By Dwight Hobbes
The Twin Cities is now home to an inaugural conference dedicated to “stomping the divide” and increasing the number of Black women and men in technology.
The Blacks In Technology Conference, dubbed BITCON, is organized by Blacks In Technology (BIT), a global networking think tank on tech industry professionals with chapters across the country, including Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Chicago, Houston and Minneapolis.
“Although our daily lives are intertwined utilizing tech, the number of Black professionals that are employed by tech companies or are founders of tech companies are disproportionately low compared to other races,” said Elizabeth Cotton, BIT’s national director of strategic partnerships.
Cotton, who guides development, operations and marketing strategy, is a tech veteran with 10 years’ experience in project management and program execution for government and nonprofit agencies.
“[We want] to increase the representation and visibility of Black professionals in tech. Our objective is to provide a space where the BIT audience — which includes students, entrepreneurs, job seekers, early career and mid-career professionals, and executives — the opportunity to connect to share resources, knowledge, and career opportunities.”
The conference was the brainchild of Sharon Kennedy Vickers, City of St. Paul’s Chief Information Officer and co-founder of the BIT Twin Cities chapter along with BIT organizer Antoinette Smith. She proposed the event to BIT founder Greg Greenlee in November 2017.
It presented itself as a can’t-miss opportunity to expand BIT.
“BIT has a very active and established chapter in the Twin Cities headed by Sharon…and Antoinette Smith,” said Cotton. “Sharon mentioned how the Twin Cities was an up-and-coming tech hub and that diversity and inclusion was a really high priority for the [Twin] Cities. They had already organized great events, and together the two of them cultivated great relationships with some of the local companies and organizations — Best Buy and Target being among those local companies.”
“A lot of us have been working really hard within the space and we needed [somewhere] to come together, network, support each other and continue to advance and grow in the field,” said Vickers about BIT’s presence in the Twin Cities. “We also wanted to add visibility,” she explained. “There is not a strong awareness of people of color within this space.”
Minnesota also has a history of being a Midwest tech hub since the 1950s, with corporations such as IBM establishing a presence in Rochester and both Control Data Corporation and Cray Supercomputer launching out of Minnesota in the ’60s and ’70s.
“The Twin Cities houses more Fortune 100 companies’ headquarters and footprints than any other major U.S. cities. Why wouldn’t we have it here?” said Cotton. “Through my recent visits, I have been able to gain insight on the business and political ecosystem while assessing the demographics that drive this great American city.”
She added, “We wanted to illustrate that you can be involved and contribute to the tech community all across America. Our goal is to showcase that there are great tech career options outside of coastal regions. Tech-friendly communities that embrace family values and reasonable cost of living are high commodities these days. As BIT is growing as an organization, we also seek to develop and stimulate the local workforce.”
The three-day conference will host a series of activities, including workshops, keynotes, and a career fair, at several locations throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“We wanted to focus on having a tech conference and not just a diversity conference,” explained Cotton. “We felt it was important that we provide the type of programming that is applicable to the success of the BIT audience.
“That means having speakers providing information and knowledge that our audience can immediately apply to their companies, their careers, their education journey, and to their everyday lives,” Cotton continued. “We developed key sessions [to] benefit our audience and began to curate subject matter experts and influencers to lead these discussions.”
Cotton also noted that BITCON hopes to pique the interests of future tech leaders. “We have selected speakers that we believe would draw out potential tech workforce and entrepreneurs from nontraditional backgrounds and hopefully inspire a generation to pursue careers in tech.”
BITCON takes places October 11-13 at various venues throughout the Twin Cities. For tickets or more information, visit blacksintechnology.net.
This article originally appeared in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.