PITTSBURGH — Two years ago, Kelauni Cook moved from North Dakota to Pittsburgh chasing an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
Academy Pittsburgh was offering a free, 12-week coding bootcamp designed to get more women and minorities into tech. The former high school substitute teacher fell in love with programming.
But after graduating, Cook observed a problem with tech — one she couldn’t ignore.
“I quickly saw the lack of diversity within tech,” she said. “I started to ask questions and do a little research about it and my role as an advocate for tech diversity took off from there.”
Cook became an instructor for Academy Pittsburgh Beta Builders, a program that teaches coding to high school students, with a focus on girls and minorities. She didn’t stop there.
Last summer, Cook launched Black Tech Nation, an organization that takes a three-pronged approach to improving diversity in tech. First, Black Tech Nation acts as a convener with an email newsletter and events connecting underrepresented people to opportunities in tech. The organization also works with tech companies to help them make their workplaces more inclusive. Finally, Black Tech Nation lobbies local governments on diversity issues.
Pittsburgh is Black Tech Nation’s inaugural chapter. Cook hopes to expand the model to other cities down the road.
GeekWire interviewed Cook for this Pittsburgh Profile, a series of Q&As with some of the most influential people and interesting characters we meet during our month-long “HQ2” project.
Continue reading for Cook’s answers to our questions, and check out all of our Pittsburgh coverage here.
What do you love about Pittsburgh and what would you change?
Cook: What I love about Pittsburgh is just how incredibly friendly people are here. I’d only lived in big cities for the majority of my life (Chicago and DC; LA and NY for a short period). I’d never experienced strangers who were just so willing to help other strangers in those bigger cities. In Pittsburgh, if you need anything, there is someone around every corner who will help you out. What I’d change about Pittsburgh is the clear racial/economic segregation throughout the city. I haven’t been here long, but I’ve heard personal horror stories, specifically from the African American community, about gentrification and being pushed out of their communities. I understand that progress has to happen, but it shouldn’t happen at the cost of others’ livelihoods.
Favorite Pittsburgh spot.
Cook: Market Square in the summer. It’s the best for patio drinks and people watching.
Favorite Pittsburgh celebrity.
Cook: Favorite from the past — August Wilson. Favorite from the present — Mark Cuban.
Best food in Pittsburgh.
Cook: Oxtail Stew from Leon’s Caribbean Restaurant
Best insider tip for transplants.
Cook: If you want to fit in in this town, I suggest you pick a Pittsburgh sports team to love and follow. Your social life depends on it!
Favorite Pittsburgh word or phrase.
Cook: I’ve noticed that people here say “whenever” a lot. They never just say “when.” It’s always “whenever.” For example, “I’ll pick yinz guys up whenever I’m off of work.” I think it’s funny.
Pittsburgh’s most important innovation or invention.
Cook: I’m actually going to say steel. I realize that the steel industry no longer drives this city, however, I think that the steel industry gave this town the backbone it has today. I watch innovators and entrepreneurs turn something out of nothing all of the time in Pittsburgh. There’s a prideful spirit here and I think that’s where it stems from.
How would you describe the tech, innovation and startup activity taking place in Pittsburgh to an outsider who hasn’t experienced it?
Cook: As I stated in my previous answer, there’s a spirit here. People here are extremely driven, despite it being such a small city with fewer resources than your bigger cities. It was actually surprising to me how much actually goes on here. People are always collaborating and sharing ideas, especially in the tech and non-profit spaces. I feel like everyone just really wants to put Pittsburgh on the map in every industry from education and healthcare to tech and food. It’s really cool to watch and I’m happy that I’ve come at just the right time to contribute.
What do you think are the chances of Amazon HQ2 ending up in Pittsburgh?
Cook: Very high. Here’s why: we’re in the perfect location. We’re right in between the Midwest, the South, and the East Coast. We have a top ranked airport, so Amazon will have no issue with travel and shipping. Land and property is super cheap. It’s a city, but it’s not a huge city — I think the intimacy and easy access to resources is appealing. We have top ranked institutions with hungry students graduating from STEM programs every year. And, once again, everyone is just super nice. What’s there not to love?
Can you tell us about any memorable experiences you had in Pittsburgh that illustrate the character and nature of the city and its tech/startup/engineering community?
Cook: We have this city-wide event called “Inclusive Innovation Week” every April where people, organizations, and companies put on events that have something to do with inclusion. I held my first event in April of 2017 called “Where is Black Tech in Pittsburgh?” I expected only 15-20 people to show up, but instead, I had almost 80 attendees from government officials and Fortune 500 companies to black entrepreneurs and tech startup founders. We had a really raw discussion about the inclusion of the African American community in Pittsburgh’s burgeoning tech industry. Just the simple fact that so many people were interested and willing to discuss a difficult topic showed me how willing the city is to fix its past mistakes and become a “city for all.” I’m not saying that things are perfect quite yet, but there’s a willingness, and that’s what excites me.
If you were parachuting into Pittsburgh as a tech/business reporter, what’s the first story you’d want to cover? Who is the first person you’d want to sit down with?
Cook: The first story I would cover is — and I’m being biased — how Pittsburgh plans to go about attracting diverse talent to the city, especially as tech continues to grow like wildfire. I would talk to people of all economic levels and all racial backgrounds to see how people really feel about the diversity of Pittsburgh.
The first person I’d sit down with is Mayor Peduto. I’ve actually had the pleasure of sitting down with him to talk about the issues of diversity in tech in Pittsburgh. However, I’d sit down with him again because he’s just a super cool dude. He’s the kind of mayor you’d just want to go have a beer with.
Any other advice for us as we prepare for GeekWire HQ2 in Pittsburgh?
Cook: Don’t get stuck hiring from the same circles. Branch out and reach out to other communities.
LinkedIn: Kelauni Cook