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How To Promote Black Tech in Chicago? Collaboration Is Key, Leaders Say

By Tatiana Walk-Morris | January 29, 2016 7:33pm
 Dominic Liddell, founder of Coding While Black, discusses his company and challenges with providing tech training in under-served communities during the 2016 State of the Black Tech Ecosystem event at Google's West Loop office.
Dominic Liddell, founder of Coding While Black, discusses his company and challenges with providing tech training in under-served communities during the 2016 State of the Black Tech Ecosystem event at Google's West Loop office.
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DNAinfo Chicago / Tatiana Walk-Morris

WEST LOOP — It’s no secret that the tech sector has a diversity problem, and last night a group of tech professionals of color met to lay out the blueprint for bringing more black people into Chicago's tech world.

Hosted by Micae Brown, of The Urban Business Roundtable radio program on WVON, executives at Coding While Black, Bridging the Gap and Blue Ocean Logic spoke to an audience of more than 200 black entrepreneurs and enthusiasts about their companies and the overall state of Chicago’s black tech community at the Google’s West Loop office, 320 N. Morgan St.

Fabian Elliott, founder of Black Tech Mecca and an advertising technology exec at Google, organized the event in hopes of taking the pulse of Chicago’s black tech community, which he said hasn't been formally measured.

 (from l.) Brian Powers, co-founder of Blue Ocean Logic; Dominic Liddell, founder of Coding While Black; and Fabian Elliott, founder of Black Tech Mecca and Google exec
(from l.) Brian Powers, co-founder of Blue Ocean Logic; Dominic Liddell, founder of Coding While Black; and Fabian Elliott, founder of Black Tech Mecca and Google exec
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DNAinfo Chicago / Tatiana Walk-Morris

“We believe that building a thriving black tech ecosystem is vital for future of Chicago, absolutely vital,” Elliott said. “There’s obvious opportunities, but there’s a disconnect … Until we correct this, the vision for Chicago’s tech plan will continue to be a dream.”

According to Black Tech Mecca’s findings, 32.9 percent of Chicago’s population is black, and the black community continues to suffer from poverty and unemployment. And yet the city’s budding tech community, which was said by Built In Chicago to employ more than 54,000 people, was ranked 6th among the country’s top technology markets, Crain's Chicago Business reported in 2014.

Looking ahead to what could be done to bring more black people into the tech community, the panelists pointed to several barriers such as lack of fundamental digital literacy, a need for quality internet service and a dire need for capital to develop and launch black-owned tech companies.

They also cited insufficient collaboration across institutions, businesses and community organizations.

“I see [Chicago's black tech community] headed toward being more self-contained, not trying to get more jobs at Google or places like that, but getting jobs within black-owned businesses either tech-owned or traditional businesses,” said panelist and Coding While Black founder Dominic Liddell.

Liddell and other companies featured on the panel have begun to address these challenges, but have been met with typical startup hurdles like lack of capital and resources. Coding While Black teaches tech skills needed to build and grow businesses, but Liddell said the three-year-old startup is still in need of equipment and funding.

Blue Ocean Logic, which assists nonprofit, private and public organizations with digital marketing and management tools, ensures that its representatives are diverse so as to connect with their clients' backgrounds, said Brian Powers, the company’s co-founder.

In addition to capital constraints, Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers mentioned other barriers including gaining a client base and understanding the cost of doing business, adding that his office is open to local entrepreneurs of color seeking help. During his opening remarks, Summers encouraged attendees to take advantage of Chicago’s emerging tech scene, and to be mentors to other aspiring entrepreneurs.

Though he acknowledged that some sitting in the room did not have mentors when they entered the industry, “everyone has the power to be what they didn’t have,” Summers said. “We don’t have a talent gap. We have an opportunity gap.”

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