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Michael A. Jackson launched Black Tech Talent two years ago to support Black tech professionals, diversify the workforce, and boost Minnesota’s profile.
Since then, conversations about racial equity have reached unparalleld heights in response to the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Protesters rallied across Minnesota and the world for days, calling for change in every facet of society.
“A lot of people have this assumption that there aren’t a lot of Black people here in Minnesota because we aren’t viewed as a city with a prominent Black community,” Jackson said. “For our community to rally together like we did, and for as long as we did, following the death of George Floyd, I know our community got a lot of respect from people outside of our state.”
Jackson has always believed in Minnesota’s Black community. He launched Black Tech Talent, based in Minneapolis, to recruit more Black technologists into skilled jobs. And it has become one of the fastest growing recruiting services organizations in Minnesota that focuses on Black employees in the technology industry.
The organization’s online community hosts more than 7,000 subscribers to date and counts more than 100 corporate partners, including Best Buy, BluDot, the Minnesota Timberwolves, American Express, Sunrise Banks, and Foundry.
Floyd’s murder was personal for Jackson, 33, a south Minneapolis native and Southwest High School graduate. Jackson had known Floyd since 2017. They had mutual friends.* Floyd’s death traumatized Jackson, who says he had nightmares for weeks after watching the video of Floyd’s arrest and killing, as recorded by a young bystander.
“When the video posted, I didn’t even know who it was–I thought it was another Black man just being murdered,” he said. “I purposely scrolled past it on Facebook and then it kept on showing up because everyone was sharing it.”
Jackson made sure he was in the right headspace before finally viewing it.
“As I was watching it, I realized who it was, knowing how this video is going to end in his death,” Jackson said. “Watching a video of someone you know … my heart was breaking.”
While the grassroots advocacy of the last two years has shined a light on the strength of Minnesota’s Black community, Jackson said Black technologists from other states are still apprehensive about moving to Minnesota, including those who work remotely for local companies.
That reluctance was already apparent before Floyd’s death, he added. Minnesota has one of the worst track records for Blacks living in America, Jackson said. It can be difficult for many Minnesotans to see the discrepancies if they haven’t seen Black communities that thrive in other states, he added.
“Before George Floyd, people were able to treat us like how they wanted to treat us and nobody really paid attention until that moment,” Jackson said. “Because of the way we stood up for ourselves—people becoming activists and activists having a bigger platform–it made people realize that you can’t treat people like that anymore.”
A sense of community is what Jackson is striving to sustain long-term. He said local businesses have told him about the experiences of some of their employees who’ve moved from places like Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Chicago. They loved their jobs but struggled with finding community.*
“Tech is something you can’t talk to everyone about, right? So, even if you have family here or certain friends, they don’t necessarily know what you’re talking about when you want to talk about a fun project you’re working on or a project you’ve been promoted to,” Jackson said. “We provide a community, so they don’t feel so isolated when it comes to their work.”
Jackson found his passion for tech as a young person, but really got immersed in it after he launched a startup called Premium Experience. The company developed an app that helped promoters and venues better understand their audience and data. At the time, he also produced events and conferences.
In 2018, he co-produced Bitcon, a conference about bringing Black technologists and subject-matter experts together. In those early years, Jackson didn’t fully understand the struggles Black professionals faced. He became familiar with employers’ conscious and subconscious discriminatory behavior while navigating job searches.
Jackson recently partnered with Best Buy to create new chapters of Black Tech Talent in other cities across the country, with the first planned for Atlanta. Black Tech Talent is free to join and offers services from fine-tuning resumes to networking to job listings. About 60 percent of its tech members live in the Twin Cities; the rest span the country.
Black Tech Talent will host a Juneteenth Summit on June 17 and 18. Details for the online and in-person event will be posted on the organization’s website.
Sahan recently spoke with Jackson about the challenges Black tech workers face and how companies can support their Black tech workers.
“There’s still bias happening today, but at least now we can have that real conversation, that voice and that’s progress,” he said. “It’s not the finish line, but it is progress.”
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Following the death of George Floyd, have you seen more reluctance from out-of-state Black tech professionals to move to Minnesota?
Every place, especially cities with large Black populations, have their own issues like police brutality. But the feedback I’ve received from people about coming to Minnesota is more about culture. They feel like they’d have a hard time catching their groove in the Twin Cities without having an anchor, like Black Tech Talent, where there is that sense of community, events, and engagement for them.
The labor market is robust and there is high demand for talented tech workers. How are your corporate partners leveraging Black Tech Talent today?
Tech companies are growing at a crazy speed. There are an estimated 900,000 open positions in IT across the country, and Black people—men and women—account for only 4 to 7 percent of current positions filled. That number is expected to grow by 11 percent over the next 10 years and will probably grow faster than that.
An example of this is a company we recently met with that had 300 employees prior to the pandemic and now they have over 2,000 employees—hiring an average 80 new employees per month. One of the issues they are experiencing is not getting enough diverse candidates, so they’re leveraging us to help them with that pipeline issue. So, what has really changed in the last couple years is that it’s not just about diversity for these companies, but it’s a workforce problem.
What challenges do Black technologists face in the “culture” of a tech company?
There’s a lot of cultural nuances when it comes to dealing with Black people in general, and a lot of what companies are struggling with is not just the hiring, but retention of those Black employees. And part of the retention issue is companies missing the mark on those cultural nuances.
A simple illustration of this is when a Black employee goes to work every day and does their job well, but isn’t getting an invite to golf, drinks after work, or to the cabin on the weekends. The comradery isn’t there. So, these are things an employer may not recognize because they’re solely focused on the employee’s job performance.
How is Black Tech Talent helping a young technologist get a foot in the door at a tech company?
People who are just coming into the game—or haven’t been in it long—struggle, because they didn’t get that early internship or had that early opportunity, like at a big corporation. So their resumes aren’t appealing. Based on conversations, a candidate is perfect for the role, but essentially on paper, it wouldn’t look like it.
So, not only are we setting skilled candidates up for these tech roles, but we also help with prepping resumes, because some candidates don’t have that experience yet: crafting a resume geared toward a tech position. It’s not because they don’t have the skills; it’s just that they don’t know how to write a resume that’s appealing.
What advice do you have for Black technologists who find tech culture difficult to navigate?
One piece of advice I have for the community as a whole is to make sure you’re adding value and building relationships with the right people, because those relationships may be the difference of your opinion being heard, getting the raise you deserve, or moving up that ladder.
When you build those relationships, it gives you the opportunity to become the go-to person for diversity and inclusivity conversations. With that said, not every Black person wants to be called upon every time there is a diversity and inclusion topic, but like everything in life, the more you network and become the subject matter expert, the more influence you have and become a trusted voice, which will provide you the opportunity to change the culture.
How can employers lean in to their Black employees?
There are a lot of things a company can implement that isn’t rocket science, but intentionality is a big one. We have employers saying they are willing to hire Black employees, but being willing to do it is very different than being intentional about it.
I recall an employee, who worked at one of the big corporations, vented to me, saying, “I show up early, I leave late, knock off all my projects. I’m social with my co-workers, never got into a conflict, but never been told I’ve done a good job.” So again, these are cultural nuances.
Employers need to understand that when a person has been locked out of an opportunity for a long time, they’re going off the information they were taught… So, when a Black employee is performing all of these things and isn’t getting any feedback, it’s a problem for someone who is just entering the culture versus someone who is familiar with the culture.
How have the conversations about workplace diversity evolved in the last two years?
When we first launched there were already companies that were interested in diversifying their workforce and Black people trying to break into tech. So we were already working in this space and had opened a ton of doors. Following the murder of George Floyd–someone who I knew personally–our mission, vetting process, and who we decided to work with became more intentional.
Companies at that time were saying they were diverse. But then after the murder of George Floyd, there was a realization among these companies that they weren’t as diverse as they thought they were. We had companies saying, “We thought we were diverse because we had Asian and Indian employees, but we don’t really have any Black employees and we haven’t hired any in a long time.” And these were huge corporations. These are still conversations I have today—it’s still a factor.
The murder of George Floyd may have been a catalyst for some of these companies to become interested in looking at diversifying their workforce, but I don’t think that is going to go away. The energy behind it has died down, but we’re at a point where we can see who was serious and who wasn’t.
*CORRECTION: The story has been updated to note that Michael A. Jackson knew George Floyd through mutual friends–not work–and that some Black tech employees who moved to Minnesota from other states struggled to find community.