From Oakland to Milwaukee, Molding Black Youths Into Entrepreneurs

2/11/14Follow @XconomyWI

Even with a flurry of national news coverage, there are some questions about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin that might never be answered. This much is clear: the confrontation that took the Florida teenager’s life was a drawn-out encounter that could have been cut off several times.

If Martin had an easy way to tell someone he was in danger, would it have made a difference?

That was one of the questions that students and adult software programmers and entrepreneurs tried to answer this past weekend at the first Startup Weekend event held in Oakland, CA.

Startup Weekend is the Seattle-based organization that puts on hackathons in cities around the globe, in which groups of entrepreneurs and techies unite to launch startups in just 54 hours.

But the Oakland event featured a more targeted theme: encouraging entrepreneurship among young black men. The idea was to use social entrepreneurship to solve problems around health, education, and incarceration rates in order to help black youths unleash their potential.

After the event, I caught up with Derrick Johnson, a Milwaukeean who flew to Oakland to participate in Startup Weekend. Johnson is founder of Dream MKE, an initiative that aims to support and encourage Milwaukee-area minorities to become tech entrepreneurs.

Johnson primarily participated in the event to learn more about one of its sponsors, the Hidden Genius Project, an Oakland-based nonprofit that is helping prepare young black men for careers in software engineering, user experience design, and tech entrepreneurship. Johnson has had preliminary discussions with Hidden Genius Project about bringing such a program to Milwaukee.

I asked Johnson to share more about his experience at Startup Weekend Oakland. The following is an edited transcript.

Xconomy: What sorts of apps did attendees generate that might have helped someone like Trayvon Martin?

Derrick Johnson: The winning team pitched a concept app. Think of [the U.S. Department of] Homeland Security, with levels of [threat] escalation. The app was built around an idea similar to that. You assign contacts based upon those emergency levels. In [potentially dangerous situations], you can appropriately respond with ease of use, contact your social network so that immediately those people you feel could respond in a timely manner, you could contact instantly.

X: What were some of the other ideas that came out of the weekend?

DJ: The greater portion of the Startup Weekend was around really tackling educational issues, health issues, restorative justice issues. Then they had a sector on gaming. They brought in super mentors from Dropbox, Google, Yahoo. Most of the big organizations came out to support this event. Individuals could pitch ideas within those respective tracks [like education and health].

Derrick Johnson (left) chats with fellow participants at Startup Weekend Oakland. Photo courtesy of Adam Stiles.

Derrick Johnson (left) chats with fellow participants at Startup Weekend Oakland. Photo courtesy of Adam Stiles.

“Connect the Dots” was an idea by a few private school students. Their chief problem was finding other individuals to connect to. They were removed from the African-American community by going to this private institution. They were solving their own problem. … The app was essentially like a social media app, but exclusive for [black private school students]. They coded it and did the [user experience] design themselves.

X: What did your group work on?

DJ: My team did an app called … Next Page »

Jeff Engel is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @XconomyWI

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