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Meet Black Tech Saturdays, a convening guided by diverse perspectives and ‘Black joy’

The event, whose Detroit-based organizers see similar tech equity concerns between Motor and Charm Cities, comes to Baltimore on Dec. 2.

"I find, in being Black, a thing of beauty: a joy; a strength; a secret cup of gladness." —Ossie Davis. (Courtesy Black Tech Saturdays)

This editorial article is a part of Leadership Development Month of Technical.ly’s editorial calendar.

Inspired by Baltimore’s tech ecosystem and a locally conceived framework, a Detroit husband and wife duo expanded the scope of their location-agnostic initiative to amplify Black tech representation, foster wealth and cultivate community.

Just after their inaugural Black Tech Saturdays in February, Johnnie and Alexa Turnage attended a breakfast during South by Southwest in Texas. This is where, as Johnnie said on a call with Technical.ly, he and his wife met “people from around the world” who were making “strides” with “equitech”, a term coined by UpSurge Baltimore in 2021.

Two people standing next to each other holding microphones.

(L to R) Alexa and Johnnie Turnage at Black Tech Saturdays Federal Resource Panel. (Courtesy Black Tech Saturdays)

“My background was in grassroots organizing, so [I’m] no stranger to equity,” Johnnie said. “We always work hard to try to bring an equity lens through all the work we did. But it was really when Dug Song and I started getting a lot closer and he mentored me. He’d always tell stories about Baltimore and how equity worked in Baltimore because of just federal dollars and what it did for the community.”

The equitech framework now underpins the goals of Black Tech Saturdays to spread resources and connections, and even provide mental health days for Black founders. However, this wasn’t the Turnages’ initial connection with Baltimore.

Johnnie met Dug Song, a co-chair of Baltimore Homecoming and Cisco Security’s former chief strategy officer, after winning a pitch competition at Michigan Tech Week (MTW). The Song Foundation is a funder of Black Tech Saturdays. But beyond his relationship with Song, Johnnie suggested that Detroit and Baltimore are connected as “sisters”.

“Baltimore and Detroit have a lot of the same problems. We also have a lot of the same opportunities,” Johnnie said. “When you just walk the streets of Baltimore, it reminds me of Detroit, in terms [of] our growth, in terms of how art and culture grow it. But also even down to the fact that Black women are driving a lot of the economic push in Detroit as well. So I’m like, we’re very much in alignment there [in Baltimore]. And I think the cool part about sisters is they know how to solve problems together. Like, they really roll up their sleeves and get it done.”

Despite five regions in Michigan vying for Economic Development Administration Tech Hub status, similar to Pittsburgh, the state was denied the designation. Seemingly undeterred, the Turnages kept up their mission rooted in the belief that Black tech can thrive through a pursuit of “Black joy.” They even demonstrated that with a promotional rap music video.

“It’s [Black joy] the permission and the freedom to do exactly what your dreams are and what you believe in, and using all your creative energy to really create something powerful and impactful,” Alexa said. “And that’s what I think we’re really experiencing with this work.”

After learning about the Turnages through investor Song, Latimer Ventures Managing Director Luke Cooper flew from Baltimore to Detroit in an ice storm, according to Johnnie, to speak at their inaugural event during Black History Month. Now, Cooper is part of a core organizing team helping to bring Black Tech Saturdays to Baltimore. Cooper, knowing about Angel St. Jean’s work for Black founders with Equity Brain Trust (formerly Black Brain Trust), reached out to her to collaborate on bringing the Detroit-based event and its founders to Baltimore on Saturday, Dec. 2.

“I think tech sometimes can be very prescriptive on the way that you get to success,” Cooper said. “The reality is that Black people bring a certain unique characteristic to tech that, you know, makes it better and more palatable for everybody.”

“The same way that we impact just culture in America, whether it’s music, culture, arts, and entertainment or anything else,” he added. “And I think that’s what we want to capture and expand more of in Baltimore.”

A black-and-white image of a group of people laying down on the floor.

Black Tech Saturdays Mental Health Day. (Courtesy Black Tech Saturdays)

Cooper also said that the endeavor to bring Black Tech Saturdays to Baltimore isn’t solely about “marketing or branding” for the city. Instead, as St. Jean noted, the focus is to support the humans behind “those numbers” or data points informed by Black entrepreneurs who want their businesses to succeed.

“As a Black founder, I and others that I spoke to did not feel, do not feel that the ecosystem in Baltimore is currently providing everything that we need to be successful,” she said. “We’re going after it for ourselves. …. So it just made sense for us to work together”.

St. Jean’s own new “Black Founders Table” initiative, which aims to address the challenges and gaps that Black founders in Baltimore face within the entrepreneurial ecosystem, is supported by Harbor Bank. That institution, one of the country’s few Black-owned banks, will serve as a partner for Black Tech Saturdays’ first iteration in Baltimore, which Alexa reiterated could bridge similar energy between Motor City and Charm City.

“This brewing of Black innovation that’s happening in Detroit, I mean, the same energy is happening in Baltimore,” Alexa said. “There’s definitely something simmering where Black founders, [innovators and] ideators are coming together, to share knowledge [and] share resources. It’s showing through all the things that we’ve been able to gather here in Detroit, that it’s working out, and people are seeing so much further, faster, through collaboration.”

RSVP for Black Tech Saturdays in Baltimore

Series: Leadership Development Month 2023
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