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Are Tech Execs Uncomfortable Around Young Black Men?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. You may remember that last week we spoke with organizers of a hackathon in Oakland, California. It was a gathering of developers who were asked to consider ideas for, say, a smartphone app that could've saved Trayvon Martin or perhaps solve other social problems.

But the bigger question was how to get young black males into tech careers, along with other people who might not usually find a seat at the table. Kalimah Priforce is back with us. He is cofounder of Qeyno Labs. He helped launch Startup Weekend Oakland Black Male Achievement. And we decided we wanted to check back in with him again so we called him in San Francisco. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

KALIMAH PRIFORCE: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I want to ask how things went, but I want to pick up where we left off. In our conversation, you know, you made a statement I think might have surprised and, you know, disturbed some people. You said that a lot of people at these big Silicon Valley companies just aren't comfortable working with young black men, and they told you that. And why is that?

PRIFORCE: Yeah, it's very interesting. Yeah, so we definitely had gotten those emails. I definitely got those e-mails and, yeah, you know, I think that it has a lot to do with their own sort of - their own biases as it relates to interacting with people who don't look like them. And so there is the sort of racial, you know, ethnic side to it, but there's also the issue side to it. It's the - I don't know what are the issues or concerns of young black males and so I don't feel comfortable building anything related to those issues.

MARTIN: So what happened? I mean, did you get the turnout that you hoped for? Did - what was it like?

PRIFORCE: It was an overwhelming success. It was an overwhelming success. When - we thought we would get 150 people, and it was a rainy weekend that weekend. There was rain all over the place. And thank goodness that California got that rain, but we thought we would get 150, we planned for 150, we got 200. For our Saturday evening - I guess we call gala - we thought we were going to get 300 people and we ended up getting 400 people. And so - and that was the theme. The theme was that this hackathon was so much in demand that people really showed up. And that was really exciting.

MARTIN: Well, it's interesting, so maybe those perceptions and reality were not the same at all. So tell us, what were some of the ideas that came out of it? What was exciting to you?

PRIFORCE: So there were some really amazing ideas. But going back to the point - so there were definitely some challenges during the hackathon. So when we announced on Friday night that, hey, this is - you are required to have a trailblazer, which is what we call our young black males - and it's very inclusive, we have girls who are part of that group and, you know, we have Latinos who are part of that group - but primarily young black males.

There were some people who left. There were some people who explained to me and said, well, I don't see why that has to be a requirement and - which is interesting because in hackathons that are focused on women, for example, it doesn't make sense that at the end of a weekend that an all-male team will come up and pitch at a hackathon that's designed for women. And so I just want to say that there definitely were some challenges during the hackathon. But some great apps came out of this hackathon, which was - HelpCircle, which is a social service there, they were the first-place winner. A social service that makes it easy to text a close friend or family when you're feeling unsafe. So they were really addressing that whole could an app have saved Trayvon Martin.

And then this CourtDateApp, which was second- place winner. And they won their (inaudible) which is an SMS app that helps teens remember their court dates and avoid jail time for failure to appear in court. So - which was really interesting because because these developers, these designers, and our young people because they were aware of how powerful text and SMS messaging is in these communities - in these communities involving young black males - they built their apps around that.

MARTIN: Now, Kalimah, you know I'm going to have to ask - any stereotyping there? Any stereotyping at work there?

PRIFORCE: Yeah. I mean, I think they were really aware - I think that - I think even some of the developers were - they hadn't been aware of - they were aware that not all young black males have iPads, you know. Like, I mean, that was just something that they kind of just sort of woke up to. They said, oh, wow, you know, SMS, text messaging, and they said, yeah, the flip phone. Yeah, they just weren't aware of what were the actual tools that were in their hands. And so I think that that was something - and so they began to develop around that.

MARTIN: OK, but they didn't develop an app so that they could remember their piano lessons, for example? I guess that's what I'm reacting to there. Why - you know.


PRIFORCE: Yeah, I think they were looking at what were some of the pressing issues and problems. And, of course, we had - so there was one app by - and they were our third-place winner - and the people's choice award - they were - it's called Connectthedots. And it's a counseling social network for students of color who attend private schools to build community amongst themselves. And so - and it was really amazing because there was this young man who pitched it on Friday night.

And, you know, and he said, hey, you know, and I'm a young man of color and when I'm at private school, you know, I feel lonely. And I think there needs to be something for us to help us connect to one another and I think that that would help us be better students and help us better connect to our school. And so those are kind of the solutions that - and there were 11 apps that were produced that weekend.

MARTIN: What was the vibe? What was the vibe like? I mean, again, particularly given that it started on what one might argue was a bit of a sour note - in some respects, in the sense that people were - on the other hand, honesty, you have to appreciate the honesty of people who said I'm uncomfortable with this because I don't know anybody like this, this is not part of my world.


MARTIN: And yet, people came anyway. So what was the vibe? I mean, did you feel this kind of sense of hesitation? Or was it kind of jump right in or - what was the atmosphere? Was it similar to other hackathons you've been a part of?

PRIFORCE: Yeah, the vibe was very - so the vibe was very village, if that makes sense. That the people - there were a couple of people, I would say maybe 20 people at most, who definitely didn't think that this was the Startup Weekend that they expected, which was sort of the generic homogenous environment of Silicon Valley hackathons. And so they left. OK, great, all right. You know, they got some food and they left, that's good. But for everyone else, it was a village environment.

So even at the end, after the judging and we gave awards and all that, we actually had to rite of passage ceremony where all the trailblazers were on stage and everybody, everyone who was in the building, were shouting positive affirmations to them to let them know that they're all winners. And so that was the environment. We got a tremendous amount of volunteers - Kaiser Permanente and Dropbox, they - last minute they were able to provide us with laptops.

And so that was the atmosphere there. And that's why people keep calling this hackathon amazing, I've heard magical. And I think it's because of that. It's because we actually - for something that is usually sort of technical - it actually became sort of a village environment in just a weekend.

MARTIN: Where do you think you might go from here to build on this idea?

PRIFORCE: So my...

MARTIN: No pressure, by the way.

PRIFORCE: No. So my investors and advisors want to have a serious conversation with me because and so they - 'cause they were involved. And that was really interesting. So going back to the whole village environment, they were involved and they were planning to be there for maybe about two or three hours.

But they ended up staying the entire weekend. And then their wives also stayed the entire weekend. And then their husbands stayed the entire weekend. And so at the end, many of them pulled me to the side and said, Kalimah, we have to do this again, we need to look at what Qeyno is doing and how we can make this - how we can spread this. And so - yeah - so I need to go back to the drawing board and think of how to make this possible again, you know. So, yeah.

MARTIN: Well, keep us posted.

PRIFORCE: Will do.

MARTIN: Kalimah Priforce is cofounder of a Qeyno Labs and an organizer of Startup Weekend Oakland. And we caught up with him in San Francisco. Thanks so much for joining us. Keep us posted.

PRIFORCE: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.