The Business Case For Bringing Tech Opportunities To Underserved Communities
Emile Cambry, Jr. was always interested in technology as a child, but his brother Jonathan was invariably two steps ahead of him when it came to computers.
“My brother learned to program at an early age, and was a part of hacker communities,” Emile told Moguldom.com, “and he always had something cool and interesting he was working on that opened my eyes to the possibilities.”
And it’s those possibilities that drove Emile to learn how to code himself, and eventually to start his own company, BLUE1647, a technology and entrepreneurship innovation center in Chicago with a focus on technology education, workforce development, and economic development in technology and 21st century skills.
Jonathan became a classical pianist, teacher, composer and producer. Emile is a business professor, filmmaker, and social entrepreneur.
BLUE1647 offers classes, workshops, apprenticeships, and internships that increase access and opportunity for underserved communities in the innovation economy. There is a focus on youth because Emile knows from personal experience how important it is to get started in technology at a young age.
“The older you get,” he says, “it can get intimidating. But once I started to learn how to code myself, I realized this wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought. I want millions of kids to have the opportunity to control their destiny.”
Emile’s mission was to bring the South and West sides of Chicago closer to technology, innovation, and opportunity.
Doing this, however, hasn’t been easy, given the industry’s ingrained ideas about who is and should be part of the tech ecosystem.
“The biggest challenge we faced was convincing all communities that they should be included in the innovation economy,” Emile says. “Most folks thought only a certain archetype could benefit from the training. We changed that narrative so now these same communities everyone was writing off are the main ones asking for more and more attention and programming.”
It’s clear that Emile and his team have been very intentional about making the tech industry more diverse and inclusive. It goes without saying that tech has an issue with diversity, but the solution is really quite simple, according to Emile.
“Just do it!” he says. “And stop talking about it. Stop having endless panel discussions. Folks need skills, and we have to create the spaces we want to see, because nobody is going to do it for us!”
In other words, as Leslie Miley says, if you want diverse employees––like many tech companies say they do––invest in diverse communities. Miley, a former engineering manager at Twitter, turned down a compensation package so he could talk publicly about Twitter’s diversity problem.
BLUE1647 says it has created a community that is a vibrant example of how creative professionals, entrepreneurs, changemakers, and nonprofits can come together to make meaningful, lasting impact.
And that impact is spreading: because of the success of BLUE1647 in Chicago, other cities kept calling expressing their interest in what they were doing.
“And before you know it,” Emile says, “we were working in a dozen cities providing a valued service recognized around the world.”
Cambry’s social innovation center has grown to include programs that teach both adults and youth about HTML coding and entrepreneurial workshops, providing a platform for filmmakers, artists, engineers and designers to host networking events. The “Blue” print, their unique model for applying quality programming for people in various levels of their academic and professional lifestyle, has helped them launch in other markets including St. Louis, Compton, Milwaukee, Haiti and, soon, Brooklyn, New York, according to Chicago Defender.
Now Blue1647 is running out of room and plans to move its headquarters to a 250,000-square-foot space.
And one gets the sense that Emile and BLUE1647 are just getting started. They recently launched a new crowdfunding portal, Blue Fund Rewards, a platform similar to Kickstarter or GoFundMe but with an emphasis on supporting folks from underserved communities.
The initiative is the result of seeing organizations talk about the need for businesses and programs in communities, but rarely coming through with funding, said Tracy G. Powell, a senior adviser at Blue1647.
“There’s a lot of conversation around diversity and venture capital, but the money is never leaving their pockets,” Powell said in a Chicago Tribune interview. “It’s about us supporting our businesses — raising money for our own community, doing it ourselves. No begging.”
Blue Fund Rewards is just another example of how Emile is bringing intentionality to creating a more diverse and inclusive tech ecosystem.
Emile sees BLUE1647 as a beacon of resource for entrepreneurs of all kinds––filmmakers, artists, engineers, and designers, to name a few.
“BLUE1647 is a place where diverse people working for a better world can quickly access relationships and support to bring their ideas to life,” he said.