Tech Incubators on a Mission

CHICAGO — Many tech start-ups are in the business of making themselves successful. But some entrepreneurs have set up businesses with the express mission of training others to be successful in the tech sector.

Several of those start-ups have dedicated themselves to creating programs, incubators or accelerators to train blacks and Hispanics for tech jobs.

Their efforts are coming at a time when Silicon Valley has increasingly been scrutinized for its lack of diversity. But instead of leaving it to the tech giants to solve the problem alone, some see their own connections as a way to address the issue.

From NewME in California to Blue1647 in Illinois, entrepreneurs are cultivating talent within the groups that have been underrepresented at established tech companies.

Data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows that there are more black and Hispanic students graduating with computer science degrees than there are working at tech jobs, despite campus recruitment efforts from companies like Google.

Founders of these start-ups say tech companies have to try new ways of seeking out talent. With the guiding hand of these programs, many alumni have gone on to secure tech internships and jobs or form their own start-ups.

Angela Benton, founder of NewME, an accelerator for entrepreneurs of different backgrounds, said she faced skepticism about whether her business model was possible. Instead, Silicon Valley influencers encouraged her to scour elite institutions to find minority entrepreneurs to help.

“I spent almost a year in Silicon Valley meeting with people, getting advice on our business model. They all wanted me to play it safe,” said Ms. Benton, who was a teenage mother and went from graphic design to helping start B20, a black tech innovators site, in 2007. “I don’t come from that background.”

Ms. Benton said she discovered that some of the most talented entrepreneurs weren’t aiming to create the next billion-dollar start-up. Rather, the entrepreneurs of color were content to begin a company worth a few million dollars.

Over five years, the NewME accelerator has helped businesses raise more than $20 million in venture capital funding. It offers one-week programs and has more than 20,000 members so far.

Many established accelerators and start-up incubators tend to be in regions and cities dominated by existing tech or business firms. For the new entrepreneurs, a key to success is setting up in underserved areas.

Emile Cambry Jr., the founder of the nonprofit tech incubator Blue1647, chose to open its first location in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, a primarily Hispanic neighborhood southwest of the city’s bustling downtown.

The classes are not for dabblers. The company developed its curriculum to train students in Java, Ruby and other computer languages. It also provides a shared work space for entrepreneurs and connects students with internships, jobs and networking opportunities.

Since its founding in 2013, the nonprofit has expanded to Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, as well as St. Louis and Compton, Calif. A low-income area of Austin, Tex., is next.

Some alumni have interned at Google, and other tech companies, while others have started their own businesses or landed tech jobs, Mr. Cambry said.

Gero Döll
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