Kelauni Cook (right) at Repair the World's Social Justice Innovation Weekend. Photo by Amanda Waltz.

Software engineer Kelauni Cook moved to Pittsburgh last year with the intention of enhancing her coding skills and finding a job. But her life changed last April when she hosted Where is Black Tech in Pittsburgh?, an Inclusive Innovation Week event that gathered local Black entrepreneurs, City Council members, co-working space owners, startup founders and others for a conversation about the glaring disconnect between the city’s black community and tech community.

“This event happened from me innocently asking, ‘where is everybody who looks like me?’ and then boom, all of a sudden everyone said, ‘you need to address this,’” says Cook, a Howard University graduate and former high school teacher who relocated to the city to attend a coding boot camp at Academy Pittsburgh.

Since then, she has assembled a 12-person team and created Black Tech Nation. Starting with #BlackTechPGH, Cook wants to grow the advocacy organization into a countrywide entity that builds awareness around why the tech sector is notoriously lacking in Black talent.

On June 15, the organization will meet with Pittsburgh City Council members for a discussion on Black tech in Pittsburgh.

Cook recently spoke to NEXTpittsburgh about making tech a welcoming place for people of color, and how Pittsburgh leaders are helping her realize her goals for Black Tech Nation.

What are some of the challenges specific to Pittsburgh that you’re hoping to address?

My goal is to focus on African Americans. Altogether, African-American men and women represent two percent of the [national] tech force and most of them are engineers. [Editor’s note: Per Cook, that percentage represents the combined Black tech employees at Google, Facebook and Twitter. She cites this article as her source.]

It starts from the school system and how Black kids are prepared for STEM careers. It hasn’t been a priority until recently. But there’s still such a long way to go in Pittsburgh public schools if Pittsburgh wants to start including African-American people who are from here. If the school system isn’t fixed and the emphasis isn’t put on STEM subjects, then they’re going to continue to rely on people like me coming from outside and working in these positions. If you already have the people in your backyard, then there’s something that could be done.

Another issue is that I really think there’s a willingness for inclusion and diversity when it comes to African Americans in tech here. However, it’s a matter of not knowing how to reach the community in the proper way. I don’t want to say no one’s doing anything about it because a lot of people are trying to do what they feel is best. But there’s a lot of miscommunication and a lack of understanding when it comes to culture. That is where we want to come in as far as being that liaison between the tech industry and the Black tech community.

Another issue is hiring, but that’s all over the country, right? There are a lot of biases and once you get into a company, things are said that people don’t even realize are offensive, or could make someone uncomfortable. That happened to me on my first day at a huge company. I was the only Black woman in the entire engineering department on my floor and the first thing that was said to me was something racial. Did the girl mean it? I don’t think so. But there are unconscious things that happen all the time that would make someone feel uncomfortable. You start having this issue where people don’t stay because they feel uncomfortable. Black people are 3.5 times more likely to leave a tech position than white males.

This is something that has not really been tackled in Pittsburgh and I’m more than happy to take it on. I’m overjoyed because Pittsburgh is really trying and you don’t know how refreshing that is as a Black person and as a woman.

Kelauni Cook. Photo by Tracy Certo.

How do think some of these issues can be addressed? Do you think it’s more of a policy issue or something companies need to take on?

There are three parts to it. There’s community, which is actually gathering Black people in tech and making them feel like they have a support system because it can feel pretty lonely when you are the only person who looks like you in a space. It empowers you when you are around people who understand your story, and it just makes you do better.

[The second part is] the companies and institutions being held accountable, and really focusing on what their true values are and how they’re making those values important for everybody. As a business owner or as a company, when you say “culture fit,” those are the scariest two words that Black people can hear. What does that even mean? So immediately I feel like, well, I’m already zero for two because I’m Black and I’m a girl. That right there already puts me behind. So you need to decide what your company’s culture is and how do people from other cultures fit into it, and how can you make them feel comfortable that they can be who they are in your company.

The third part we’re trying to tackle is policy. I know the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission put out a huge statement on their dedication to making sure that more people of color get into tech. After my event, I had Pittsburgh City Council pass a Black tech agenda. They’re asking companies and institutions to abide in some fashion. I applaud Pittsburgh and City Council so much for seeing that as something they want to create some policy around. We’re working with them to do that in the coming months.

Who in the local tech community have you been working with?

I’m working more with organizations. Carnegie Mellon University is a huge partner. The City of Pittsburgh is my second biggest in terms of working on the policy part of it. I’m not necessarily working with the University of Pittsburgh itself, but I’m working with individuals from Pitt who are champions of this kind of work. Work Hard Pittsburgh is my hugest supporter when it comes to helping me with planning and resources.

But you don’t understand how many white males are behind me and giving me opportunities and funding. At the end of the day, a white male who is helping me do this, he doesn’t benefit from it. He can still easily get into tech. Most of my best mentors are white men who really want to see this change.

Are people in the local tech sector coming to you asking what they can do differently?

I’m not going to name them, but I’ve had a lot of co-working spaces do so. We’ll see how we end up working with them.

What are some of the future projects you have planned?

Can you get back to me in a month or two? [Laughs] No, there are some really cool things lined up.

But again, this is so new and all happened so fast that my team and I are still trying to figure out the strategic way of solving some these problems. We’re really in the research phase, like what’s going on in Pittsburgh right now when it comes to Black tech? What are the numbers? What can we actually put down on paper and have it make sense in real data? That’s our main focus. I really can’t do much until we understand where the leaks are in the system. Then we can start to plan with co-working spaces and companies.

Watch the video below to learn more about Where is Black Tech in Pittsburgh? and #BlackTechPGH:

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.