Amid a movement for racial equity across America following the police killing of George Floyd, an online community run by a Minneapolis company has become a resource for corporations doubling down on pledges to diversify their staffs.

Minnesota Cup finalist Black Tech Talent matches tech professionals with companies looking for diverse talent. The online community is also a place where Black professionals can have honest conversations about the challenges of being a racial minority at tech companies, said founder Michael Jackson.

Jackson started working on his platform a month before Floyd's death. He launched the job board in July 2020. It now has 40 corporate partners including Target, HealthPartners, Sunrise Bank, and the Minnesota Twins and its owner, Pohlad Cos. Most of the 4,000 or so Black professionals on Jackson's site are from Minnesota.

Between 2010 and 2020, Minnesota's Black population grew 46%, its Asian population by 40% and those identifying as Hispanic by 38%, according to recent Census Bureau data. Nearly a quarter of Minnesotans are now people of color, the data shows.

Conversely, people of color remain underrepresented in technology jobs from coding to cybersecurity in Minnesota and across the U.S. In 2019, 78% of tech professionals in Minnesota identified as white, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Less than 4% identified as Black, and 2.7% identified as Hispanic or Latino ethnicity of any race.

Jackson set out to find a way to change that.

"We wanted to highlight Black technologists and show not only other Black people, but these corporate clients — people in HR, the diversity and inclusion officers and IT recruiting managers — that there are Black people already operating at a high level in technology," Jackson said. "It doesn't matter how scarce you may perceive them to be in your department or at your company, there's a lot of us spread out."

A 10-year analysis by DEED shows there will be close to 91,000 job openings in computer-related occupations in Minnesota through 2028.

Minnesota needs to deepen its talent pool to fill those jobs, said DEED Commissioner Steve Grove. That means tapping into Black and brown communities to train future tech professionals.

"These are the best-paying jobs in our economy," Grove said. "These are the jobs everyone wants, and they're super underrepresented by people of color. We have an opportunity in Minnesota to differentiate ourselves in that front."

Through its recently launched Minnesota Tech Training Pilot Program, DEED is allocating $1 million between four organizations that are specifically focused on building a pipeline for people of color for tech jobs, Grove said. If the pilot is successful, the department could invest more government funding into the program.

"This is a huge priority of our administration, for a bunch of reasons, but the foundation of it is important because we see the technology industry as a major area of growth of Minnesota, and the pipeline couldn't be any stronger in our state than it is today," Grove said.

Within the private sector, the Tech Inclusion Alliance, a consortium of chief information officers at several Fortune 500 companies in the Twin Cities like Target, 3M Co., Ecolab and UnitedHealth Group, are teaming with the Minnesota Technology Association to engineer a new initiative they hope will diversify the tech workforce in Minnesota, Minnesota Technology Association president Jeff Tollefson said.

The alliance is in the very early stages of development, but it will have dedicated staff who will orchestrate programming around computer science education in K-12 systems, and strategy around recruiting, skill development and retention among diverse professionals, Tollefson said.

"That is something we need to change, because we need to make sure our tech workforce more reflects the mosaic of cultures that comprise the Twin Cities today," Tollefson said.

The alliance will also examine public policy changes and leverage the state's civic sector and government to elevate the initiative, he said.

More coalitions of large and small businesses are needed to maintain open communication about how tech companies and companies that need tech talent can be more inclusive, said Nancy Lyons, the co-founder and CEO of Minneapolis software development company ClockWork.

In 2016, Lyons, a white woman who also identifies as gay, started the Minnesota Technology Diversity Pledge. Companies and organizations that take the pledge commit to supporting the growth of more LGBTQ, people of color, people with disabilities, and women in tech roles across the state. The list of those that have taken the pledge include Best Buy, Optum, the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, or MEDA, Vista Outdoor and the Minnesota Technology Association.

Before the pandemic, Clockwork hosted quarterly events including forums and panel discussions on topics like how to support Muslim colleagues, being transgender in the workplace and how to be antiracist.

During the pandemic, those events have shifted to virtual settings. Next month, ClockWork will host an online anti-racism training session.

Lyons said there has been an influx of companies interested in the pledge following Floyd's death.

"When George Floyd happened, there were a lot of organizations that quite suddenly were looking for places to put their energy, to invest and show up," she said. "It was a reckoning in a lot of ways and people recognized that perhaps they hadn't done everything they could do in a business capacity prior."

After 25 years in the business, though, Lyons is still struck by the lack of diversity in the state's tech industry. She regularly participates in online conversations with other women about microaggressions they've experience in the workplace, where women who are tech experts are diminished, talked down to and talked over, she said.

"As a white woman, if I experience that still, I can't imagine what it must feel like for people of color who are trying to make their way in an industry where they don't see themselves," she said.

Jackson hopes his platform gives Black technologies a voice and a chance to speak about their journey. Within the online community are conversations about natural hair in the workplace, the sense of having to work harder than white co-workers, and the struggles of breaking into the industry, he said.

Jackson, who before developing Black Tech Talent created a ticketing and booking platform for concert promoters and venues, is using $25,000 in prize money from the MN Cup to develop an employer-employee matching application. The app will automatically match a person is to the description of a job, its duties and skill requirements.

Earlier this month, Black Tech Talent hosted Community Tech Fest at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. The one-day festival featured virtual and augmented reality devices, robotics and computer gaming systems.

During the event, Jackson revealed a superhero character he hopes will attract Black youths to tech. Content around the character, called Black Circuit, will be based on the character learning about different technologies that can power his suit. As the character learns about the various technologies, youths will learn about occupations that bring that technology into existence, Jackson said.