Why I quit my 9-5 as a Tech Educator to start my own organization to uplift Black techies

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

I’d been working spotty freelance contracts for years and finally landed a stable full-time job in NYC. I was receiving a competitive salary doing something I would easily do for free, and I quit after a year — to do it my way.

Teaching and uplifting others, building inclusive and innovative community spaces, and diversifying the technology industry from top to bottom have been personally important to me for over a quarter of my adult life. I’ve spent the last 6 years devotedly working as a software engineer, educator, and entrepreneur with the very personal goal of increasing the representation of Black people in positions of leadership across the tech industry.

Although I grew up around tech: playing video-games, tinkering with toys or my Myspace profile in high school, I never seriously thought about careers in engineering and technology until later in life. My first experience learning to code was in college, where I randomly took Intro to Computer Science to fulfill a general math credit. Funny enough, I could’ve filled that requirement with just about anything but chose CompSci particularly because it was so unfamiliar to me.

I hadn’t expected it but found that my education in engineering enriched my life by equipping me with certain tools and processes I could use to turn my own creative thinking and problem-solving skills into real-world solutions. Learning to create my own logical systems, programs and applications helped me fight off the paralyzing feeling of grief I felt after the senseless killings of the many innocent Black people initiating the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.

While American society-at-large was reminding Black people of its unwillingness to remove the racism embedded in its code, I was learning that refactoring broken, the old, or inefficient code to build smarter systems of our own is the key to being a successful engineer.

The feeling of empowerment this knowledge brought me has sustained my passion for my creative work over the years and is the guiding force behind my desire to educate my community in technology by any means necessary.

Being Black in tech means dealing with having less than 1% Black faculty and student body in Comp Sci classes at many major institutions, facing discriminatory biases ingrained in many technology companies’ hiring processes, and fighting the wage-based discrimination that happens more frequently to folks of color hoping to rise in the ranks at creative agencies, nonprofit organizations and larger companies. Working to overcome these institutional challenges has made me a more informed engineer and educator while outlining many areas where the tech sector is failing diverse candidates.

For the last three years, I’ve worked as an instructor, mentor, and manager for nearly 400 talented engineers coming from some of the most diverse backgrounds and communities in the country. I’ve always found my job as an educator to be an important and rewarding one because my approach to teaching is fundamentally rooted in radical love, non-hierarchical thinking and the active practice of community building and inclusivity. As an educator, I’ve been able to empower more people of color, women and queer folk interested in careers in technology to find success in an industry that is lacking truly inclusive work environments for people of all backgrounds. Through my work in different capacities, many of my students have been offered jobs at major companies like IBM, Microsoft, Spotify, and Infor to name a few. I’ve helped many deserving people achieve upward mobility and transform their family’s lives through their work in the tech sector.

Some of my students from a program I led at Infor HQ in New York

Before taking my last job, at a non-profit tech-ed organization in New York, I had committed to working as a freelancer and entrepreneur until I identified companies with a mission similar in integrity to mine. I’ve learned, however, that few organizations can truly commit to working toward institutional change because its complexity often competes with other business goals.

While many organizations are claiming their commitment to increasing diversity and inclusion in different sectors, few are able to have the tough conversations and prioritize the challenging work of dismantling institutionalized racism and classism necessary to evoke systematic social change.

As one might imagine, working in companies as an individual concerned with making a veritable social impact can become difficult. You are consistently trying to identify and fill gaps that others may not see as priorities. I wore many different hats at my last job all in the interest of continuing to make an impact for my diverse students who were facing institutional barriers to their success every step of the way. Starting as a Mobile Software Instructor and moving into a role in Engineering Management, I often found myself creating external partnerships and having to work with my students on my off time. Doing all of this work led me to realize several things. The pipeline issue often cited in the tech industry was nothing that genuine conversations, innovative educational practices, and solid community partnerships couldn’t fix. That work, however, is impossible to sustain without broad organizational support.

In the interest of making a real impact for my students, I was doing work that was undervalued by many of my managers who were not from the same diverse backgrounds as our students and myself. While their concerns, like many other businesses, centered around satisfying their investors and fundraising goals, my thoughts consistently centered around empowering our students. Many spaces are ill-equipped to create the organizational cultures that lead to sustainable community development because they do not actively collaborate with the people they are serving. My approach to teaching and engineering management, however, starts with the fundamental premise that everyone in the group is their own expert and is a co-creator of the educational space we share. My pedagogical style prioritizes the development of a growth-mindset and critical consciousness in all of my students. It is this culturally responsive and human-centered approach that has allowed me and many of my students to succeed beyond the classroom.

Though I was getting paid a pretty penny to be doing my work, I found myself having to do two significant educating roles: the first for my actual students and the second for an organization that needed to understand a whole lot more about institutionalized racism & classism in the workplace. At a certain point, my management’s desire to preserve business-as-usual operations came at odds with the support many of their former students were needing from me. Being caught in the middle of this human, business, and moral dilemma got me thinking. Instead of doing the laborious and exhausting work of trying to “add new code” to established systems, perhaps it would be more efficient to build a new system altogether alongside my community.

It was this thinking that led me to resign and start Floreo Labs alongside my brother, and fellow creative-technologist Kheperah Ray.

Our mission within Floreo Labs is to increase the number of diverse people emerging as leaders in creative-technology careers around the world. Our organization has developed inclusive and culturally-competent educational programs designed to source, train, and empower more technologists from diverse communities. The word “floreo” comes from the Latin verb “flor” meaning to flourish. Our goal as an organization is to create a culturally-responsive space of learning and product development for people of all backgrounds to flourish under. As the Co-Founder and acting CEO of the Lab, my goal is to turn our innovative idea for this new space of tech education and workforce development into a sustainable reality for myself and others.

It is my belief that the design and structure of our Lab will challenge the traditionally corporatized ways many spaces of education are set up, which hinders the development of diverse learners. For years, I’ve grappled with many challenges as an independent engineer looking for further opportunities to learn and grow in my career. Whether through bootcamps, online classes, further schooling, or work-related opportunities, I have consistently sought after continued professional development but have yet to find a space that allowed me to do so from a truly culturally-competent position. Instead of leaving diversity and inclusion as an after-thought, we are fundamentally making it the focus and foundation of our business in the Lab. We are training diverse teams of engineers, designers, managers, and educators and connecting the dots in the industry to provide the access and opportunity necessary for these folks and others to flourish in their tech journey.

While the “code” we are creating to sustain this mission may encounter some bugs and errors along the way, I won’t settle for complacency and stubbornness in addressing institutional change. My business priorities are centered around ensuring that we provide transformative and culturally-responsive education in technology to the many underserved communities of people across the world. As the Lab’s lead architect, I will remain keen on refactoring our operations to build a more inclusive space of learning for every member of our growing community.