Diversity in tech: Meet the Miami founder ‘ridding black communities of innovation deserts’
rom building a scholarship service in college to running a gourmet popsicle company with a social purpose, Felecia Hatcher’s entrepreneurial journey has been anything but ordinary. Now she is at the forefront of a local South Florida movement to bring diversity into tech, an industry notorious for its homogeneity.
For Felecia Hatcher, the lack of diversity in the tech industry is an issue that is often neglected. That’s why much of her career has been dedicated to helping the black community better engage with and contribute to their local ecosystems.
As cofounder of BlackTech Week, an annual landmark conference and national tour for black entrepreneurs based in Miami, and Code Fever, a nonprofit coding school for minorities, Felecia has helped to create spaces that increase access for people of color in the tech industry.
We had a long chat with Felecia to discuss her startup journey as well as the challenges of implementing inclusive policies for the black community across the state of Florida.
What was your entrepreneurial path?
Organizations and major companies would hire us to develop scholarship and college-prep training programs for high school students. We worked with individual families as well to help their students find scholarships and get into the college of their choice when their grades weren't that great.
I ran a very short-lived PR company and also worked in marketing for some tech companies like Sony and Nintendo, Wells Fargo, Second Life video games, and McKee Foods, which produces Little Debbie snack cakes, as well as the NBA. Then in 2008 when the economy crashed, I left corporate America for good to start Feverish Pops.
My husband Derick and I ran a gourmet popsicle manufacturing company for seven years here in Miami. We had a bunch of corporate clients, so Google, PayPal, Forever 21, Airbnb, Capitol Records, etc. We’d manufacture gourmet ice pops for them and ran a store too.
Most of our business centered around private label manufacturing and shipping nationwide. Then we got VC funding to expand what we were doing.
With Feverish, we had a social mission, so a portion of every ice pop we sold went to funding something in the community that we were passionate about.
A lot of it went to creating a program called PopPrenuers where we showed kids how to run their own popsicle business. We tackled youth unemployability with our program from a social standpoint, running it as a part of Feverish for about two or three years.
How did the idea for your company come about?
Diverse ecosystems are really important, so we started doing ecosystem building work specifically around making sure that the black community was fully engaged in everything that was going on in Miami’s innovation economy.
We started off with monthly tech panels, just kinda bringing together diverse people who were working in tech and entrepreneurship in Miami and having conversations about sharing resources and what was going on.
Then we started BlackTech Week to dive deeper into building asset- and talent-filled spaces in black communities by drawing resources, training, networks, funding, and inclusive policies into black communities, so that these communities would be valued as massive assets within the innovation sector.
Whether you’re a young person, a beginning startup founder, someone more established in the tech field as a professional, or someone launching or growing a tech company, the idea was that you could get all the resources you need during that one week and our national tour stops.
So that's what we set out to do. Michael Siebel, the CEO of Y-Combinator and the chief diversity officer for Coca-Cola, and Bobby Seal, one of the founders of the original Black Panther Party, were keynote speakers over the years.
Our work is about ridding black communities of innovation deserts. Black and brown communities are being completely disconnected from the innovation economy and most importantly from the financial benefits.
What early struggles did you have, and how did you overcome them while starting out?
A lot of people did not understand the importance of diversifying startup ecosystems, and that came from both sides: inside the community we serve as well as outside of it. People just did not fully understand that there actually is an issue and a disconnect, and that race is playing a huge role in that.
Black and brown communities are being completely disconnected from the innovation economy and most importantly from the financial benefits.
We have had many amazing partners now – Knight Foundation, Comcast, Ford Foundation, Simkins Family Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – but in the beginning, raising the funding to actually continue to do this work and to transition to doing the work full time, because it just required that, was an issue.
Another was being able to hold more of the organizations committed to supporting the entrepreneur ecosystem in Miami and across the US accountable and making sure that they fully understood that they weren't being diverse or inclusive in their efforts.
It took work to create a lot of content around changing the narrative of where we think innovation happens and who we think is an innovator.
And then there were the everyday challenges of just trying to build an organization internally as well: the funding, developing training and curriculums, putting stakeholders together, building a team – all of that has been a challenge.
What was your biggest mistake?
Let's see, the biggest mistake... there were so many. So many. There were big ones getting Code Fever and BlackTech Week off the ground, not giving ourselves enough time to promote them, especially in year one of the conference. That was a really big one.
It took work to change the narrative of where we think innovation happens and who we think of as an innovator.
Putting together a really good team, a dedicated team, was hard in the very beginning, and so that was something we struggled with getting right. I mean, it's still a struggle. Personality dynamics, getting the culture right, these things are always a struggle, but it was bigger in the early days of just trying to figure out how to make that work.
A Space Called Tribe, our coworking space, took two years to open, so there were a lot of mistakes there too.
What was your best decision?
There are a lot of good ones, too. I think our best decision was starting BlackTech Week. Starting Code Fever was a great decision, but BlackTech Week was the best because it did everything we needed it to do, and it continues to do that.
It’s more than a conference; by bringing people here, whether they were speakers or conference attendees, it allowed us to shine a light on Miami and tell a story of the innovators and opportunities that exist here.
You know that most people just don't think that people work in Miami? There's also a perception that black people don't really exist in Miami which is wild because they represent almost 20 percent of the population here, and that's a problem.
Miami's just deemed as a party city, right? Like, you come to party, you come for vacation, but you don't actually come to work and build companies. And then when you talk about the people who actually work, it’s not a layered story like it should be.
There's also a perception that black people don't really exist in Miami which is wild because they represent almost 20 percent of the population here.
And so the conference, more than being a resource, has also been one of the biggest storytellers of not only the black experience but the unique cultural experience that exists here, with so many cultures coming together: the Latin American culture, the Caribbean culture, White American, Black American; it just all comes together.
And so this, for me, is why that was one of the best decisions. A number of entrepreneurs who have been able to raise money from being a part of BlackTech Week go on to get accepted into Techstars, 500 and other accelerators.
Getting youth exposure to great minds, professionals getting positions with companies, and building startups, all of that has made it the best business.
What do you wish you'd known before you started, and what would you have done differently?
The most honest answer is, if I’d have known how hard and crazy it would be to put on an annual conference and do the work at the magnitude of what we've done, I don't know if I’d have done it. Just to be honest, right?
It’s a lot, and it takes a big emotional and personal toll, even with all the success we've had. It's just kind of the nature of everything that we've done. So if I’d have known that, I may not have continued to go down that road or pursued the idea.
I would also relate that answer to starting Space Called Tribe – the amount of time and work that it took to get the building going, to continue to fill it and support entrepreneurs, and even be in a city that’s so, so underestimated… it's a lot to carry.
What professional advice would you give people in the early stages of starting out?
I saw a meme last week and saved it: it was like, “Your failure to ask for help is a trauma response,” and I can believe that. It's kind of frowned upon to ask for help. It's seen as being weak, and not as being resourceful.
My advice would be to build an advisory board very early. I think so often it's kind of left to nonprofits, startups or companies to put together an advisory board. Because you just need the help. Too often people wait too long to seek out the help they need.
Find out what unique attributes the Miami ecosystem has to offer from the perspective of five locals founders, including Felecia, here.
Main photo: Startup Guide