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BLOG:Universal Mind Takes Part in the 2016 Power Up Tech Fair

Universal Mind Takes Part in the 2016 Power Up Tech Fair

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In January 2015, Forbes reported a startling fact: Grand Rapids, Michigan was the 2nd worst city in the nation, economically, for African Americans. In a city where the streets are visibly pulsing with activity and the downtown is vibrant with economic energy, this came as a wake-up call to many.

Jonathan Jelks and AJ Hills IV, co-founders of The Midwest Tech Project and long time community change-agents, took up the call to arms and began to roll out a plan to change things. Having been exposed to the booming technology sector in Grand Rapids through their work, they both knew there was an opportunity in the city for everyone. But they saw the friction that prevented people from capitalizing on that opportunity too; they saw young African Americans struggling with two primary obstacles:

  1. Knowing where to start.
  2. Gaining access to professionals and mentors.

So in the summer heat of July 2015, Jonathan and AJ brought a handful of local technology businesses together in the Baxter neighborhood of Grand Rapids at the first annual Power Up Technology Fair. The event was focused on connecting “young entrepreneurs, women and minorities with entrepreneurial resources and opportunities.”

Jelks stated:

We wanted to follow-up the wonderful exchange of ideas with actions, starting with connecting neighborhoods most in need of the jobs and businesses of the future.

Universal Mind Takes Part in the Second Annual Power Up Tech Fair

Recently, I had the opportunity to set up a booth at the fair with a spread of Universal Mind materials - field notes, USB drives, project case studies, t-shirts, etc.

I also brought some custom-made pamphlets explaining the basics of the user experience practice, the common roles you might see at a tech agency, what passions and skills people in those roles often have, and how someone who might be interested in getting into one of those roles might get started for free.

The Passion Was Palpable

As the clock turned 6PM, people started to pour in - I’d never seen a floor so packed. People started to approach me and initiate conversation, at first it was the basic stuff: “What do you do?” “Who is Universal Mind?

But I know that high schoolers don’t show up at an educational event, in the early evening, in the middle of the summer unless they are extremely passionate about something, so I dug deeper.

Why did you come to the Power Up Tech Fair?” “What do you get excited about?” “Do you ever think about how the software you use gets made?

The kids opened up. They poured out their dreams and aspirations. They told me their ideas and current tech hobbies they were working on. I could hardly keep conversations going with one before another would cut in.

At one point I had a line of almost 15 people in front of my booth, just waiting to take a peek at the “typical booth paraphernalia” that an average conference-goer might casually view.

Two hours of conversation sped by like it was seconds. I didn’t ever get a break.

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The last bit of the fair was designated to a forum-style Q&A with some local tech leaders up front. The questions were insightful and notably focused on action:

I love the storytelling aspect of gaming, how can I build a game?” “I play on the football team at Ottawa Hills, how do I start building an app to help my coach organize practice?” “How did you figure out how to get paid for the work you do?

A Lack of Diversity Equates to Missed Opportunity

The city of Grand Rapids is at a tipping point, and there is only one direction to go. Our past apathy engaging certain communities has resulted in our city gaining a terrible title as the 2nd worst city economically for African Americans, despite the fact that we are seeing one of the most significant economic booms in the nation presently.

Do we continue on this path? Or do we proactively engage all of our communities, providing a path to everyone to get in on the action?

A lack of diversity at the table results in one-dimensional solutions. We are stronger when all passionate people are allowed at the table, bringing all of their unique perspectives to bear on the solutions we build.