What started as a one-time, week-long conference in 2015 connecting black tech entrepreneurs with startup support and capital has evolved into a model of year-round support for black innovators in South Florida.
On Feb. 9, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced $1.2 million in new funding for Blacktech Week. The grant will enable Blacktech Week to expand with year-round programs to empower black innovators, creatives and technologists.
Blacktech Week is the brainchild of Felecia Hatcher and Derick Pearson, a Miami-area husband-and-wife team who wanted to use their background in math, science and marketing to support entrepreneurs of color in South Florida and connect them to the startup and tech scene.
Blacktech Week developed out of Code Fever Miami, the couple’s nonprofit community program. Its purpose is to inspire under-served minority students age 13 to 21 to code, build tech enterprises in their communities, close the gap in tech education, and become startup founders.
The Knight Foundation was also there with funding when Blacktech Week started in 2015. The event celebrated and connected innovators of color to advance their work, access and impact. The new support from Knight will be awarded over three years
Hatcher and Pearson had worked for companies such as Nintendo, Verizon, and the NBA. Together, they launched Feverish Pops, a gourmet popsicle company, successfully raising $250,000 in seed money to start the frozen treat venture in 2008, WGCU News reported.
Their work won them speaking engagements and accolades, including the 2014 White House Champion of Change for STEM Educational Excellence Access and Diversity for African Americans.
Hatcher and Pearson became sought-after speakers in entrepreneurship and startup circuits, WGCU reported, but when they looked around in their own backyard, South Florida, they realized, “Derick and I were the only ones who looked like us in the room,” Hatcher told WGCU. “We were the only black people.”
“In the entrepreneurial journey for a black entrepreneur, every feedback we got was (about) funding,” Hatcher said. Like, “’I just I don’t understand it. I feel like I’m at a point where I can scale, but I have no idea how to be able to touch the money that I keep hearing exists in Miami or the resources, the accelerators, incubators.'”
About 1,000 people attended the first Blacktech Week Miami in 2015. The following year, 1,600 people attended. The third annual Blacktech Week is scheduled for Sept. 25 to Sept. 30, 2017, featuring panels, an interactive tech career fair, workshops, networking opportunities and pitch competitions. The conference will aim to engage government leaders and educators with a new government tech track.
Past speakers and panelists include successful innovators and entrepreneurs from around the country, including NFL champion and AsktheDoctor.com founder Israel Idonije, Maker’s Row founder Matthew Burnett, Dreamit Ventures Managing Director William Crowder, Priceline.com co-founder Jeff Hoffman, former Twitter Engineering Manager Leslie Miley, Kapor Capital partner Brian Dixon, former Coca-Cola Global Chief Diversity Officer John Lewis, Digitalundivided founder Kathryn Finney, Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz, LISNR founder Rodney Williams, Kairos founder Brian Brackeen, and BCT Partners Chairman and CEO Randal Pinkett, Ph.D.
Participants at Blacktech Week are eager to connect, learn and explore ideas around how to grow black entrepreneurship and make sure people of color are better represented in the tech industry, Hatcher said in a prepared statement.
“The talent and the demand are there. With our new, expanded programming, we’ll be able to provide greater year-round access to networking, mentorship and funding,” she said.
Expanded programming includes the first Blacktech Weekend – a condensed version of Blacktech Week – that was held Feb. 23 to Feb. 25 in Miami.
The weekend focused on two essentials for successfully scaling a startup — business development and raising capital.
Both are particularly challenging in South Florida, South Florida Business Journal reported. A 2016 index by the Kauffman Foundation ranked the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area 39th for entrepreneurship growth.
Here’s how Nancy Dahlberg at the Miami Herald described the first-ever Blacktech Weekend:
Black startup founders, investors, techies and community builders flew in from Silicon Valley and all over the U.S. to meet and mingle with Miami’s entrepreneurship community for talks, panel discussions, meals, bus tours, community outreach activities and parties during the event Thursday through Saturday at various locations around the city. On the main stage at the Little Haiti Cultural Center and the evening before at CIC Miami, the talk was capital raising, getting the message out, social impact and building inclusive ecosystems.
I’ve been to a lot of conferences, and the speakers usually bolt after their talks. Not at Blacktech Weekend. Each talk on stage – heavy with personal stories and advice – came with substantial Q&A time, and the conversations continued after, in the halls, over lunch, on the buses, at the bars. Many of the speakers stayed for the entire conference.
Entrepreneurs engaged with potential investors including Michael Seibel, CEO of Y Combinator; Richard Kerby of Venrock Capital; and Marlon Nichols of Cross Culture Ventures. Panel topics ranged from pitching investors and asset framing to storytelling and building hubs for inclusive innovation.
Siebel was a keynote speaker. “He runs arguably one of the largest accelerators on the globe investing in all the major companies that we use every single day,” Hatcher told WGCU. “Most people don’t even know that he’s black, but he (was) here in Miami to be an asset.”
Here’s some of what Seibel shared with the audience at Blacktech Weekend, according to the Miami Herald:
“I’ve seen every idea. Ideas are irrelevant. You are judged on execution and the No. 1 way to prove that you can execute is by executing.
Entrepreneurs succeed in fundraising by developing leverage — by getting people to fear them as opposed to love them, he said. How to do that? Build and launch something without money. Have the right team, and there better be engineers on it, he said. And in the beginning, it’s OK if just a small group of people love your product.
“Good founders can give me a picture of the future that I can believe,” Seibel said. “And the second that I believe your version of the future, you have leverage. … I’m a little bit afraid if I don’t get behind this.”
Startups are your opportunity to change the world, but make sure you are working on a problem you really care about, he advised.
The Knight Foundation grant will help pay for monthly office hours and meetups for Blacktech Week. Code Fever also plans to introduce a VC in Residence program, inviting venture capitalists to spend a month in Miami advising and guiding minority entrepreneurs.
“For me, when we get to a point where every municipality — not just here in Florida, but all across the country — has a coding program or a maker’s camp or a drone program with the same frequency that they have sports programs, then we will really truly start to see a shift in our community,” Hatcher told WGCU. “That’s the movement that we hope to start, not just with entrepreneurs, but with kids as young as my daughter who is 3 years old.”
Developing opportunities for traditionally underrepresented black entrepreneurs is critical to creating an inclusive and equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem in Miami,” said Matt Haggman, Knight Foundation program director for Miami.
“We’re excited about Blacktech Week’s evolution from a single conference to a model of ongoing support to black innovators throughout the year,” Haggman said.
Here’s an excerpt from Hatcher’s Feb. 24 interview with WGCU:
WLRN: Do you ever get the “ Why does it have to Black Tech Week?” comments?
Hatcher: I’ve gotten that more times than I will even share. And it’s not often that nice. It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten some really disgusting comments.
Systemically, there are major issues that have affected the black community so that we do not index high in these major technology companies, that we do not have the same opportunities that others do.
But on the flip side of that we also have innovators doing some phenomenal things. And those stories aren’t often told.
All the people that have succeeded in the industry like Roy Clay Sr. who holds patents in [Hewlett-Packard] and is a Silicon Valley veteran. Most of us may not be sitting here today in this space if it wasn’t for him or Ken Coleman, or all the women that you’ve seen on (the movie “Hidden Figures”. All these people have paved the way so that we can be there, so when we look at the abysmal numbers in the tech space— it’s because we don’t see them every day.
WLRN: What have you seen come out of the work that Code Fever has been doing in Miami? What makes you say “This is why we’re doing this…”
Hatcher: We’ve seen an increase in the number of students from our program that have gone on to win pitch competitions, that have changed their majors in college and are now pursuing computer science or different technology fields. That to me has been one of the most rewarding things. We’ve seen start-up founders raise significant funding from connections that they’ve made.
Our thing is getting our community access because it’s not for lack of ideas in our community.
We have some amazing ideas. I always tell people look at the Jitney in Little Haiti. It’s people piling into a vehicle and they’re paying $1 or $2. It’s taking them from one destination to another.
Tell me what’s the difference between that and Uber pool? What’s different and what’s missing is an online platform that connected those people.
We all know that friend that will come to your house and cut your hair or that friend that will braid your hair. Tell me what’s the difference between that and GLAMSQUAD or any of these other platforms that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars?
Those ideas were no different than our ideas in those spaces, but they were able to get connected to the funding they needed to turn them into global platforms that people are using and financially supporting.
The Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots, investing in journalism, the arts, and in cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. “Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy,” the foundation said in a prepared statement.
For more information on Blacktech Week, contact Felecia Hatcher at 305-482-1832, or Felecia@Codefevermiami.com.