Entrepreneur and coder Felecia Hatcher has a mission: to get minority communities more involved in innovation.
Hatcher is working to bring diversity into the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Though she’s only 33 years old, Hatcher’s work has already attracted the attention of the White House, and in 2014, she was selected as a Champion of Change in STEM. However, her path to empower others has had its fair share of bumps in the road, especially in high school where she struggled academically. In 2012, she took the lessons she learned from her failures and successes to co-found Code Fever with her husband, Derick Pearson, a social entrepreneur. Code Fever is a program dedicated to teaching underserved minority students to code and to apply their skills to solve real world problems.
Inspired by Black History Month, she and Pearson organized Black Tech Week in 2014. The goal of the conference was to celebrate innovators and technology creators of color. Black Tech Week was an instant success and is now an annual occurrence.
Tech Better spoke with Hatcher to learn more about her work as an entrepreneur and innovator.
Tech Better: How do you see technology connecting with social justice?
Hatcher: Our mission is to rid communities of innovation deserts, which are similar to the concept of food deserts. Right now, entire communities are disengaged from startup and innovation activities. I should be able to map out the steps I need to go through to become a self-sustaining startup, but in marginalized communities that’s not the case. If I live in an area like South Side, Chicago, I am told I have to go outside my community boundaries to create. Instead, we need to give people resources like asset maps that identify the funders, co-working spaces, accelerators and other outlets to help people utilize the resources they may not know their community has to offer. This eliminates silos, where innovation in cities is limited to one area rather than across communities. With a more cross-collaborative culture, entrepreneurs can build technologies within their communities to solve local problems.
Tech Better: How has failure shaped you into the entrepreneur and activist you are today?
Hatcher: Failure has shown me there’s more than one way to success. As a C-student in high school, I was essentially viewed as a failure when it came to applying to colleges. I had taught myself how to code, but tech skills didn’t always translate well into the classroom. I could have let my academic mistakes when I was a teenager define the rest of my life, but instead I chose to get creative. Moreover, I challenged myself to prove my guidance counselor wrong when she told me I’d never make it.
That drive has really fueled the work we do today at Code Fever with our students. We’re showing them they have genius, and we’re matching these students with the tools, training and confidence to accomplish what they often think is impossible.
Tech Better: Where does mentorship fit in your life?
Hatcher: I try to serve as both a mentor and a champion for our students both online and in person, as well as for the adults and startups we work with. In my own life, I’ve been fortunate to have two instrumental people fulfilling the position of champion and mentor: my parents. I knew they didn’t always understand what I was doing, but they supported me anyway. You need those people who allow you to tinker and figure things out, without adding to the negativity and second-guessing already going on in your head.
We’re seeing more entrepreneurs, creators and dreamers of color engaged in the startup ecosystem.
Tech Better: How does collaboration factor into your programs?
Hatcher: I always tell people the pie is big enough for everyone to get a slice. The more we help people and the more collaborative we are, the stronger our community as it relates to innovation, entrepreneurship and technology.
We started Code Fever and Black Tech Week as a way to make sure we’re creating inclusive innovation hubs and economies. We have seen a lot of people emerge from these platforms as leaders and mentors.
One great example of this is Brian Brackeen, a friend of ours who owns facial recognition company Kairos. He mentors all the time and has implemented a social mission at his company. Employees are then encouraged to give back to the community, especially to low-opportunity youth, fostering a greater sense of inclusion.
Overall, our participants are finding the confidence to work with others, share their knowledge and impart lessons they’ve learned so far. We want our students to not just learn the skills to be self-sustaining financially, but also to put their gifts back out into the world.
Tech Better: What changes have you seen following the creation of Black Tech Week and Code Fever?
Hatcher: We’re seeing more entrepreneurs, creators and dreamers of color engaged in the startup ecosystem. We have worked with more than 2,700 students through Code Fever, and this past year we had 1,700 participants in Black Tech Week.
The narrative is that the black community is a group not interested in tech outside of being consumers. That’s not true. This is a group of innovators. They don’t just hold prison records — they hold patents and trademarks; they buy and sell companies. This is what happens when you directly invest in diversity and make sure everyone feels comfortable.
There’s a saying that diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance. The work we’ve been doing is getting more people to dance, and we’re seeing increased diversity as a result. When that happens, we see people really flourish.
Tech Better: What changes do you hope to see in the future?
Hatcher: I want to make a world where my daughter can live as a young techie. This means helping the next generation of students understand how to apply their knowledge to the problems of the world. I would love to see these lessons applied on a broader scale as we push for STEM education. I am truly optimistic that younger generations can solve the issues we face today.