By Javacia Harris Bowser
For the Birmingham Times
When Niesha White moved to Birmingham seven years ago to pursue a career in technology, the Dothan, Alabama, native surveyed the local tech scene and noticed that something was missing — people who looked like her.
“With me being a transplant to Birmingham, it was hard to know what was going on and who to connect with,” White said.
She visited Meetup.com in search of a group for Black Birmingham residents interested in technology, but she couldn’t find one. So, in January 2020, she decided to form her own.
White, 29, is the founder of Birmingham Black Techies (BBT), a community for people who want to get advice and share knowledge and resources about all things tech — and make new friends along the way.
BBT welcomes all levels of tech interest and experience, ranging from coders, designers, and tech gear gurus to videographers, digital marketers, and gamers. Podcasters and YouTubers are just as welcome as data scientists and cybersecurity analysts.
After a few in-person meetups in early 2020, the group had to shift quickly to become a virtual community due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But this only helped BBT grow. Currently, the group has 300 members on Meetup.com and more than 1,300 followers on Instagram.
“Since people can’t go out, they’re trying to find more ways to network online,” White said. “It can be really hard to network online, it’s awkward. I think people like having this virtual community because it does the hard part for them.”
At monthly meetings and through the group’s online forums via Slack, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, members of BBT can get their tech questions answered, learn about various careers in tech, and keep up with Birmingham’s tech scene. But White also wants members to have a good time. The group has hosted Netflix parties, online game nights, and more.
Black Techies Are Taking Over
In early February, the group hosted Black Tech Takeover, a free three-day virtual conference for tech lovers in Birmingham and beyond.
“We wanted to not just connect with other Black technologists but also connect with other organizations and companies that want to support our mission,” White said, adding that the group’s mission is twofold.
First and foremost, White wants Black techies to be exposed to and explore career opportunities beyond coding.
“We had lots of different panels where people talked about tech careers you might not have heard of or thought about,” White explained.
But having fun is also one of BBT’s core values.
“We wanted to make the digital conference a fun experience and something that wouldn’t feel like you were at work,” White said of the Black Tech Takeover event, which included a DJ and lively interaction in the online chat room.
The virtual gathering, which was sponsored by the delivery service Shipt, was a hit with more than 1,000 participants.
“It was successful because we incorporated Black culture and tech in a creative way and attendees were able to virtually connect with each other,” White said.
Kellie Clark, director of programs at downtown Birmingham’s Innovation Depot, is an adviser for BBT and helped organize Black Tech Takeover. She’s also most proud of how the event celebrated Black culture while also exploring opportunities in tech.
“We are often expected to leave our culture at the door, especially in an industry as homogenous as tech,” Clark said. “What I’m most proud of is that we didn’t have to sacrifice our culture. Blackness, excellence, and professionalism intersected during Black Tech Takeover. They aren’t mutually exclusive, and our event demonstrated that.”
Long-Time Tech Lover
White has been a techie for as long as she can remember. Growing up, she loved playing video games, and spending time in the computer lab at Abbeville Elementary School was always the highlight of her day.
“Later, I become obsessed with Myspace and customizing layouts,” she said. “Design sparked my interest in coding, and the way tech is always changing keeps me wanting to learn more.”
White’s father is the pastor of Clio Community Church in Clio, Alabama, and her mother is a digital content creator, but they both wanted their daughter to find her own passion.
“My parents were supportive of whatever path I chose,” said White, who is the only one of her eight siblings working in tech.
In a way, her parents helped inspire BBT: “They both taught me the importance of community,” White said.
After graduating from Dothan High School, White went on to major in computer science at Troy University, where she learned coding. After college she landed a job as a front-end web developer for Alltech IT Solutions.
Today, White oversees the design of digital products for Ed Farm, a local education initiative focused on using technology to develop innovative learning strategies in order to increase educational equity, improve learning outcomes, and better prepare the future workforce.
“I enjoy creating and building things,” White said. “I love my job because it brings the creative side of tech, and it’s a space where I get to think about people and design something that’s user-friendly and looks appealing.”
Derrick Strong, the assistant meetup organizer for BBT, believes White’s passion for technology makes her a great leader.
“She is committed to raising awareness of all the amazing Black tech talent here in Birmingham and other cities,” said Strong, who’s a digital developer. “She is always open to ideas of broadening the space in which all Birmingham Black techies can succeed.”
Clark considers herself a “huge fan” of White.
“She is strategic and has vision, but more than that she has a passion for democratizing technology,” Clark said.
And Strong believes White is filling a void that Black techies in Birmingham have felt for years.
“Birmingham needs a group like [BBT] because the city and its tech community are steadily growing, and a lot of the growth is coming from the Black community,” said Strong, who was eager to be a part of the group not only to help stage networking events and create a welcoming space for others to explore tech but also “to challenge the community to see Black tech professionals as an essential part of the tech ecosystem in and around the city.”
Committed to Diversity
White is determined to make Birmingham’s tech scene as diverse as she thought it was when she first arrived in the Magic City. She believes any company that values progress and profits should be onboard with this mission, too.
“Lots of studies show that companies that are diverse make more money, but, really, I think [diversity] is a necessity for any company trying to be innovative and accessible,” she said. “You’ve got to have a diverse team.”
Diversity matters because representation matters.
“Technology is one of those things that’s going to touch everybody at some point in their lives, so in order to make sure we’re creating technology that everybody can interact with, we have to make sure everyone is represented,” White said. “To have products that are accessible and inclusive, you have to have a diverse group of people working on things.”
And for White diversity goes beyond race.
“That includes Black people, that includes women, that includes people of different age groups and people with disabilities,” she said.
This year, White wants the BBT website to become a go-to online hub for anyone seeking information about Birmingham’s tech scene. Her other goal for 2021 is to build relationships with more companies and organizations that share the values of the group and want to support working and aspiring Black techies in Birmingham.
“I want Black people to know that we have a place in tech, and I especially want Black women to see that we can dominate this field,” she said. “I hope to empower people to embrace their inner techie.”
For more about Birmingham Black Techies, visit birminghamblacktechies.com.