Brandon T. Luong wants D.C. to be on a list of the top five cities for person-of-color techies by the end of 2017.
For the 27-year-old Luong, launching Technicolor DC, an umbrella organization for diversity-in-tech groups, with Sibyl Edwards, is one step in that direction. Much like Edwards, the Northern Virginia native has a track record of bringing together and growing local communities in the tech and startup space — he founded DMV Startup in 2014 to help cultivate the startup community as well as retain and attract local talent, created the Latin@s en Tech and Digital Afrikans groups last year and, as an organizer of DC Tech Meetup, has helped to grow the group to more than 16,700 members.
Born to parents who immigrated from Vietnam, with both sides mixed with Teochew (a Chinese ethnic group), Luong earned a bachelor’s degree in international management at Virginia Commonwealth University and a master’s in international business from the Hult International Business School. Through that program he got to spend some time in New York City, San Francisco and Shanghai.
It wasn’t until he returned to the D.C. area, where he currently lives in Van Ness, that he really started getting more involved in the tech scene. His expertise is in user experience and he’s currently working on GrindHub, a platform that brings together all the cloud-based products that a company uses. He also cofounded creative agency Wetogethr with Edwards.
We chatted with him about organizing technologists of color, “restaurant babies” and his secret dancing talent.
Can you tell me a little about your background and how you started getting involved in fostering diversity in the D.C. tech and startup community?
After I graduated with my bachelor’s, I came back into the area to work at a small IT firm. But when I was here, I just didn’t love it and I felt like it wasn’t for me. So there was some job-hopping here and there. After a while, I decided to go back to school and get my master’s in international business.
After a while, I finally came back into the area and started getting myself situated and familiar with the tech scene. From there, I tried to launch a few products of my own. And one thing I noticed was that there’s a lot of white folk in the tech community, and even though Asians have a stereotype of being in the tech scene, if you actually look at the percentage of the types of people going to these events, getting media coverage or attaining higher positions in companies, it’s very little. I didn’t see much diversity and so I went, “OK, is there anything I could do about it?”
"Men of color can get ignored because there’s the assumption placed on them, like, ‘This whole tech community belongs to you.’ No, it belongs to white folks."
One of the things I could do was help to build the community up. From there, I hoped that just by me doing this stuff we could try and get more people of color into technology. That’s how it all kind of started.
I also realized that there are a lot of cultural organizations but there hasn’t been a real big push for people of color. That’s when Sibyl and I started talking about Technicolor. Originally, I wanted to ping her but she pinged me first so I was like, “OK, I guess you beat me to it.”
Why was it important to find a way to unite people of color? Before Technicolor, did you notice a lack of togetherness or shared goals?
For me, I felt that although there are these other groups, there wasn’t that much visibility to it.
About two years ago, Shana Glenzer and Stephanie Nguyen started DCFemTech and that started a lot of initiatives and more people began talking about getting more women in tech. The problem that I saw with it was that, although it was great and the group did an amazing job bringing more women into technology, I kind of felt a huge cultural gap still there.
Yes, we should have more women in technology, which I am clearly for; however, I saw a lot of white women that were getting recognition and I was like “How about all the other women that are in the scene? How about the people of color that want to get into this but may not have the connections or knowledge and resources?”
Even with men of color, they can get ignored because there’s the assumption placed on [men], like, ‘This whole tech community belongs to you.’ No, it belongs to white folks.
When creating meetups and groups like Latin@s en Tech and Digital Afrikans, was it difficult at all to start groups for people from cultures you weren’t necessarily a part of? What was the process like for that?
I personally didn’t find it difficult whatsoever because these are the people I hang out with. Not just like, “Oh, I have that one Nigerian friend, that one Brazilian friend.” These are people I hang out with on a pretty regular basis, even before I graduated college.
And as much as I would love to see more Latinos coming out to the Latin@s en Tech community, we also have to make sure we’re bringing outsiders into it — that way they can really be like allies to help push us forward. When you do anything and keep it very singular, people will blow past it.
Something that stuck out to me on your LinkedIn was how you brought over skills from the restaurant industry into the work you do now. Can you talk more about that?
I have this term that I coined, or I think I coined, called “restaurant baby.” A restaurant baby is basically a child whose parents owned a restaurant, and they pretty much lived in the restaurant for years. You know the show Bob’s Burgers? Those kids I would call restaurant babies. So I pretty much grew up in my parents’ restaurant. They worked there for around 16 to 18 hours a day, and I would help out with washing tables, taking orders and doing deliveries.
Funny story: There was this one time my father took my younger brother out on a delivery, and I don’t know what happened but he actually forgot my brother at a customer’s house. It was so funny. That happened to my father twice. With that same brother.
Anyway, one of the things that I’m pushing for at Wetogethr that I took from my time working in a restaurant is customer delight. Our purpose is to make sure our clients’ interactions with their customers are delightful, that they actually enjoy it and come back to that client. Things like customer retention, customer experience and operations — these I learned from my family and the restaurant.
Oh, and another one: how not to lose my cool. Try being a kid and having customers hound down at you as they’re waiting for their order.
Oh yeah, I know all about keeping your cool with crazy customers. I would help out with my mom’s dry cleaning business every summer and people just can’t seem to wait a day to get their clothes back.
So you were a dry cleaner baby?
I guess I was! I can’t wait to start using that to describe myself. Another thing I found out about you is your love for salsa dancing, bachata and music. How did that get started?
I haven’t been dancing too much this past year just because I’ve been grinding. But I’m finally starting to get back into it! Back in college, I was really big into spreading cultural unity among different groups. So I was part of organizing the InterCultural Festival.
It was a day to showcase various cultures around the world, and one of the things I was trying to push was to not just stick to your own silos. I was trying to get a nice little mix going on and that’s how I discovered salsa. I’ve been doing it for around seven years now. So hey, if you’re ever in the D.C. area, give me a holler and we can go.
Any places around the area you recommend someone to visit to get their salsa and bachata fix?
Anything else you’re really into right now?
I would say right now, I’ve been trying to get back into video games on Steam and trying to catch up on games for the PS3 and Xbox 360. And I really want to try and get outside more to take hikes, which Pokémon Go has really enabled me to do.
— Valerie Coffman (vrose.eth) (@valerierose) July 19, 2016
Finally, are there any big goals or missions that you have set up for yourself?
My goal right now would be to get more people of color into technology, really highlight that and have D.C. to be known as a hotspot for minority techies. Just like how we’re number one for women in tech, I want D.C. to be known for its POC tech scene by the end of 2017. At least in the top five cities for POC technologists. Right now, it sounds like everything is finally pushing forward, so we’ll see.-30-