Greg Greenlee started a Blacks in Technology website 10 years ago after going to a national technology conference and being shocked to see only five black people among about 1,000 attendees.
The website turned into Blacks in Technology (BIT) chapters, which have grown to have about 5,000 members, including 600 in the Twin Cities.
On Thursday, the chapters were invited to gather in one spot for their first national Blacks in Technology Conference. About 700 programmers, software engineers, cyber security and other IT experts gathered in downtown Minneapolis to learn, network and showcase their web design and software-coding skills.
“This was really a grass-roots movement. I had no idea it could become this,” Greenlee said Thursday. “One of the biggest obstacles we faced early on was to get people to take us seriously.”
No one was dismissive Thursday as corporate recruiting leaders, bankers and tech giants, black tech firms and workers from around the country swapped business cards and talked up beloved software programs, computing platforms, tech jobs and training needs.
“We have black tech talent here from all over the country,” said Sharon Kennedy Vickers, the city of St. Paul’s chief information officer. “It’s awesome to have individuals of color here in the tech space come together, network [and] to learn from each other. It’s also a great opportunity for our local corporations to have access to technology talent.”
There is a shortage of tech workers in the Twin Cities, she said. The conference gives employers a chance to meet a new pool of talent.
The three-day conference — one of several large gatherings locally this week, including the Twin Cities Startup Week and the health care-related Manova Summit — is meant to increase the visibility and networking opportunities for blacks in the technology fields. Sponsors include Best Buy, Target, Amazon Web Services, Thrivent, the Nerdery, Google and the state of Minnesota.
The convention opened at Target Plaza Commons in downtown Minneapolis at noontime Thursday with a networking event. By the time it ends Saturday, it will have featured 40 workshops, 50 speakers, several pitch competitions, a technology exhibit and career fair, plus several more networking sessions.
On Friday, the conference will move to the InterContinental St. Paul Riverfront hotel, where St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter will address guests at one of the sessions. Saturday’s events will be at Best Buy’s headquarters in Richfield.
Adria McKinley, a recruiter for Target, and co-worker Zak Brown said Target is hiring and looking to build more software for employees and for retail transactions. “We are changing from a retail company to a tech company. Today, retail is tech. So events like this are great.”
Next to Target’s table, Express Scripts technology team leader Kathy Cloutier said the conference was a perfect recruiting venue. “We hope to meet our future peers and counterparts and people who will work for us,” she said.
Amorita Christian, owner of One River Solutions in Lakeville, stopped by and soon she and Cloutier were discussing data security platforms, customer databases and website designs.
Christian, who provides technology services for 50 small businesses, was glad to meet peers. “I want to connect with other black people in the Twin Cities. There are so many people here I have never seen before,” Christian said. “It’s exciting.”
Upsie founder Clarence Bethea from Minneapolis will share his journey as an IT entrepreneur. He raised $1 million in seed funding in January and will soon raise a second round.
“This is unbelievable to come here and see so many people from out of town that have come to Minneapolis/St. Paul to see what we are doing here with our community,” Bethea said. “Obviously, the point of this is to stress diversity and inclusion and how important that is. But also to bring a major conference to our community is huge.”
Organizers said their goal is to celebrate achievements like Bethea’s, educate others and ward off the sense of isolation that some black IT pros feel in their departments or companies.
“I personally connect with the goals of this conference,” said Nayshawn Danner, principal software engineer at the Nerdery in Chicago. “Being African-American, I remember starting my career [at 22] and there being a problem of not really having a place you can go and see people who are similar to you or your background and trying to break into the industry. So now, if I can, I am happy to be that light.” Danner will speak Friday about how to prepare for the technical part of IT job interviews, such as writing code, algorithms and problem solving on the fly.
“It’s important to practice your ability to think on your feet and solve problems in different ways when writing code and to be decisive and confident in different situations,” Danner said.