Industry Watch

Damola Ogundipe (left), Jasmine Russell (center) and Mondo Davison (right). Photo by Tate Carlson

Mind the Gap

African Americans stake their claim in Minnesota’s tech sector

By Kevyn Burger
Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Mondo Davison is taking The Big Step.

After months of planning, the young man who calls himself “The Black Tech Guy” is resigning his day job to pursue his fledgling tech startup full time.

“I call it a leap of calculated faith,” says Davison, 31, who has put in seven years as a project coordinator with St. Paul public schools. “It’s time to give this my all.”

Davison’s baby is MyBarJar. Launched in January, it allows users to go online to pay for a drink at a friend’s celebration.

“I got the idea when my uncle had a big birthday and not everyone could make it to the restaurant party,” Davison says. “MyBarJar lets friends buy a drink for someone leading up to their big day so when they walk into the venue, their bar tab is paid.”

Davison’s gut tells him his online tool will appeal to his demographic.

“Millennials typically don’t give friends standard gifts. They like to create memories in social settings,” he says. “We believe gifting a round for a bachelor or a farewell party can become the social norm.”

All founders face long odds when they give up their sure thing to bet on their dream, but there’s no doubt it’s a more daunting prospect for people of color seeking success in technology. African Americans hold less than 5% of the jobs in the nation’s fastest-growing, best paying field; that tiny fraction hasn’t budged much despite numerous initiatives to open doors to more diverse candidates.

Minnesota is home to a group of persistent young entrepreneurs of color who are staking their claim in the tech sector and pushing against barriers that have perpetuated the gap.

“The lucrative careers of the future will be in tech; it’s the new bedrock of the economy,” says Damola Ogundipe, co-founder of Civic Eagle, a for-profit civic engagement platform.

Ogundipe, 27, leads a diverse team of seven. He has found the tech field to be one where talented people can rise quickly.

But first they have to get in.

“We have to get more people qualified, with skills, knowledge and degrees. Kids need to see technology careers as being as exciting as sports or entertainment,” he says. “I want them to see people of color who create jobs.”

Ogundipe was working in IT in health care when the Affordable Care Act became law. His frustration in finding nonpartisan information led him to create his digital tool for information and involvement.

The startup won the social division of the 2015 MN Cup. Ogundipe and his co-founders used the prize money and their own funds to bootstrap Civic Eagle. They’re now seeking private investment capital. “Someday when there are 30 or 40 black startups, this will be easier,” he says. “That’s my dream.”

The racial subtext

Clarence Bethea envisions building a billion-dollar company. Upsie, his Minneapolis-based tech startup, provides consumers with a cheaper, more efficient way to buy extended warranties. It includes online storage of the policy so when a cell phone dies or a laptop crashes, the consumer has the information at their fingertips.

“This is a $40 billion dollar business in the U.S. alone,” says Bethea, 35, who leads a team of five. “We can be the leader in the industry, the number-one brand people think of when they buy warranties.”

Born in Georgia, Bethea came north to play basketball at Bemidji State and stayed when he married his Minnesota-born sweetheart.

Since launching Upsie in 2014, he’s shaken the local money tree in search of investment capital, but admits he’s found it a struggle.

“There are challenges building any new company. Being a startup founder, I hear about people who, as they say, ‘look the part’ of being the next Mark Zuckerberg,” he says. “There’s some profiling that goes on; we have to expand what that means. A founder should be judged by his perseverance and leadership, by his vision and the quality of his hires.”

Bethea acknowledges that racial considerations can create nagging questions for African American entrepreneurs that their white counterparts never have to address. When investors turn him down, Bethea says he wonders if it’s the product itself, or an underlying pattern of racism.

“I’m self-aware and big into self-improvement. I can’t change being black, I can only sharpen the pitch,” he says. “I look for someone who just sees what the business is. I want to be graded on the same line as my white male founder friends.”

And women, too

As an African American woman, Jasmine Russell has gotten used to standing out when she is networking. 

“If it’s a black tech group, I’m usually one of two women. If it’s a woman’s group, I might be the only black woman,” she says.

Russell, 29, has found that doesn’t undermine her natural confidence.

“I’m curious and outgoing. I want to hear ideas and talk to people,” she says.

Russell focused on statistics in her MBA coursework, then the Indiana native moved to Minneapolis for a job in market research.

“Applying digital analytics to measure and compare research was my gateway into tech,” she says. That’s given way to her startup, Proceed. The back-end platform is still a prototype; it strategically connects local retailers to one another and to nonprofit partners.

“We’re beta testing now — that’s exciting and nerve-wracking. I’m in the phase they call the Valley of Death,” Russell confesses with a rueful laugh. “We hope to go to market with it next year.”

She’s not quite ready to call herself a role model, given her limited experience as an entrepreneur, but she thinks she could be an example.

“People of color can build these things. We need to see that we are not just consumers of technology,” she says. “We have work to do to make tech more open to all people, to ask why there is a disconnect.”

Courage required

The gutsiness that it takes to enter the still-developing field may be at odds with prevailing attitudes held by some people of color.

“We aren’t raised to take a risk. We are raised to take a job,” says David Edgerton, Jr. “There are so many lucrative careers in tech, but will people reach for them? They’ve been told, stay in your lane, do what is in front of you.”

Edgerton, 43, an electrical engineer with an MBA, has had a long tech career, capped by his current role as ITS Manager for Manufacturing Technology for Renewal by Andersen. He also teaches Managerial IT and Statistics at Hamline University’s School of Business.

While he applauds the push by the tech industry to recruit people of color, he warns their efforts can’t stop there.

“Companies seeking diversity have to be inclusive,” he says. “They need to make sure everyone has support and an environment conducive to success. Tech companies have to acknowledge their unconscious bias in recruiting and on boarding candidates, that those who’ve been in that space are, frankly, most comfortable around other people who look like them.”

The importance of role models can’t be undervalued, says Mondo. In his years working among mostly African American elementary students, he rotated his 50 shirts labeled with the same identifier: “The Black Tech Guy.”

“I want to expose them to someone in our community doing this, to open their eyes to why they should get that skill and knowledge,” he says.

That is part of what drives Davison’s vision.

“I’m on a mission to reach a respectable level of success so I can become a significant advocate and leader in my community,” he says. “I’m connected with other aspiring African Americans working in the tech space and I want them to be successful. We can all win together and motivate a generation.”