How can we use our tech boom to improve inequality in the Seattle area?
On June 18th, I presented my idea — to organize a hackathon for the Central District’s African American community — at Crosscut’s Community Idea Lab. The audience, in turn, selected it as the winner — a vote that won me six months of coworking space at Impact Hub Seattle and the chance to meet with leaders at angel investment group Seraph Capital and Grow 50, a consortium of business leaders.
Afterward, the Seattle Times approached me for an interview and I appeared on King 5’s New Day NW with Crosscut’s Managing Editor, Berit Anderson, to talk about my idea. I even got to speak on-air with Marcie Sillman on KUOW’s The Record.
Seattle Office of Policy and Innovation Director Robert Feldstein was a judge at the event. “This is a big win for Seattle,” he told me. “Let's keep working.”
And I did keep working, because the question of how one actually bridges two worlds using a hackathon is a complicated one. Knowing that I couldn’t do it alone, I formed Hack the CD — a collective of self-determined social innovators reliant on the community for sustainable and equitable growth in the Central Area of Seattle.
The first hurdle we face is that not many people know what a hackathon is, and the term hacking is usually followed by some story of malicious intent. (I describe a hackathon as an entrepreneurial jam session.)
But the biggest issue for us has been building trust in a community of people traditionally marginalized, criminalized and absent from any gains in the tech boom or otherwise. We won’t be the first to tackle this. In Oakland at the first global hackathon for Black Male Achievement, the driving question was, “Could An App Have Saved Trayvon Martin?”
Still, this hackathon idea is an experiment. The question I posed during my pitch was, “How might we create fertile ground for the African American community in Seattle to grow with the city's current tech boom?” My hypothesis is that there is demand in my community for the best skills, training and resources of the innovation economy, and that they want to be a part of the growing startup ecosystem in their city.
TechCrunch Founder & CrunchFund general partner Michael Arrington was also a Community Idea Lab judge. “To really get a lot out of a hackathon," he mentioned, "you need to be able to code... How do we bridge that gap for the people that want to take part in something like this as coders, not just as social workers there to give ideas? How do we get those people the skills they need to do well at a hackathon?”
Some of those students — along with other Central Area residents, technologists, artists and problem solvers — have also registered for the Central District Startup Weekend Hack the CD is organizing on September 26th - 28th at Garfield High School. The event is all ages and no coding skills or degrees are necessary.
This hackathon will be the next step in the experiment. We’ll start on Friday with a Spiddit Popup Booth at the Garfield Teen Life Center to get the ideas flowing. After networking and pitching ideas, participants will form teams and start working on their ventures. On Saturday, they’ll continue to work with expert coaches and also have access to local residents for market research at the Central Area Block Party. On Sunday, the teams will present in front of a panel of judges and conclude with a launch party hosted by DJ Topspin.
The goal is to launch 10 new businesses that weekend, but at the very least, about 100 people will be exposed to entrepreneurial education in my neighborhood. All participants will receive access to online business, design and marketing courses from General Assembly and the winning teams will receive consultation with business experts like Yoli Chisholm, 6 months of access to Skid Road — a local tech lounge — and tickets to the Seattle Interactive Conference.
GeekWire cofounder John Cook said during his remarks at the Community Idea Lab, “It’s good with an entrepreneurial idea to start small, so maybe with a hackathon, but start to think out a bigger vision of where this could go.”
The Central District is also known as Africatown, since it is a melting pot of people from the African diaspora. If this experiment proves successful, I envision Africatown as a regional innovation hub for transplanted and homegrown tech talent and social innovators.
If You Go: Hack the CD, September 26th - 28th at Garfield High School. Open to anyone who wants to help shape the future of the Central District. Thanks to Startup Seattle, 50 high school age participants will get to register for free. There are also scholarships available for local developers, designers and entrepreneurs who’d like to participate. Tickets at http://hackthecd.org.