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Changing the ratio: The people Black Tech Week is bringing to Miami

As a former engineering manager at Twitter, Leslie Miley was a self-described anomaly – African Americans made up less than 3 percent of those employed in Twitter’s US office. He worked in tech for nine years before encountering someone of his own race in a position above him.

“African Americans in technology are so rare, especially in engineering. In positions of leadership it’s even rarer,” he said. “I’ve never had an African American mentor … because there was no one that was above me. If I did [have a mentor] I think my career would have been different and much more enriched. I would have avoided a lot of the mistakes I made earlier in my career.”

Of Twitter’s some 307 million monthly active users, 21% were white, while 27% were black, and 25% Hispanic, according to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center. By contrast at the U.S. office, 59% of Twitter’s employees were white, just 2% were black, and 3% Hispanic, according to Statista.

“Twitter has five main products, and they’re all run by five white men. User growth has not grown at all. It makes you wonder, ‘Why do [they] keep putting the same people up for leadership positions?’ A white guy from Stanford isn’t going to get black Twitter,” Miley said.

For Miley, it just makes sense to have people who make a product actually represent the people who are using the product. “If you have diversity … you can make a better product for everyone,” he added.

This is, in part, why he accepted the invitation from Felecia Hatcher and her husband, Derek Pearson, to come to Miami and speak at Black Tech Week this year. Now in its second year, Black Tech Week aims to “provide impactful programming around innovation, technology, and creativity” for one week during Black History Month. “I wanted to create something that creates a collision point for minority entrepreneurs to find everything they need. It’s also a chance for non-minorities to see phenomenal people in this space who might be great for hiring for a startup or major technology company,” Hatcher said.

This year, the event runs from Feb. 14 through Feb. 20 and will feature a series of conferences, parties, panel discussions, with 35 speakers representing everything from small startups to major tech companies from all around the world.

For Eunice Cofie, the founder, CEO, and chief chemist of Nuekie, a health and beauty company for people of color, this will be her second time attending the conference. “Last year it was amazing. I learned so much from the sessions and the speakers were so dynamic. It was a great thing to be around other entrepreneurs who looked like me, had shared experiences, and were willing to help one another get to the next level in their company,” she said.

Eunice Cofie
Eunice Cofie of Nuekie (Courtesy of Black Tech Week)

This year, Cofie will be speaking to attendees about her journey as a black female scientist and entrepreneur. Cofie founded Nuekie because many pharmaceutical-grade cosmetic products on the market did not cater to people of color. This is, in part, because there weren’t many people of color creating the products. “I think there is a need for more African American scientists — not just those designing apps and software, but also in the wet lab like me, designing products” Cofie said.

Rodney Williams, founder & CEO of Lisnr, a Smart Tone technology and communication protocol that sends data over audio, would agree. He thinks that there needs to be more “people [of color] who have ideas, and create them. I want to see them thinkers and innovators at a high level. Rather than thinking about infrastructure, thinking about leading and inspiring,” he said.

During his talk, Williams will side-step the emphasis on STEM education, and instead highlight the need to think about how “tech can propel art.” Instead of everyone wanting to be a rapper, maybe people who are passionate about music can make the next Spotify, he suggested.

“It’s about thinking differently, and how tech can propel their dreams. That’s the level of thinking I want to inspire,” Williams said.

And Vann R. Newkirk II, a writer at Daily Kos and the co-founder and co-chief scribe of Seven Scribes, an online publication focused on millennials of color, thinks so too. During his talk, he hopes to consider the black imagination.

“I’m going to talk about afrofuturism … about science fiction, fantasy, how we teach children about the future, and how all of those things are important in the abstract, and in building real infrastructure,” he said.

He also hopes to talk about the importance of the black voice in mass media. “The media is how we define our story as humanity and our history. It’s difficult to find stories outside of the dominant narrative and that’s not because it didn’t exist, it’s because the marginalized didn’t get captured,” he said. “The more diversity you have in media, the more policy and people at large are going to care about diverse populations. I think that’s a crucial part in any world that wants to move forward and be an equal place for diverse people.”

As evidenced by the varied speaker list, the conference hopes to bring together people from diverse backgrounds — from writers, to scientists, to engineers. Hatcher also hopes people from all races feel welcome.

“Black Tech Week is open to everyone. I can’t stress that enough, I want people that don’t look like me to be there and benefit,” Hatcher said. “Last year, a lot of people didn’t want to come because they thought they weren’t invited. I don’t care what color you are, I want you to succeed.”