The lack of diversity in the tech world is notorious. What’s lesser appreciated is how lonely and isolated minority tech workers can feel in cities like Seattle. But techs and creatives like to disrupt the status quo and that’s what’s happening in the case of four friends who decided to created an organization for themselves and others like them.
By Errin Whack
André Bearfield didn’t need to see the woeful tech diversity numbers released recently by companies like Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google: He was living them.
The 31-year-old Little Rock native moved to Seattle nearly eight years ago to work in the technology field. While he’s found a great city and professional success, his personal life has been a bit lacking.
“I’ve been in Seattle a long time, and I truly didn’t know any black people working in technology,” says Bearfield, a director of products at a cloud-computing company who is African-American. “People here don’t talk to each other very much.”
He met his neighbor, Seth Stell, on the bus route to work they shared. Stell found Todd Bennings at the barber shop—one of the city’s few black hubs—and Eric Osborne at a tech conference with few other black faces.
Seattle is known for many things: coffee, the Seahawks, Mt. Rainier, the Pacific, great seafood, a thriving tech and creative culture. It is not known for its diversity.
According to recent Census figures, the city of about 600,000 is 70 percent white, 8 percent black, 14 percent Asian and about 6 percent Hispanic. Add to that the existing diversity problem within the tech industry, and the pool becomes even smaller. STEM as a field is overwhelmingly white (68 percent) and male (73 percent), and as of 2011, blacks accounted for only 6.4 percent of it.
Expanding the circle
The four friends decided to be more deliberate about creating the diverse scene they sought. Last March, they launched HERE Seattle, a social community that meets monthly to network and unwind. And although they came together as black men, they quickly realized they’d have to expand their circle. Seattle’s African-American population wasn’t big enough to base the group solely on half that demographic.
“We realized, at the end of the day, who’s the largest minority?” says Bennings, 31. “Most importantly, we don’t want to be a non-white representation of what’s already happening in the industry. The industry already doesn’t accommodate women as well as we’d like them to. It was a long conversation, but an easy decision to make.”
Stell, 29, said he’d had one reservation with bringing women into the group. “It hasn’t happened and it might not happen … I didn’t want to turn this into ‘speed dating for black folks in Seattle.'”
Krista DeFils, a 26-year-old Seattle native who works in direct marketing, attended her first meeting in November and said she immediately felt comfortable.
“I definitely consider it a niche that needed to be filled,” she says. “I didn’t think a lot about it before. A lot of the people that I’ve been meeting at the mixers are not originally from Seattle. I’m meeting other people who look like me … I think it’s a place where people can find that place of belonging.” HERE has grown to about 130 members in less than a year.
HERE’s founders had a few goals: They wanted to include people working in many job roles, not just focus on one (like developers, for example). They hoped to blend the quirky, less outgoing—okay, nerdy—personalities among techies with the swagger and love for art and culture found among creatives, while also making a space for people who don’t see many others like themselves at work or in their neighborhoods.
And while there are other tech- and creative-focused organizations in the city, as well as other groups for minorities, the foursome say they envisioned a more niche experience.
“When people come through that door, the first thing they say is, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen this many people of color in this industry all together,'” Osborne, 39, says. “When you think about effecting any kind of change, you think about what you can do. The truth is, there’s just a need.”
The founders of HERE hope to expand their efforts to include philanthropy and partnerships with like-minded organizations. Currently, HERE is working with the Technology Access Foundation (TAF), which has developed a STEM curriculum used in local schools, and Tech Diversified, a nonprofit that provides adult education and career counseling. Uma Rao, who works at TAF, says HERE is “a goldmine” for finding mentors. “It means everything for a student of color to see themselves reflected in STEM fields.”
The Seattle freeze
Bearfield and his co-founders say their unique bond as Southerners (Stell is from Texas; Bennings is from Georgia; Osborne is from Florida) also brings a spirit not often seen among their local colleagues.
“We’re all from the South, so we are very open and gregarious,” Bearfield says. “We came to a place that is different than where we came from. When we got here, we wanted to know, ‘Is there anything like home here?’ In this tech space, there are people like us generally, but there’s also the warmth of the South that is generally absent from Seattle.”
Bearfield describes the phenomenon commonly known as the “Seattle freeze,” the notion that Seattleites are generally distant, cold to newcomers, and stay in their established cliques. After hearing a woman describe her experience at a recent HERE meetup, Bearfield was encouraged that the group may be thawing that mentality.
“There was a young lady who is in the biotech industry, and she’s relatively new to the area,” Bearfield recounts. “She said, ‘I’ve been to dozens of tech meetups in Seattle, and this is the first time I’ve ever felt immediately at home.’ There’s something about the heart of who we happen to be, together, that is massively valuable.”