13.5 C

    Code 312

    If there’s still a lack of minority representation in the C-suite, the situation isn’t that much better among those behind the computer systems that keep those executives and their businesses wired. The percentage of Black men and women and other people of color involved in the tech industry has certainly risen over the last decade, but still remains well below that of the overall population.

    The situation is worst in Silicon Valley—which while accounting for only a small portion of the national tech workforce is widely seen as the hub of the industry—where according to a 2019 Wired magazine survey only around 5% of workers were from minority communities.

    Among those working to redress that imbalance are tech leaders and innovators in Chicago, where P33, a nonprofit founded in 2019, is heading an effort to establish the city as one of the nation’s new tech hubs. Some of those already showing the way by opening new doors for minority involvement in the tech world in the city—area code 312—shared some of their successes, lessons, challenges, and insights with WayMaker Journal.

    “The pandemic opened the doors to many possibilities.”

    Discipline, hard work, focus
    Ian Brock, Co-founder, Dream Hustle Code, dreamhustlecode.com
    While the digital world moves fast, changes in the makeup of the industry can come slow, says Ian Brock, who co-founded the nonprofit organization Dream Hustle Code in 2013, while just a young boy himself, to interest other young people from underrepresented communities in careers in tech.

    “You don’t go to the gym one day, one time and work out truly hard for two hours and, boom, you’ve got the body that you’re looking for,” he says. “You have to go every single day, even if it’s just for 30 minutes or an hour, and keep putting those reps in six months to a year.”

    Having initially funded his efforts through sales of his mom’s cookies, he’s encouraged to see growing interest in and support for what he is doing. In hustling like that, he believes he has embodied some of the grit and determination that is part of the appealing Chicago spirit. “Discipline, hard work, focus, and consistency,” he says.

    It’s also important to be ready to pivot. It seemed like a setback when the coronavirus pandemic shut down Dream Hustle Code’s in-person programs, but they ended up going online and expanding their audience. “The pandemic opened the doors to many possibilities that we didn’t even think about prior to it happening,” Brock recognizes.

    Focus on passion and purpose
    Garry Cooper, CEO, Rheaply, rheaply.com
    One thing Chicago has going for it is that while it’s a big city, it’s also got a small-town feel in one sense, according to Garry Cooper, founder of Rheaply, which helps businesses recycle resources and equipment to minimize waste.

    Chicago feels like home, which is important when you’re trying to build a sense of community among like-minded entrepreneurs, he says. And “we really love each other.” There isn’t the “heavy competitiveness, almost cutthroat” environment he hears about from friends in the tech world on either coast.

    Cooper also sees a rich entrepreneurial spirit in the city that exemplifies the fullness of diversity. That “comes out in the businesses that are being built and it comes out in the types of people who are building those businesses.”

    Cooper credits “passion and purpose” for Rheaply’s success to date. “Whether I’m pitching an investor, whether I’m talking to a customer, whether I’m trying to convince someone who has an amazing job to quit their job and join our mission, I don’t have any other way but to lead with passion and to talk about our purpose,” he says. “I don’t actually think there’s another ingredient.”

    Be your own cheerleader
    Keisha Howard, Founder, Sugar Gamers, sugargamers.com
    Keisha Howard echoes Cooper’s observations about the Chicago personality. It’s “a human city,” says the founder of Sugar Gamers, established to champion a place for underrepresented demographics in tech and gaming. It’s more about everyday working people than big shots out in Silicon Valley.

    “Here, we’re pedestrians that can be walking down the same streets together and anybody could be anybody,” she says. And in spring and summer, “when we kind of thaw out, that Midwestern sort of connective tissue comes out. People are just happy to be around people, and that’s something that I haven’t really seen in other cities.”

    With gamification increasingly shaping our world—“everything from banking to the way we navigate and are incentivized to use apps to how we travel”—it’s increasingly vital that women and minority groups have a hand in shaping things, she believes.

    As a Black woman in the gaming world, Howard has faced additional challenges in getting to where she is. Her advice to others? Do your homework and network and go for it regardless of your fear. “Self-advocacy is a really sort of delicate thing to learn,” she says. “If I could’ve just told my younger self to be my own source of validation, foundationally, I think that I would have probably gotten to where I wanted to go a lot faster.”

    Stay faithful to the dream
    Christine Izuakor, Founder, Cyber Pop-up, cyberpopup.com
    Christine Izuakor, cybersecurity expert and founder of Cyber Pop-up, providing support for small companies that can’t afford their own digital defense systems, faced similar challenges to Howard, especially when it comes to raising capital.

    She admits she “failed miserably” at first but doubled down and determined to rise to the challenge and “figure out another way… doing what I needed to do to get myself to a point where, like one of my favorite quotes says, be so good that people can’t ignore you.”

    That involved making the most of Chicago’s rich networking opportunities. “The sense of community and the amount of people who are willing to help is like nothing I have ever seen before,” says the Ph.D. “There are so many people that I could name that, as busy as they are, I can call up right now and say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling with this,’ or ‘Hey, do you know somebody who can help me with this?’ and they would drop what they’re doing and talk to me.”

    In a way, she is grateful for the doubters and the naysayers because they have only sharpened her resolve. “I’m going to take feedback and listen to people and allow myself to be coached, but at the same time, I’m going to stay faithful to my dream and run with that.”

    Be better than you were
    Dr. Suzet McKinney, Principal & Director of Life Sciences, Sterling Bay, sterlingbay.com
    Dr. Suzet McKinney credits the competitive spirit Chicago breeds for her successful career, rising to CEO and executive director of the Illinois medical district before joining Sterling Bay real estate investment and development company as principal and director of its life sciences division.

    “It’s not about competing with other people,” she clarifies. “It is about internal competition: just being a better person, a better professional than I was the day before.” McKinney sees her Sterling Bay role as an extension of her health service career, helping improve people’s health by improving their economic status.
    Among the draws for Chicago as a tech hub is its access to some of the top research universities and health care institutions in the country. And then there is “just the amazing talent that we see among young people, particularly in the universities here in Chicago, which is a huge strength.”

    A lower cost of living is another plus, but she recognizes the need to overcome the negative image some people have of the city. “Sometimes I find that it’s a bit of a harder sell than I imagined it would be,” she says. “Chicago is a wonderful place to live and to grow a family, but I think that we have a lot of work to do in terms of how our city is portrayed in the larger media and in venues outside of Chicago.”\

    From interviews with Erin Amico, Chief Marketing Officer at P33.

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