A new study says more blacks are working in technology in Chicago than most people expect — but many are working low-paying positions that haven’t traditionally been thought of as tech jobs.
There are 40,000 tech workers in the Chicago area, according to a broad definition forthcoming report from advocacy group Black Tech Mecca, called “2017 State of the Black Tech Ecosystem: The Chicago Edition.”
The study, done with a team from University of Illinois at Chicago’s Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement, compared Chicago to 12 other cities.
It won’t be released until next month, but some of its findings were used to plan panel discussions and presentations last week at Google and Matter.
“There are a million things to do,” said Fabian Elliott, founder and CEO of Black Tech Mecca and an advertising technology consultant at Google. “Now, we can prioritize those, and focus on the areas that have the biggest impact.”
Blacks make up 13 percent of the overall workforce in Chicago, but 8 percent of its workers in tech occupations, and 8.8 percent of workers in the tech industry.
“I was pretty encouraged by that,” Elliott said.
The total industry number includes a wide range of workers, such as those in clerical or legal, employed at tech firms. The tech industry number includes everyone in the tech industry both in non-tech and technical roles.
That occupation number includes people in jobs who might not consider themselves as part of the tech community. The highest representation of blacks was in clinical lab tech positions, at 24 percent, Elliott said. About 22 percent were on technology installation, such as cable installers, he said.
While those types of employees might not be included in some industry counts, Elliott said they should consider themselves tech workers.
“It’s time for us to clearly start owning our identity,” said Elliott. “I know a lot of people who work in tech, and they might not code. They question whether they really work in tech. You work in tech! And whatever you do, you’re touching and influencing technology, even if you’re not writing code.”
Black Tech Mecca wanted to define the ecosystem, determine what success would look like and evaluate Chicago’s black tech ecosystem, Elliott said.
To do that, the team developed a framework across the health of a black tech ecosystem in a given market.
There was previously no data to measure the impact and growth of the black tech ecosystem or to make the argument that the black tech community is a profitable arena for investment, according to Black Tech Mecca.
“Before this report, we couldn’t even give a rough estimate. Now, we have a number that gives us perspective on how we should be thinking about growing it,” Elliott said.
Black tech workers were underrepresented in all of the communities compared. The gap between blacks in the overall workforce and those in tech was smallest in Los Angeles, with blacks representing 6 percent of the general workforce, 5.5 percent of those working in tech occupations and 5.3 in the tech industry.
The gap was biggest in Detroit, where blacks were 18.7 percent of the general workforce, 12 percent of those in tech occupations and 11 percent of those working in tech industries.
At the event at Google’s Chicago headquarters Thursday, speakers addressed not only the Black Tech Mecca report, but also the broader state of funding in Chicago tech.
Data about blacks and venture capital is outdated, said Sherrell Dorsey, founder of ThePlug tech newsletter. Most discussions about the topic quote a 2010 CB Insights report that put the portion of black founders with venture capital backing at less than 1 percent, she said.
But venture capital has become more aware in recent years of a need for diversity, where lucrative opportunities are being missed, said Ablorde Ashigbi, a senior associate at Pritzker Group.
“You think of most places that are under-fished; in most pools that people aren’t paying attention to, there’re really good value there,” he said. “There are really strong people. There are really good business opportunities that historically have been ignored that, if given the right resources and capital, have the opportunity to be bigger than Facebook, bigger than Google, bigger than all of these other things.”
Emile Cambry Jr. ⇒, founder of the Blue 1647 tech incubator brand, said startups need to consider other ways of raising money, such as equity crowdfunding.
“That’s much better than trying to go and be one of 10,000 people applying for Y Combinator or some other platform. And you’ll have people who consume your product because they know you,” he said.
“Yes, racism exists. Yes, there are certain barriers. But we’ve still got to find a way to move it forward,” he said. “When you find early ways to have some traction and find some way to get some momentum going, then other positive things happen, and other people start believing in it.”
Cheryl V. Jackson is a freelance writer.