From Oakland to Milwaukee, Molding Black Youths Into Entrepreneurs

Even with a flurry of national news coverage, there are some questions about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin that might never be answered. This much is clear: the confrontation that took the Florida teenager’s life was a drawn-out encounter that could have been cut off several times.

If Martin had an easy way to tell someone he was in danger, would it have made a difference?

That was one of the questions that students and adult software programmers and entrepreneurs tried to answer this past weekend at the first Startup Weekend event held in Oakland, CA.

Startup Weekend is the Seattle-based organization that puts on hackathons in cities around the globe, in which groups of entrepreneurs and techies unite to launch startups in just 54 hours.

But the Oakland event featured a more targeted theme: encouraging entrepreneurship among young black men. The idea was to use social entrepreneurship to solve problems around health, education, and incarceration rates in order to help black youths unleash their potential.

After the event, I caught up with Derrick Johnson, a Milwaukeean who flew to Oakland to participate in Startup Weekend. Johnson is founder of Dream MKE, an initiative that aims to support and encourage Milwaukee-area minorities to become tech entrepreneurs.

Johnson primarily participated in the event to learn more about one of its sponsors, the Hidden Genius Project, an Oakland-based nonprofit that is helping prepare young black men for careers in software engineering, user experience design, and tech entrepreneurship. Johnson has had preliminary discussions with Hidden Genius Project about bringing such a program to Milwaukee.

I asked Johnson to share more about his experience at Startup Weekend Oakland. The following is an edited transcript.

Xconomy: What sorts of apps did attendees generate that might have helped someone like Trayvon Martin?

Derrick Johnson: The winning team pitched a concept app. Think of [the U.S. Department of] Homeland Security, with levels of [threat] escalation. The app was built around an idea similar to that. You assign contacts based upon those emergency levels. In [potentially dangerous situations], you can appropriately respond with ease of use, contact your social network so that immediately those people you feel could respond in a timely manner, you could contact instantly.

X: What were some of the other ideas that came out of the weekend?

DJ: The greater portion of the Startup Weekend was around really tackling educational issues, health issues, restorative justice issues. Then they had a sector on gaming. They brought in super mentors from Dropbox, Google, Yahoo. Most of the big organizations came out to support this event. Individuals could pitch ideas within those respective tracks [like education and health].

Derrick Johnson (left) chats with fellow participants at Startup Weekend Oakland. Photo courtesy of Adam Stiles.

Derrick Johnson (left) chats with fellow participants at Startup Weekend Oakland. Photo courtesy of Adam Stiles.

“Connect the Dots” was an idea by a few private school students. Their chief problem was finding other individuals to connect to. They were removed from the African-American community by going to this private institution. They were solving their own problem. … The app was essentially like a social media app, but exclusive for [black private school students]. They coded it and did the [user experience] design themselves.

X: What did your group work on?

DJ: My team did an app called “Second Impressions.” … The idea was around restorative justice. The biggest hurdle once [inmates] come out of incarceration is finding a job to keep them from reverting back to the lifestyle that got them there. … Right now there are government initiatives and agencies that structure small-scale training, but there is no app directed to them where they can find employers who specifically align themselves and say they would hire people that have previous records.

X: What was your biggest takeaway from the weekend?

DJ: If you give [youths] the opportunity, and you do have to handhold them through the project initially, but after the courses people have been through [with Hidden Genius Project], they’re self-sufficient. They were coding their own apps, doing a business model canvas.

Locally here we’ve been throwing around the idea of is [the Hidden Genius Project’s goal] possible, and what is the model? They’re proving it out there. … As multiple cities look to replicate that model, I think tremendous things are going to happen for low-opportunity [individuals]. We don’t really see prominent [African-Americans] in Silicon Valley that are front and center. They’re trying … to transform that narrative and say it’s OK to be in this sector of individuals.

X: What’s the next step for implementing a program like Hidden Genius Project in Milwaukee?

DJ: We’re in the preliminary stages of starting up a fellowship program and then just doing preliminary outreach initiatives to see is it needed here. Maybe recruit five to 10 students and start up that model. If talks progress with Hidden Genius, more than likely we’ll come in with that brand.

The idea is to secure capital for the initial fellowship program by probably May, then recruit those individuals for that summer fellowship.

X: What effect do you think Startup Weekend Oakland will have on participants?

DJ: I hope it allows [the students] to grow into serial entrepreneurs/explorers. When you look at the minority demographic, we’ve seen a plethora of philanthropic dollars given to the community. It’s never been an issue of money. When we look nationwide, the systemic problems haven’t changed. Allowing those individuals in those situations to solve their own problems, I think, is key to revitalizing this next generation. Dig ourselves not only out of the recession we’re in, but allowing those cultures that are left behind to grow with it.

X: Is entrepreneurship uniquely suited to accomplish that?

DJ: I think entrepreneurship is uniquely suited because it’s one of the few ways toward generational wealth. … When I look at just the modern IPO, that exit alone creates hundreds of millionaires. Looking at scale like that, if we’re truly going to transform the world, still with manufacturing we’re creating jobs with manufacturing salaries. If you have 20 co-founders, and they start something great, it’s 20 people exiting with a significant return. That can truly transform a lot of things. That opportunity has not been available for minorities.

X: What surprised you most about Startup Weekend Oakland?

DJ: The key thing they said that shocked me was one of the judging criteria for Startup Weekend has always been revenue model. From a social perspective, probably 90 percent of the ideas presented [at Startup Weekend Oakland] had no initial revenue model. What they did out west was they had social impact replace the revenue model. If we’re talking about 1 million inmates, what is the value-add from getting 5 percent of those people jobs? [Reducing recidivism is] a value proposition. For a taxpayer, that’s a value-add. As those models progress and become more pervasive, you’re going to start seeing a lot of social entrepreneurs lean toward that route.

Jeff Engel is Deputy Editor, Tech at Xconomy. Email: Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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