Let’s be clear about a few things up front. If you’re going to one of the HERE Seattle meetups, don’t count on ping pong. Same goes for anything Pokemon. And you may want to check the backpack and Zuckerberg-inspired casual hoodie at the door.
Step inside a HERE Seattle gathering, and you can expect a little extra attention to hospitality — most likely someone will greet you at the door and get some introductions flowing. Chances are, the attire might be a little sharper, a bit more buttoned down. And instead of a sea of predominantly white, mainly male and generally 20-to-30-something-year-old faces, the room will be a broad mix of people of different colors hailing from across the country.
HERE Seattle is offering an alternative outlet to those seeking more diversity in the tech social scene. They welcome the refugees of what has become the stereotypical tech culture, those left shivering in the Northwest’s “Seattle chill.”
Before helping co-found HERE, Eric Osborne, director of business development at tech recruiting firm Vitamin T, recalled going to events such as pub crawls organized by local tech groups and feeling somewhat disconnected.
“There was literally only one other black person on the crawl,” Osborne said.
He met Seth Stell, a co-founder and president of HERE, at a conference and they hit it off, connecting over their shared race and sense of being Seattle-outsiders. Stell began working on the idea of creating a social networking group that would appeal to minorities in the field. They pulled in two other friends, and the four of them — all Seattle transplants working in tech, all African American men — decided to test a hypothesis. They wondered if there were others like themselves, tech employees who were hungry for a different social vibe.
Their first meetup in March 2014 drew 16 men. By the time the holidays rolled around at the end of the year, 65 people showed up for a party. Then HERE got some news coverage, and word began to spread.
Now the nonprofit organization has close to 800 members, more than half of whom are women, and it’s a racially diverse crowd that also includes members of the LGBT community. HERE holds monthly meet ups and other social events. They’re building corporate partnerships, helping advise software companies eager to create more inclusive cultures and are viewed by some as a resource for recruiting a more racially-diverse workforce in the region. The group is also working to bolster its mentoring outreach and other charitable efforts.
The founders are emphatic that their goal is to include anyone in the technology industry who is looking for community.
“We’re celebrating diversity as a whole,” said Stell. “It’s not just a racial thing. It is the feeling of exclusion that really drives our conversations. People walk through our door because something in their personal or professional life is missing, and they’re looking to find it.”
Jacinda Chislum, a senior HR manager at Microsoft, said the group is resonating with people there.
Many of the racially and ethnically diverse employees at the Redmond-based company come from outside of the Northwest, she said. And while Microsoft has internal organizations helping a variety of minority groups connect and network, she was looking for opportunities to support employees socially, outside of work.
“At first we thought, ‘We’ve got to create this community ourselves,’” she said. Then they discovered HERE in January 2015. “We read through their mission statement and were like, ‘My gosh, this is completely aligned.’”
Now Microsoft is a corporate sponsor for HERE and has helped host some of their events.
Sarah Bird, CEO of the online-marketing company Moz, agreed with Chislum. “Many people of color in the tech industry are from somewhere else,” she said. “They bring a Midwest friendliness and an East Coast openness.” They can be left wondering, “How do you incorporate yourself into this culture of the nerdy, introverted Pacific Northwest?”
There are other efforts in the area to support black tech workers and other minorities in the field. That includes Black Dot, a startup in Seattle’s Central District that’s working to encourage black entrepreneurs.
Bird said that her company is eager to build a more diverse workforce because having a multitude of voices and ideas leads to the creation of better products.
Nationally, slightly more than 8 percent of developers and other computer jobs are held by African American employees, according to current data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Close to 7 percent of the sector’s employees are Hispanic or Latino. Roughly 25 percent are women.
When it comes to the dominance of white men in technology, “I don’t know anyone who is satisfied with the status quo,” Bird said.
When Todd Bennings, a HERE co-founder, was relocating from Atlanta to the Northwest with his wife a few years ago, her prospective tech employer took them on a tour of some Seattle neighborhoods. It was a disappointing survey.
“Our home-finding trip didn’t include a place of people who looked like me,” said Bennings, a senior product designer for Starbucks. More diverse communities such as Beacon Hill, Columbia City or the Central District weren’t included on the visit. “It wasn’t a deal breaker, but it’s something you subconsciously think about.”
Stell, an enterprise account executive with Kirkland-based UIEvolution, a software company, said it’s a real challenge for companies to retain a diverse workforce. Employees will take a job, but last only a couple of years and leave when their initial contract is up.
“They’re not driving roots into the ground,” Stell said. He and his HERE co-founders believed they could help change that. “If we could create a community for people in technology from diverse backgrounds, roots will form and relationships will form and it will be much harder to leave.
“It’s harder to leave once you’re leaving faces,” he said.
Another challenge to creating personal connections is the nature of the tech industry. When a team is launching a product, work can become all-consuming and people can disappear from social events for a time.
By belonging to HERE, one can rejoin their friends when the workload eases. “They have a home base and somebody to call and connect with,” said Andre Bearfield, a HERE co-founder and director of product for IBM.
The HERE co-founders said they’re excited to continue growing beyond their role as a social outlet to include more philanthropic programming. They’ve already held successful toy and backpack drives for Treehouse, a local nonprofit supporting foster kids. They’ve also helped members connect with volunteer efforts.
The group would like to be a resource and provide speakers for organizations working with minority kids to get them interested in STEM subjects.
The kids “are seeing people who don’t look like them, talking to them about working in this industry,” said co-founder Osborne. If the minority kids get this message from an adult they can identify with, it can be more powerful.
Thanks to their success, the HERE founders have heard from folks in other tech-heavy cities who would like to start something similar. They’re talking with people in Portland, and have been asked about creating sister organizations in San Francisco and beyond.
However it takes shape, the goal would be for each chapter to reflect the local community.
For HERE Seattle, “we want it to have a quintessentially Northwest feel,” said Bennings. “We’re not trying to make it Texas or whatever. We want it to be something that is great for this city and maybe can exist in other cities in different forms.”