how I could make Chicago a beacon for all three communities and I thought I would merge them all and address my vision. I did my research and found out what was out there. I came to realize that we had all of the ingredients, someone just needed to come up with a nice recipe to bake the cake.”
The cake is Black Tech Mecca and Elliott believes it can feed all three communities. The group plans to develop and guide more talent into the local digital economy, creating a “thriving black tech ecosystem” that will create jobs and a more globally competitive Chicago digital economy.
“It's a pipeline issue in terms of who takes AP computer science, who graduates with a computer science degree and it's riddled with obstacles,” he explained about the process of getting more people of color into tech.
“The other thing is we can get them the skills for tech and STEM but a lot of times, it's inviting them into hostile situations, it can be a culture shock. By building a black tech ecosystem, with a network of people already in similar positions, you heighten the odds of success.”
The group has already developed an extensive database of the city's ever growing black tech experts. “We're creating a directory of people and their skills for the website,” said Floyd Webb, a member of the Black Tech Mecca team. “We'll look at the skills and connect people to projects.”
Elliott completed his proposal in March, hosted the first meeting of the 10-member core team in April and officially launches Black Tech Mecca Tuesday during Chicago Tech Week.
The 7 p.m. event at Google offices is already sold out, with the city's influencers and tech entrepreneurs clamoring for entry.
“Our goal is to get at least 100 leaders and influencers who care about the black community, who care about the tech community and who care about Chicago, to answer a call to action for partnerships, sponsorships or memberships,” said Elliott. “We want to re-write the narrative from black violence to black tech.”
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