Tech Transplants Thriving in Seattle Network, Create Community for People of Color

by Aliah Elaoud

Ishea Brown is bubbly and hospitable, bustling around for a glass of water in the kitchen inside the office in Westlake where she works.

She talks about the protests in Westlake Park since the election, being a transplant from Chicago, and what it is like to try and find a bus now that she lives in West Seattle instead of Capitol Hill.

Then she shares a story about the time an old hiring manager, drunk at a company event, told her how excited she was that Brown was a person of color who actually qualified for the job.

“I just didn’t know what to say to it, because in those instances what do you do when HR needs HR?” she said.

While microaggressions like these are alienating, Brown and other people of color who have moved to Seattle chasing tech jobs are confident in their skills and ability to network and build community in a place and industry that does not look like them.

The percentage of black and female tech workers did not increase between 2005 and 2015, according to a study on diversity in the technology sector released last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Tech companies often rely on referrals from current employees who may have social networks comprised of a single race, according to representatives interviewed in the study. For demographics outside those networks, this situation can make getting a resume reviewed much more difficult.

Culture Clash

The tech industry is attempting to change its diversity problem, but Seattle’s population also lacks diversity compared to other large cities in the United States. Such demographics can present an added challenge for incoming people of color.

In 2013, two other tech transplants, Seth Stell and Eric Osburn, devised a better way to connect with other people of color here after attending a party that followed the Seattle Interactive Conference.

Unimpressed with the party’s ping pong tournament and too-casual style of dress, the two went out for drinks instead.

Stell said he knew they could not be the only ones who felt at odds with the “geek” tech culture.

“My hypothesis was that there had to be others migrating here,” he said.

Together with Osburn and two others, Stell created HERE Seattle, a group that meets monthly at various locations and provides people of color the opportunity to network, mentor, and build community in a classy, fun, and authentic environment.

For example, HERE’s December’s event, dubbed “The Classic,” will feature live music, food, art, and an opportunity for people to dress in their best.

Creating a Network

Alex Brooks, originally from Detroit, spent the last couple of years of college in Michigan wondering how he could find a way to work for a software company.

“I was just fascinated by the mysteriousness of what you could do with software,” he said.

Brooks had a job at a software company in Michigan but was laid off after three months. He did not know much about the Seattle tech market until a friend enlisted him to help with a resume.

“I didn’t know Microsoft was out here at the time. I had no idea where Microsoft’s headquarters were,” he said.

His knack for networking and navigating job searches resulted in multiple interviews, including several in Seattle, for his friend.

Simultaneously inspired and frustrated with his prospects in Michigan, Brooks started doing more research on Seattle and realized how many tech companies and startups were here.

Instinctively, he jumped into networking mode, using LinkedIn to find contact information for anyone who worked for a company he was interested in. Those connections led to referrals, which led to informational interviews.

Brooks spent 18- to 20-hour days driving limousines to pay for his first trip to Seattle—just so he could attend those informational interviews.

That first trip paid off and he later secured two real interviews, both resulting in job offers.

“I just came here, didn’t have a lot of money, but just had a vision of what this city could do for me,” he said.

One of HERE’s other founders, André Bearfield, explained that as a black man working in an overwhelmingly white industry, he has had to have a diverse network in order to be successful.

He said tech’s diversity problem has to do with the industry’s homogenous social networks overall—as represented in the GAO report—from CEOs to programmers to recruiters.

“One of the main reasons people get their jobs, is through people they know, their network,” he said.

Brown, the Senior Campaign Manager for Meredith Corp., which purchased Allrecipes in 2012, moved here in 2013 when her boyfriend at the time accepted a job at Amazon.

When they arrived in Seattle, she said her boyfriend was working with people who “don’t know how to hold a conversation” and were “antisocial” and “awkward.”

This contrasted heavily with the vibrancy and personality she said characterized their experience in Chicago.

Brown says building connections and community is a form of self-care in a place where it is easy to feel isolated.

She says the community of color in Seattle is still growing, and she stressed the importance of having the ability to reach out and be instantly understood, empowered, supported, and encouraged.

“I used to count down to when I was going to move out of Seattle,” she said. “You didn’t have neighborhoods. You didn’t have anything to do socially. You didn’t even know where to meet friends.”

Living in a city where people tend to keep to themselves, Brown said she needed to be proactive about meeting and connecting with others.

“I’m all about community and self-care, and I try to create something because we need each other,” she said.

On her blog, Brown highlights events in Seattle and spotlights local businesses that have captured her attention here. After four years, she decided to settle in Seattle for the long-term.

Brown believes that these networks can provide valuable opportunities to find mentors who look like her and have been where she has been.

She said the tide is changing for people of color who once may have felt like they had to compete for one or two spots allotted to them in any given industry and that she hopes more of them will reach out to plant the seeds for the next generation.

“We’re not going to open the door and then close it behind us,” she said. “We’re opening a door and we’re bringing up as many people as we can.”

Featured image: Seth Stell, 32, sits in his band’s practice space on October 31, 2017. Music is often a big part of the events put on by HERE Seattle, an organization Stell co-founded. HERE provides mentorship for underrepresented minorities in technology. (Photo by Aliah Elaoud)