Written by The Business Journal Staff
According to the U.S Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), an overwhelming majority of tech jobs are held by whites (63.5 to 68.5 percent), followed by Asian Americans (5.8 to 14 percent), with a smaller share of jobs held by Hispanics (8 percent to 13.9 percent) and African Americans (7.4 to 14.4 percent). Among executives in the industry, only 2 to 5.3 percent are African American.
When examining the concentration of high tech companies in Silicon Valley, the divide is even more staggering, with African Americans accounting for only 1 percent of area techies. Long before the recent surge of technology companies began popping up in Fresno, Silicon Valley leaders were already pondering how to tackle the issue of diversifying the workforce.
Now, if one were to plop down for some people watching at the café inside Downtown Fresno’s burgeoning technology hub Bitwise Industries, they would see an astonishing group of technologists and entrepreneurs, young and old, perhaps more men but not unnervingly male-dominated, and certainly more Caucasians, but a decent enough mix of Asians and even Hispanics, who appear to fare better in Fresno than elsewhere in the nation. It would certainly feel more diverse than the numbers reflective of the Silicon Valley.
But even in culturally diverse Downtown Fresno, there are only a few black-owned technology businesses within the Bitwise walls — three, to be exact — out of 100. It’s a full two-percent better than our neighbors to the north, but still not what it could be.
The three businesses — QuiqLabs, Truth Branding Agency and MiC Software — are making a mark in the local tech industry, and the owners say they hope to inspire local minority youth to follow their entrepreneurial dreams.
QuiqLabs: Heroes for Hire
One of the oldest companies housed in Bitwise South Stadium is QuiqLabs, a web design and app-development company owned by Damon Thomas and Curlen Phipps.
Before Bitwise South Stadium existed, the duo was a force in the growing industry. Under an old business name, Pixel Polygon, the team won the inaugural 59DaysOfCode competition in 2012 and again, in a different category, in 2013. After some coaxing, they uprooted their businesses from the north end of town to Bitwise’s old mural district building. From there, Thomas said, QuiqLabs: Heroes for Hire formed into more than just a typical software engineering company. Rather than just build websites for people, Thomas and Phipps spend a good chunk of their time educating others.
“We’re doing the same things a lot of other businesses are doing, only we train and teach a lot of Geekwise Academy courses,” Thomas said. Thomas also teaches courses as part of Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s (EOC) School of Unlimited Learning (SOUL), and occasionally teaches as part of Fresno State’s Continuing and Global Education Program. He’s also taught courses offered at the Clovis Chamber of Commerce.
Through the various training programs, Thomas said he and Phipps have become mentors to minority youth, and their mentorship program — which quickly grew from four high school students to more than 80 — has now inspired them to start the nonprofit, Learn STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics).
Through the new nonprofit, Thomas said he hopes to close the digital diversity gap.
“We know that there is a problem in the Silicon Valley because one percent or less than one percent of developers are African American,” Thomas said. “How do we change communities on the southwest side? One of the ways to change a community is to change the opportunities, and we thought about how we could do our part to do that.”
The mentorship program mirrors the experience Thomas and Phipps were given as high school students in Cincinnati, Ohio. The business partners actually met through a program called the Computer Unlimited Program in 1984. Back then, STEM was called SMET, and the two of them learned programming on a first generation Macintosh. Thomas admits he wasn’t the best at programming and just enjoyed being able to compose drawings on the screen. To give him a leg up, wiz kid Phipps offered to help him with his programming if Thomas taught him how to break dance.
It wasn’t long before mathematical-minded Phipps and creative Thomas started their first business venture — a small company designing buttons featuring the school mascot, which they sold to fellow students at $2 a pop. A handful of other ventures followed, and Phipps’ marriage to a Clovis native eventually brought both men to the Central Valley.
Now, Thomas said they hope to establish a legacy of giving back. “It’s nice to be recognized for making money and building apps and getting bigger, but it’s better to be recognized for giving back,” Thomas said.
Truth Branding Agency
Monisha Edwards, 28, the owner of branding and digital marketing agency Truth Branding Agency, has beat the odds in more ways than one. While there are few African American owned tech companies, there are also very few women-owned tech companies.
In the Silicon Valley, EEOC reports that only 30 percent of the tech workforce is comprised of women and there aren’t many female executives. Even at Fresno’s Bitwise South Stadium, where it seems there are a number of talented female technologists, Edwards said she is the only woman business owner in the building she knows of aside from Bitwise co-founder and co-CEO Irma Olguin, Jr., who also owns </>Edit LLC.
Being an African American woman, Edwards said, puts her in an even greater minority.
“I believe Truth Branding Agency is the female black-owned branding agency in the Central Valley right now, between Fresno and Modesto,” Edwards said. “I’m trying to pave the way for entrepreneurs like myself, especially being an African American woman.”
Edwards stumbled into business ownership after she was laid off from her dream job as a marketing manager for an engineering firm. Already a freelance graphic and web designer on the side, she immediately informed her clientele she was available for full-time projects, hoping that work would keep her afloat until she could find another job. As she struggled to find a position like the one she had before, she began to build up a base of freelance clients and eventually, a light bulb went off —she could make a living building brands.
“I contemplated moving out of town to try and find a better job, but I really had to take a second to reflect on what it is I know how to do and what it is that I love, so I asked myself ‘What is your truth? What is your purpose in life?’ and I realized I’m really good at building brands and building websites and marketing,” Edwards said.
Once her mind was made up, Truth Branding Agency was born and in just over a year has grown to the point where Edwards has had to contract with as many as 10 freelancers to finish projects that include building websites, designing logos and managing social media for clients.
Edwards, who was born and raised in Fresno, said even members of her own family wonder how she did it, but she said it really just requires a change in mindset.
“I don’t think the people I grew up around understand the opportunities that they have,” Edwards said. “Out of all the kids in the family, I’m the only one who went to college, and I think my college experience is what really broke me out of that mindset of ‘I don’t know if I can do that.’ By being in college and doing the things I did in college, I knew I could do certain things.”
Edwards said minority youth shouldn’t feel intimidated by the status quo in the tech industry. Instead, she said if they have an interest, they should do their research and seek out educational opportunities like she did. “You can never be wise enough,” Edwards said of continuing education.
Perhaps the fastest-growing black-owned business in Bitwise South Stadium, MiC Software has made a name for itself creating scratch-made websites for large clients like Duncan Ceramics, the San Joaquin County Office of Education and Pollstar.
“Most of the software engineers in [Bitwise] rely on a system that has already been built, while I build websites from the ground up,” owner Michael Ajanaku said.
Scratch websites aren’t for everyone. Tools like WordPress are perfect for blog formats or for small businesses that don’t need a complicated site, Ajanaku said, but he provides custom sites for clients that need to store and access a lot of data. Fresno-based Pollstar, for example, needs to be able to analyze everything from concert ticket sales to rankings for performers, promoters and record labels.
A Fresno transplant from London, Ajanaku said he’s unsure whether he qualifies as an “African American,” although he’s lived in the United States for several years.
Coming from the UK, Ajanaku said he has a different perspective on diversity. In England, there are no “black” organizations, such as the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce, he said. In Fresno, Ajanaku has had to adjust to the idea that there is a need for such groups to provide opportunities to minorities.
“Over there, being a programmer is the thing that separates you and there are plenty of groups for programmers to network, but none are separated by race or even gender,” Ajanaku said. “Hopefully one day everyone will just be American, just one united people. I think it just has to start with us, and it is just about love, really. People should help one another and just be loving.”
Educating the youth like QuiqLabs owners are trying to do through their new nonprofit is great, said Ajanaku, who mentors at Clovis North High School. However, Ajanaku said he wants to extend any mentoring he can provide to kids from all backgrounds and all walks of life, minority or not.
“I don’t want to go into a school and just help minorities. Yes, I’d like to help them, but I want to help everyone,” Ajanaku said. “I group all the kids together and ask them what they like, what they want to do and offer to guide them and help them all achieve their goals.”
All children, Ajanaku said, should have some basic programming training.
“I believe schools should start incorporating programming into their curriculum,” Ajanaku said. “It should be a subject like math or English because in this world, in the near future, everything is going to revolve around programming.”