Building Black Tech Nation in Pittsburgh and Beyond

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A career in tech wasn’t exactly on Kelauni Cook’s radar while growing up in the Chicago area.

After working as a substitute teacher for less than $25,000 per year while studying to enter graduate school, Cook sought a career change. In 2016, she found out about Academy Pittsburgh’s coding bootcamp, dropped everything, and relocated.

Realizing the importance of a strong personal network ‒ especially in the tech field, where many jobs aren’t advertised online ‒ Cook tried to meet as many local techies as she could.

The Pittsburgh tech community welcomed her with open arms, although the process came with its personal challenges.

“It was in some ways culturally lonely to get into an industry where I would typically not see anybody that looks like me at all,” Cook said.

Cook’s move to Pittsburgh and her Academy education paid off, landing her a remote software development job with The Washington Post. But it was her networking experiences that inspired her to start Black Tech Nation (BTN), a professional ecosystem for black people in tech that also aims to create new opportunities for careers in the field.

BTN blossomed from a small group of Pittsburgh black techies in 2017 to a vibrant organization that has received well over six figures in grant funding and attracted nearly 500 members nationwide.

BTN representatives, pictured at the organization’s first networking, or “space-making,” event of 2019. (Photo: Volcy Photography)

Anthony Harper, a 23-year-old Clarion University graduate, found BTN about a year ago while job hunting. He joined BTN and began teaching web basics like HTML and Javascript to children at the Carnegie Library branch in Homewood, through the organization.

“They were definitely more receptive than I thought,” he said of the experience. “Some kids think of coding and they think it’s just so far beyond their scope, but when you get to sit down with them and really see the things they can do, there’s just something super cool about it.”

BTN might run more youth programs in the future, but right now, Cook said the organization is focused on encouraging youth to pursue tech through existing avenues ‒ and perhaps reframing the narrative of black success in the process.

“Because the media continues to portray black people as being good at sports and good at music, those [options] to the young people seem like the only way out of their situations,” she said. “I’m trying to make Black Tech Nation an organization that makes tech cool. My goal is to partner with people in sports and entertainment, because the kids in our community tend to look up to those people.”

Beyond making tech look attractive, future techies need a way to enter the field and succeed.

“We need some kind of in-between between the black community and the black techies who want to have a group of people who look like them,” Cook said.

BTN served as that “in-between” organization for Harper, helping him launch his career as a freelance app and web developer by connecting him with the Work Hard Pittsburgh cooperative.

Harper also touted the organization’s connections with Carnegie Mellon University and some of the larger tech companies in town.

Techies from Pittsburgh and beyond receive business development advice from BTN. Cook said BTN recently provided guidance to a woman from Los Angeles looking for advice on an app idea.

“At the end of the day we’re really just trying to normalize black people being in tech,” said Jim Gibbs, a BTN board member and co-founder of the parking app MeterFeeder.

This focus, Gibbs added, also includes supporting and serving as a “safe space” for black professionals at larger companies, who might have to integrate into an environment that is predominantly white.

BTN’s mission continues to attract attention. In addition to its growing base of members ‒ who receive access to resources, advice, and a professional network ‒ the organization has a full slate of sponsors lined up for 2020. This continued success has turned into a full-time job for Cook, who could not fulfill her responsibilities to the organization while maintaining a normal career as a software developer. In September, she hired a business operations employee to gear up for what will most certainly be a busy 2020.

All of BTN’s support thus far has come despite the organization hosting only a handful of events. But Cook said BTN is ramping things up, with nearly 40 physical and digital events planned for next year.

The full calendar will be released in December on BTN’s website and social media. Additionally, BTN plans to release a one-page report with data on salaries, available resources and the state of black tech in Pittsburgh. This report, along with the three categories of events planned for next year, will help shape the organization in the near future.

The first event category ‒ “space-making” events ‒ includes monthly member conversations and community happy hours to facilitate networking. BTN also plans to host educational workshops featuring panelists from the black tech community, as well as four ticketed events with well-known speakers who have a connection to the tech space. The first speaker event is tentatively planned for late February.

BTN aims to draw upwards of 250 people for these public events, which will highlight the black tech ecosystem in Pittsburgh and connect black history with how the larger community is currently evolving with regard to tech, according to Cook.

With the spotlight shining brighter on Pittsburgh’s tech scene by the day, the black tech ecosystem is also poised for growth. If it can grow in the right way, Cook sees the city becoming a hub for black techies nationwide.

“If we are able to capitalize on the momentum that so many people are feeling around this Black Tech Nation thing, Pittsburgh can easily be in the running to be a city that black techies take seriously as somewhere they could see themselves being,” said Cook.

Sam Bojarski
Contributing Writer
Sam is a freelance journalist who has reported in communities from Pittsburgh to Port-au-Prince. He covers local news in western PA, spotlighting the people and ideas that define our region. His coverage of the national maritime industry has appeared in multiple trade publications.