How Blacks in Technology Foundation is ‘stomping the divide’

When Greg Greenlee joined the IT industry in 2008, the lack of representation of Black IT professionals among attendees and speakers at tech conferences and events was readily apparent.

“It wasn’t a thing where I was made to feel out of place or that I did not belong,” Greenlee says, but it did make him wonder why Black technologists were few and far between in these spaces. He came to two conclusions: Black professionals attending these events noticed the lack of representation, discouraging them from returning, and there was a general lack of awareness among Black IT pros about the conferences and events available to them.

Greenlee believed that bringing Black technologists together and raising their awareness about conferences and events would help develop a sense of community and elevate career prospects for Black IT pros. So, he launched a blog to connect with and create a community for Black technologists. That blog quickly grew into Blacks in Technology (BIT) Foundation, a global organization working to “stomp the divide” in the tech industry.

Greg Greenlee, founder, Blacks in Technology Foundation

Greenlee / Blacks in Technology Foundation

“At the time, I thought if we got about 300 to 500 people [in the] community, then that would be successful to me. Obviously, I wasn’t dreaming that it would go up into this international organization. I just wanted a platform where we could come up with a safe space for us to talk about different issues. Whether it’s workplace issues, social justice issues, or talking about engineering, and help each other along with our careers,” says Greenlee.

Today BIT includes a for-profit and a nonprofit side, each of which seeks to break down barriers, create opportunity, and diversify the tech talent pipeline. The multifaceted organization offers support, mentorship, training, upskilling, professional development, networking, conferences, events, and more to Black technologists around the world.

Growing the BIT community

From the outset, Greenlee shared BIT with anyone he met who felt “discouraged about the state of the tech industry.” He reached out to a range of people in the Black IT community, from entry-level professionals to those in the C-suite, spotlighting their work in profile articles and featuring them on his podcast. By boosting representation and creating a space for Black IT professionals to share their stories and experiences, BIT caught on, growing fast by word of mouth and cross-promotion with other DEI-focused blogs.

To further build on his mission, Greenlee partnered with organizations to obtain conference tickets for BIT community members and built relationships with businesses local to each charter BIT launched. By 2018, the foundation started hosting its own conference, BITCON, with corporate sponsors such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. BITCON 2023 will take place in Nashville in September, and the foundation now boasts 70 chapters across more than 20 countries, with 25,000 members, offering direct scholarships and grants as well as programs for career development, resume writing, mentorship, and executive leadership training.

Dennis Schultz, executive director of BIT, says that at its core BIT offers Black technologists an “external support system,” and an external employee resource group (ERG). This is especially important for members working at smaller companies that may not have the same resources and staff size to accommodate wide-scale ERGs and DEI initiatives. For Black tech workers who feel isolated in their companies or their careers, BIT offers a vital community of people who share that unique experience.

Breaking down stereotypes in hiring

One major BIT initiative involves working with companies to help them identify how to restructure traditional recruitment and hiring strategies that often create barriers for candidates from underrepresented groups. As part of this initiative, BIT helps organizations identify where to find qualified candidates, how to create pathways for underrepresented employees, and how to make the necessary changes to their processes to create a more diverse workforce.

Dennis Schultz, executive director, Blacks in Technology Foundation

Schultz / Blacks in Technology Foundation

“Sometimes the perception is that, if you hire diverse candidates, then it’s an affirmative action hire or you’re doing it because you’re trying to increase the diversity numbers, but not necessarily because this person is qualified for the role,” says Schultz. To combat this stereotype, BIT helps organizations understand that by changing their company culture to attract more diverse candidates, they’re “actually going to increase revenue and profitability,” he says.

Changing the demographics of the IT industry also requires challenging stereotypes long before candidates enter the workforce. Greenlee gives the example of a woman who told him that the coding curriculum she took in college “wasn’t ‘Black people friendly,’” meaning she was made to feel uncomfortable anytime she asked a question or attended a CS course, finding it difficult to learn or receive any real guidance in the courses, he says.

In another example, Greenlee’s family member attended a programming course in high school but was immediately discouraged after being made to feel uncomfortable in an all-white classroom. “He instantly felt like he didn’t belong, and he walked right out, so that type of dynamic happens early, and it permeates throughout the pipeline,” he says.

Schultz had a similar experience himself after transferring high schools. He signed up for a physics course, a credit he needed to get into Virginia Tech University. But after enrolling in the course, the teacher told him he wasn’t “Virginia Tech material.” Although Schultz says it is “daunting” to be “confronted with somebody directly, who is hostile to your being or wanting to belong,” he didn’t let that deter him. Today he keeps his Virginia Tech degree mounted on his wall as a reminder that he was Virginia Tech material after all.

With experiences like these being commonplace, it’s little wonder why young Black students often feel discouraged from considering a career in IT. That’s why BIT is passionate not just about helping IT pros who are already in the industry, but also about breaking down degree barriers to help pave the way for qualified individuals to create a career in tech through training, development, and upskilling programs without investing in a costly four-year degree.

Programs offered through BIT

BIT understands there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for Black technologists to establish themselves in the IT industry, offering a range of programs aimed at helping everyone find the right path to the career they want. 

BIT and OneTen, a network for Black talent and employers, partnered with Udacity to offer a scholarship program for business analytics, digital marketing, and front-end web development. Students learn at their own pace and can complete a nanodegree program tailored to help land a high-paying career in tech. BIT members can also learn a range of IT skills, from entry-level to advanced, through programs adjusted to suit their needs and experience. BIT also offers certification courses, including several Google certs, that are covered by full scholarships. Through programs such as these, members gain the skills to land a job or advance their careers.

BIT has also continued its focus on fostering pathways to tech at a young age, including a unique gaming platform called Metarena designed to educate kids about tech career opportunities. They’ve also sponsored the production of the TV series Newark, which focuses on the experiences of black tech founders in northern New Jersey. The concept trailer introduces a cast of characters launching a startup outside of Silicon Valley, in a predominantly white industry. Unique initiatives such as these, in addition to BIT’s more traditional high school and elementary education programs, demonstrate BIT’s dedication to empowering Black youth to embrace tech careers.

BIT also hosts a startup pre-accelerator program in partnership with the Kukua Institute. The program helps startup founders gain the necessary training to create scalable business models, gain mentorship, and connect with other founders and funding opportunities. BIT also enables corporate sponsors opportunities to connect with Black tech talent, identify new talent pipelines, and host career fairs to interact with talent directly.

Mentorship as a cornerstone to success

For Black IT pros, finding mentorship or sponsorship opportunities in the workplace can be challenging. In navigating non-diverse workplaces, underrepresented workers often feel reluctant to ask certain questions or unable to bring their authentic selves to work. Through BIT, Black tech workers can find mentorship opportunities with other people who have had similar experiences, and who understand the nuances to being a Black professional in IT.

Dr. Gregory Thomas, PMP and executive chairman, Roostech

Thomas / Roostech

Dr. Gregory Thomas, PMP and executive chairman of Roostech, joined BIT late last year. He began his IT career in the late 90s, and when he first started applying to IT jobs at Fortune 100 companies, he “kept being told, ‘You’re overqualified,’ or ‘You’d be bored,’” he says, sometimes not even receiving a reply after an interview.

“Only years later would articles and studies be published confirming that what I and many others had experienced was the racist wall that keeps many Blacks out of IT roles in high-profile companies,” says Thomas.

Now he is part of BIT to help “pay it forward,” by helping and mentoring others to find their dream job in the tech industry and to make connections to help serve them in their careers.

“It is important to me at this stage in my career that I focus my attention on helping as many Blacks succeed in IT as possible, both at home and abroad. With BIT, for the first time in my career, I am meeting qualified Blacks at all levels of IT, and I want to help as many of them as possible since mentors were few and far in between when I began my career nearly 30 years ago,” says Thomas.

BIT’s Converged mentorship program matches up career professionals in six-month cohorts to learn from professionals higher up on the corporate ladder. For example, a junior engineer might be paired with a senior engineer. The goal is for mentors and mentees to build a long-term relationship, but participants also have the option to switch up partnerships if they don’t feel it will work out long term.

BIT’s Global Mentorship Initiative pairs college students with early career professionals who can helps students learn how to get into the tech industry. For Black college students looking to enter IT, having mentorship through BIT can break down barriers. Through these relationships, students are paired with someone they can relate to, enabling them to have candid conversations about what it’s really like to work in the industry, what to expect, and how to navigate everything from typical to potentially difficult situations in a corporate environment.

Odie Martez Gray, president, Diversity Cyber Council

Gray / Diversity Cyber Council

BIT member Odie Martez Gray found the organization while searching for communities that promote career equity to people of color and women in the tech industry. BIT has provided Gray, who is president of Diversity Cyber Council, with a sense of community, and he has received mentorship, career advocacy, and strategic partnerships for his business to grow long-term viability.

“Lack of representation and advocacy for the Black community in tech has led to limited hiring and promotion opportunities despite being objectively qualified,” Gray says. “Additionally, Black professionals continue to withhold experiences of discrimination, bias, and a toxic work environment in order to sustain their careers. We sacrifice so much for the comfort of others that rarely make concessions for our presence let alone identity, it is more than welcome to have an organization like BIT take the helm in providing proper support to those that need it the most.”

Careers, Diversity and Inclusion, IT Training , Mentoring