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Arif Gürsel, third from the left, was so struck by the lack of black engineers at the Amazon’s AWS re:Invent conference in 2017 that he printed up postcards at a nearby Staples reading “Join the Black Tech Union.” When he ran into other black engineers, he handed them out and organized a meetup with those who were interested. (Photo courtesy of Arif Gürsel)

The event was Amazon’s AWS re:Invent conference last November and the hall was packed. Yet Arif Gürsel felt isolated.

“I was sitting in this conference center and 50,000 people are here and I can’t even see black people,” Gürsel said. “I’m sitting here going, ‘Where are all the black engineers?’

“Then I would see one across the room and I would wave,” he said. “Sometimes they would look at you weird, and they’d be like, ‘Do I know you?’ And it’s like, ‘No, man, it’s just good to see you.’”

Taken from one angle, the engineering crowd in Vegas is Gürsel’s people. Thirty-eight-year-old Gürsel worked almost 12 years at Microsoft, had a stint at Zillow, and created and sold his own tech startup called Vibeheavy. He has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Tuskegee University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He’s as legit an engineer as anyone in the room.

But that pervasive feeling of being alone, the lack of opportunity for aspiring black technologists and a broader disgust with discrimination and violence against black Americans pushed Gürsel to the edge. He knew that he had to do more than rant about his frustration on social media. He had to take action.

On June 19, Gürsel is celebrating the launch of the Pan African Center for Empowerment, or PACE, in downtown Seattle. The kickoff coincides with the Juneteenth holiday honoring the 1865 emancipation of U.S. slaves.

The innovative project is designed to support people who are Pan African, which means of African descent, and is focused on the fields encompassed by STEAM. Always forging a new way, Gürsel has redefined the acronym as science, technology, entrepreneurship, arts and media, swapping out the conventional and arguably redundant “E” for engineering and “M” for math. He likes the emphasis on entrepreneurship, which he says resonates for his community.

Arif Gürsel hopes that PACE and the Black Tech Union can help black engineers network and support each other. (Photo courtesy of Arif Gürsel)

PACE is simultaneously focused on finite, concrete initiatives to benefit the black community while embracing an expansive vision that includes usurping historic — and what Gürsel calls antiquated —  institutions like the NAACP and United Negro College Fund whose missions, he says, are not staying relevant.

“You don’t evolve, you get disrupted by the newcomers,” Gürsel said. “We’re the newcomers that are going to disrupt the social justice for the black communities. Is it going to be easy for us? No, because the dollars and the supporters are already targeting the larger organizations, the older organizations.”

Creating a Pan-African ecosystem

PACE is a nonprofit umbrella that encompasses a multitude of startup-like ventures in the early phases of development. That includes the Koya Academy, a free, coding boot camp; Black Tech Union, an organization helping black tech workers network; and arts and media-related projects called Solo Magic and Talented Xth.

The group’s physical realm is called the Union in a nod to student unions, particularly those at historically black universities. It’s a 2,000-square-feet space on 2nd Avenue in the heart of downtown, just south of the Seattle Art Museum and Benaroya Hall. It has co-working space and room for boot camp classes. In the evening, Gürsel plans to host events, including tech speakers, networking happy hours and art exhibitions.

Arif Gürsel in the Union, a space opening this month in downtown Seattle that will be available for co-working, events and tech training, all in service of people African descent. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

PACE is deliberately targeting people who are descendants of Africans as opposed to efforts broadly aimed at boosting diversity, which often means women in tech or encompasses groups that are U.S. minorities, such as Asian and East Indian, but who struggle less with underrepresentation in technology.

While African Americans and blacks make up about 12 percent of the workforce, they hold only 8 percent of computer and technology jobs, according to a GeekWire analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for last year. And that percentage has slipped over time, says the Brookings Institution.

“I’m being very specific about who I am intentionally trying to serve as part of the mission,” Gürsel said. “I want to help people who look like me, who are going to face the biases I face, who are going to walk the road that I’m going to walk.”

A boot camp with role models

The effort to build PACE began taking shape about four years ago. The tipping point for Gürsel was the numerous shootings of African Americans by police officers, looping endlessly on social media. He wanted to drive a positive change for his community.

Gürsel had taken boot camp classes himself, but worried that the programs didn’t go deep enough into topics to help people new to the field get good jobs. He saw a lack of networking opportunities for black students. And for-profit programs were out of reach for many, costing thousands of dollars and held during work hours.

So he started his own boot camp in partnership with a San Francisco-based program. The first session began in January 2017, ran about six months and included web development, coding in Java, user-interface (UI) engineering, design and wireframing.

Alsidneio Bell was one of the first students to attend a tech boot camp specifically targeting black students and now works for the startup Maven. Bell did the training while still working full time at Boeing, putting a lot of parenting responsibilities on his wife. She was frustrated some of the time, but has since come around. “She’s definitely loving it now that I’m in the field,” Bell said. (Photo courtesy of Alsidneio Bell)

Alsidneio Bell was part of that first cohort. Originally from Oakland, Calif., Bell moved to Everett, north of Seattle, and was working as an electrical engineer on Boeing’s 777 planes. But he became disenchanted with aerospace’s narrow focus.

Bell began teaching himself web development through books and online courses. Then he found a post by Gürsel promoting his boot camp. Bell applied and was accepted. He loved that the program was free and held after work, though driving from Everett made for long days.

“The experience was tough,” Bell said. The students had to complete numerous projects, building websites for themselves and a mock business. Bell appreciated that Gürsel included overarching, computer science concepts in the curriculum, which has helped him pick up other coding languages more quickly. And he liked being in a program serving Pan-African students.

“I’ve run personally into times where my self-confidence is low, “ Bell said. He’s asked himself, “Do I know this stuff? Am I good enough to be an engineer?”

Being among black instructors and peers, in a culture he knew well, put Bell more at ease.

“The space is a lot of people who look like you,” he said. “And there is a language element and slang and shared experiences that come without having to be said or being explained.”

In February, Bell got a job with Seattle’s Maven, a business that operates a digital publishing, advertising and distribution platform.

“It’s a startup so my position is QA (quality assurance), but you wear a lot of hats,” he said. Bell, who has 18-month and 4-year-old kids, likes the work so much that he sometimes loses track of time — at least until he gets a call from home.

“My wife is going bonkers with the kids,” he said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I should leave.’”

About 25 students started the boot camp with Bell, but only six finished. That’s fine by Gürsel, who’s still trying to optimize the experience. He’s broken off from his original partner, and the 2.0 version is an independent organization called the Koya Academy. Classes will be held at the newly opening Union.

Gürsel is eager to reach students outside of the usual pool of candidates, including people who are unemployed or homeless, and kids who strike some as intimidating. “I want the kids whose pants are hanging down,” Gürsel said.

Arif Gürsel and his mom, Gail Boyd. Gürsel’s family is helping him get PACE and his other efforts off the ground. (Photo courtesy of Arif Gürsel)

He’s searching for corporate partners to help cover the costs, and has received support from Microsoft Office 365. He wants to keep classes affordable, maybe offering tuition based on a sliding scale, or asking people to pay small amounts out of their paychecks once they get a job. Gürsel is also looking to move away from a cohort structure so students can start on their schedule and do more work remotely.

“Koya does a very good job of solving a particular problem that is not really talked about,” Bell said.  “The tech industry is a very lucrative industry, but it’s very hard to get into. You have to have money to get into this industry. With Koya being free, you destroy that barrier.”

Gürsel himself taught a lot of the boot camp classes to save money. He’s looking for volunteers to help, though he’s committed to making sure it’s black tech experts running the classes, acting as role models to the students. Gürsel welcomes non-black technologists to participate in other ways.

‘You’ve got this’

As PACE and Koya are taking root, it’s a lean, largely family-supported affair. Sederia Gray is PACE’s publicist and Gürsel is looking to hire someone for fundraising and development. His partner, dancer and choreographer Jade Solomon-Curtis, is working on the arts piece. His parents, attorney Gail Boyd and Walter Beach, are the consulting arm of the organization. Their work has included creating diversity and inclusion training models, which help fund other efforts.

Even as PACE is getting established in Seattle, Gürsel is seeding projects nationally and beyond. He would like to have Black Tech Union chapters in New Orleans, New York, the Bay area and Washington, D.C. He looks at the black employee networks at companies like Microsoft and Amazon and imagines having a neutral, non-corporate liaison bring them together for a bigger mission.

“There is no Switzerland of these groups,” Gürsel said. Maybe his efforts could help in that role.

He acknowledges other Seattle-based groups working to promote Pan-African tech workers and entrepreneurs; he sees their efforts as complementary and not redundant. That includes HERE Seattle, which supports diversity in tech more broadly and hosts social, networking events, and Black Dot, a group focused on promoting African American entrepreneurs, particularly in Seattle’s Central District, a historically black neighborhood.

Bell plans to stay connected to PACE, using it both as a resource and hopefully play a role in nurturing that next generation.

“In my own life, I’m new up here and don’t have much family up here,” he said. “I’m trying to build a network and community out here, and if I can do that professionally, that’s awesome.”

It’s impossible to predict if and how all of PACE’s bold endeavors will play out. And it might be easier to grow this sort of cultural connectivity in an area with a larger black community. Only 7 percent of Seattle residents identify as black or African American, and a roughly equal percent are mixed race. But Gürsel is eager to create an ecosystem that will foster the area’s black entrepreneurs and technologists of tomorrow. To do that, he’s calling on local African American leaders to join him and set an example.

“It’s really important for people to see themselves in the process,” Gürsel said. “There’s something about running through something hard, feeling like this isn’t something that’s for you, and you look up and you see someone who reflects you, to tell you, ‘You’ve got this.’”

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