BIPOC Founders Disrupt Tech Bro Narrative

by Beverly Aarons

The quintessential Tech Bro is a powerful archetype in the American imagination. College-educated, middle-class, white, male, armed with a STEM degree, and frequently seen sporting khakis/jeans and a fitted t-shirt emblazoned with the logos of top American tech firms: Google, Facebook, Amazon, or some scrappy startup you’ve never heard of. Tech Bros are the “revenge of the nerds” come home to roost. But what if I told you that Tech Bro culture was experiencing a disruption — a sort of fissure? What if I told you that a new archetype is emerging? One that is sometimes Black, Brown, immigrant, and/or female. 

If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve experienced significant change in American society: the change from landlines to smartphones, from typewriters to tablets, from “stay at the same job for 30 years” to an explosion of entrepreneurship. It’s all happened in the span of about 40 years, and like most change, you don’t really notice it when it’s happening — then it feels sudden when you do. It’s the same with Tech Bro culture. There is a cultural shift happening just within the walls of Silicon Valley, and more locally, in the Seattle technology startup scene. I had an opportunity to talk to Rebecca Lovell, Executive Director at Create33, who recently partnered with Microsoft for Startups to launch the Startup Success Program to provide resources to technology entrepreneurs who have experienced barriers to access, specifically those from the BIPOC community. The program is poised to play an important role in transforming the technology startup landscape. 

“They knew exactly what they were hiring when they brought me on board,” Lovell said, speaking about the Create33 partnership with Microsoft for Startups. She laughed. “I made it abundantly clear that one of my main goals and missions with Create33 was to develop a community that was as dynamic and diverse as the broader community in which we lived. And that was not something I had seen in tech and startup in Seattle specifically”

Twenty-seven BIPOC-led technology startup founders are participating in this year’s inaugural Startup Success Program. Launched virtually in June 2020, the program will provide interactive workshops, one-on-one office hours, mentorship, and peer support and accountability groups, and it will culminate in a demo day for financial institutions and investors.

Two Startup Success Program participants, Jude Anyichie (Slankit) and Priyanka Raha (PopSmartKids), shared their stories during a Zoom interview with the Emerald.

Born and raised in a remote village in eastern Nigeria, Anyichie took on a “can-do” attitude early in life. At the time, there were no stores that sold toys in his hometown, so if he wanted to play, he had to build his own playthings. Determined not to be left without the toys he wanted, at the age of 4, Anyichie and his friends built a toy car out of discarded boxes, worn-down flip flops, a bit of rope, and a broomstick. It was clear that he was a natural engineer long before he knew that such a thing existed.  

“So I think that is where my imagination started spiking up, you know — building things,” Anyichie said. “Making things from what I can visualize. I’ve tried to put it into an object that I can like. And I grew up like that. And ever since then I’ve been having this passion and going, ‘what do I build?’ I want to build something I can see, I can touch — that kind of thing, right?”

I pointed out that both Anyichie and Raha are telecommunications engineers and that their educational paths seemed serendipitously similar. Raha joked, “Yes, we grew up two houses down.” We all laughed. Raha was born in India in a household of modest means. Her father held two jobs. And she spent much of her childhood building things just like Anyichie did. Her favorite things to build were periscopes constructed from toothpaste boxes, found scraps, and mirrors. 

“I was very fascinated by how physics work, how things kind of move, and forces, and everything,” Raha said. “But I wasn’t aware of engineering being a thing. I just loved building, creating, and feeling things that could move or do things that you had imagined.”

Once Raha entered high school, she made the decision to go into engineering. But despite her apparent talent, the people in her community tried to dissuade her from that path. 

“If you’re a girl, and especially if you’re a girl growing up in India, everybody thinks it’s in their right to give you advice and that you have to listen to them, abide by them and all that,” Raha said. 

She was told repeatedly that it would be too hard for her to be an engineer, especially once she got older and decided to have children. But Raha refused to allow the opinions of others to hold sway over her life decisions. She wasn’t going to make a choice based on what may (or may not) happen 20 years in the future. 

Now Raha is the founder of the technology startup PopSmartKids and she has two children of her own who we could hear playing in the background on our call. Her children were the reason she created her company. 

Priyanka Raha, founder of PopSmartKids (Photo: Molly Blair Photography)

“So when they, as kids, do certain things like make art or build something on their legos, all they want to do is feel proud of it and come and show me like, ‘mom, look, I have done this,’” Raha said. “But when they’re doing something on their digital devices, that kind of connection and mirroring back and communication was not there. And I felt like that was a missing opportunity for me as a mentor, as a parent, to be able to gain insights into what they like or don’t like and what they’re doing.” 

To solve the problem, Raha built PopSmartKids, a digital storytelling app that makes it easy for parents, teachers, and mentors to give kids feedback on the stories they create using the software. 

“Missing that connection is what triggered me to say ‘I have to build something that uses technology as a platform to make that connection,’” Raha said. “And that was sort of the moment that I was like, ‘PopSmartKids could be that solution.’”  

Anyichie is also looking to solve a problem — but for adults. Specifically, adults looking for electronics that meet their needs without having to face off with the confusing and extremely technical jargon that defines the usefulness of computers, cameras, smartphones, and other consumer electronics. 

It all started when a friend asked Anyichie for advice on which laptop to buy. The friend had $700 and no clue which device would fit his needs. Certainly an engineer could give him some solid guidance. At the time, Anyichie was sure he could help his friend out, so he stopped by a Best Buy to take a quick look. 

“I count myself as an engineer,” Anyichie said “But when I was looking at the specs, going from shelf to shelf, I got more confused.” 

Even with the help of the sales rep, internet searches, and laptop specification guides, Anyichie found it difficult to help his friend find the right laptop. And that’s when it dawned on him that if he, an engineer, couldn’t sort through the confusing specifications of laptops and other electronics, how much harder it would be for the average consumer. That’s when the idea for Slankit was born — an easy way to find consumer electronics that actually fit your real needs without slogging through dozens of websites filled with complex tech jargon. 

Both Raha and Anyichie are in the beginning stages of their companies, but they’re both hoping to receive much-needed mentoring with more experienced founders, strategic partnerships with relevant companies, and camaraderie with their fellow cohort in the Startup Success Program. 

When asked if they thought it was necessary to be an engineer or have some other STEM background in order to start a technology company, both Anyichie and Raha were adamant that anyone who is able to recognize a problem and then provide a solution would be right at home in the technology startup community. 

“You don’t have to be an engineer to solve a problem,” Anyichie said. “So if that is a problem that you identified, first thing is to figure out ‘how do I solve this problem?’ Once you get the concept, if it’s a technology-based concept, there will be somebody out there that is a coder that will be able to translate what you have in your mind and put it in a coding language.”

Raha agrees. “The best startup entrepreneurs are people who know what they don’t know … you go out and you find someone who can build that for you and you collaborate.” 

Create33 plans to run two to three Startup Success Program cohorts in 2021. The 2020 program will run through November with the current cohort. Rebecca Lovell hopes to learn from this inaugural cohort so that they can ensure that the program is delivering real value to the participants. And if this BIPOC-focused program can help more startups find success and funding, in just a few years you may see another significant change from Tech Bro to Tech Global, where a much more diverse technology industry serves the needs of the entire community. 

Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently working on a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration.

Featured image: Sammy Ramos.