(Photo by Juliana Reyes)
As the Philly tech scene grows and welcomes more into the fold, technologists and entrepreneurs are trying to figure out where they fit.
Kahiga Tiagha wants to create a space for the people of color in the region’s tech scene.
“The young white men [in the tech scene] have organized. The women have organized,” he said. “But no one is really at the table in terms of the minority community.”
That’s why Tiagha, 40, a charismatic, dapper attorney who’s done work in the tech sector locally and abroad, cofounded The ITEM, short for The Inclusive Technology Entrepreneur Movement. The group had its fifth meeting this week at Center City’s Pipeline coworking space. (Pipeline cofounder Tayyib Smith is one of The ITEM’s cofounders.)
Tiagha hopes The ITEM can be a place for entrepreneurs of color to network and find mentors. It joins the two-year-old #TechInColor meetup, which has similar goals.
It comes at a time, Tiagha said, when the city is looking to the tech sector to propel its economy. But there’s a hulking elephant in the room: Philadelphia’s place as the poorest big city in the country. It’s an issue that entrepreneur Jon Gosier has spoken about often. What can the tech scene do to make sure a huge swath of the city isn’t left out of the tech revolution? Tiagha says The ITEM is an effort to answer that big question.
This week’s meeting featured lightning talks from speakers like tech marketing consultant Jumoke Dada, Coded By Kids founder Sylvester Mobley and Mutale Nkonde, the founder of NYC women entrepreneurship org Two Weeks Notice, as well as a conversation between Wilco Electronic Systems’ Brigitte Daniel and Tiagha.
Daniel later told us she believes that a group like The ITEM is important to the city’s tech future.
“It’ll help our tech sector grow,” she said. “The more voices, the better.”
Groups like The ITEM, Daniel said, help entrepreneurs of color feel like they aren’t alone.
Roughly 40 people, most of whom were African-American, packed the most recent meeting. The summer has been slower, Tiagha said, as nearly 100 people attended The ITEM’s second meeting during Philly Tech Week 2015 presented by Comcast.
After the event, attendees flocked to Tiagha, who looked like the picture of summer in white seersucker pants and a loose blazer. He energetically pointed them to people in the room that they should know, making quick introductions right and left. Born in New York, Tiagha grew up in Kenya, Cameroon and Ethiopia and was schooled in England and France. He has a light European accent that’s hard to place. He came to Philadelphia after law school in Washington, D.C., to be closer to his brother, who happened to move away shortly after Tiagha moved here.
“Now I’m stuck in Philadelphia,” he said, grinning.
The West Philly resident said his interest in the tech sector blossomed when he saw its impact on poverty in African countries, where many of his clients do business. He jokingly tries to underplay his day job, as “most people hate talking to lawyers.” (Upon giving us his business card, he instructed us to “please burn it immediately.”)
Who’d we meet at The ITEM? A product designer for K’NEX named LaVonne Strand who was just getting his feet wet in the local tech scene (“I’m nervous,” he said, “do you have any tips?”), FOX 29 staffer Bjorn Henriques, who recently launched CollegeHipHop.com, and mindfulness trainer Due Quach.
It’s exciting to see local technologists of color organize themselves, as we’ve seen the power of the tech scene when it focuses on an issue, like Philly Startup Leaders’ role in launching Nutter’s StartUp PHL initiative, Indy Hall’s strong showing at the public hearings during the Comcast franchise talks and the expansion of Girl Develop It and Code for Philly’s Open Source Mentorship program.