It has been more than 60 years since the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation. Black students have more access to a higher education now more than ever. However, statistics show that black students are largely underrepresented in STEM fields.
The good news, though, is that Atlanta black professionals and entrepreneurs are taking the statistics head on and leading the charge in changing the STEM community for the better. We spoke to a few of these leaders about their work.
Making a difference, one strand at a time
“Don’t let the statistics get to you,” says Candace Mitchell. It’s her first piece of advice for black professionals in the technology field. Mitchell admits the statistics are daunting and sometimes overwhelming, but it’s just a number. A number that can be changed. A number she believes she and her colleagues in Atlanta will change.
Mitchell, a Georgia Tech graduate, used two of her favorite subjects, haircare and technology, to launch her first company. That company, Myavana, uses technology and software to analyze hair textures and recommends products to customers based its findings.
Despite her success, Mitchell says her journey as a black woman in STEM wasn’t always a walk in the park. “We don’t inherently have the knowledge and resources available to us,” she says. “Most minorities in this field are the first in their families to open their own businesses or tap into the tech industry. When starting out, we don’t have many mentors who look like us.”
Mitchell isn’t standing by hoping the change comes on its own, though. She’s using her business experience to help coordinate Ascend 2020 Atlanta, a startup support system that helps build minority-led tech companies in Metro Atlanta. The program offers help with management education, information on access to capital and go-to-market strategies.
“I remember what it was like for me when I started in this field, and the more I become successful, I can open doors for others and help make their journey easier,” says Mitchell.
Connecting the unconnected through technology
As a black software engineer for multiple companies, Marcellus Haynes noticed he didn’t have many coworkers and colleagues who looked like him. Unbothered by the statistics, he took his observation to the next level by co-founding Technologists of Color. The organization’s goal is to connect African Americans who share the same interest and industry: technology.
According to Haynes, representation matters. “With any endeavor you might take on, you need a support structure,” he says. “You need other people who share your same interests and experience to help you navigate the environment you’re in.”
Since 2012, Technologists of Color has created a network of thousands of black technologists in Atlanta. The organization offers opportunities through meetups, guidance and educational workshops.
“Our goal is to connect people from different parts of the city and different career levels where people can come together and grow their career and their network,” he says.
Technologists of Color also focuses on growing the number of African Americans in technology by exposing the field to students. The organization’s Code Your World program provides workshops to elementary through high school students, teaching them programming languages and mobile app development.
By providing a full understanding of technology through Code Your World, the organization hopes to diversify technology through the next generation. “We want to provide more opportunities for students to go beyond consuming technology and help them learn about it, how to create it and innovate,” Haynes adds. “Our students can do it if we give them the opportunity.”
Using technology to impact communities in need
“We help people come up with ideas around social impact, and then we put resources around them and help them get their ideas off of the ground,” says Joey Womack, cofounder of Goodie Nation and Amplify 4 Good.
Goodie Nation is a nonprofit social impact pre-accelerator dedicated to solving some of the world’s toughest problems and serving underserved communities. Why? Because Womack believes communities have the resources to answer some of these tough problems, and this answer is only an idea away.
One of Goodie Nation’s current goals involves helping minority-led businesses succeed. They’re partnering with Village Capital Pathways to accomplish this goal.
“We found 10 of the top diverse startups in the city, whether they’re black-led, brown-led or women-led,” says Womack. “In this program, they’ll be matched up with an angel investor and an existing startup to grow and meet certain milestones we’ve set for them over the next three months.”
As a successful entrepreneur, Womack believes the mentorship this program offers is invaluable. “Putting experienced folks who’ve had success and failures—because failures is our biggest way to learn—around these founders eases their journey and ultimately increases their likelihood of success,” he adds.
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“You don’t know what you don’t know. Being an entrepreneur, whether you’re a founder of a high growth start-up or a typical small business, is super hard.”
Through Goodie Nation and Amplify 4 Good, Womack has a goal of reaching and helping a billion people globally by 2039.
Atlanta, tech hub of the South?
Mitchell, Haynes and Womack all have big dreams for Atlanta. They’re all hoping and working towards a technology-driven city where the overwhelming statistics they have faced are nonexistent.
“I think in Atlanta, we heavily influence culture, especially when it comes to hip hop and films,” says Mitchell. “I really want to see that same influence transcend into the technology area. I really hope for a black founder, if not myself, to grow a company in Atlanta that becomes a household name. In that way, when people think of Atlanta, they’ll think that it’s the Silicon Valley of the south or that it’s the tech capital of the south.”
With an entire organization made up of black technologists on-hand, Haynes believes Atlanta is growing and Technologists of Color will be ready to further diversify the industry when the big companies come calling.
“One of the things we’re trying to create now is a pool of highly skilled African American professionals so [when] all of these companies move to Atlanta, especially in the tech sector, they’ll have a pool of qualified individuals to fill all of their needs,” he says.
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Meanwhile, Womack and Goodie Nation are working on an initiative with the Technology Association of Georgia to engage 5,000 people in STEM over the next three years, from young students to adults across Metro Atlanta.
“We will ensure that everyone is represented if everyone knows the opportunities,” he says. “We’re definitely doing our part to make sure good, smart students graduate from Metro Atlanta schools and that they’re trained up properly in order to become leaders.”