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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Her mission: finding and retaining Black tech workers

Cambridge resident Pariss Chandler is focused on helping employers attract and retain Black workers in tech, via her Black Tech Pipeline website.
Cambridge resident Pariss Chandler is focused on helping employers attract and retain Black workers in tech, via her Black Tech Pipeline website.Nick DeJesus

On a Saturday morning in December 2018, Pariss Chandler posted a short message on Twitter — and followed it up with a photo of herself in the driver’s seat of her car. She had just started a new job as a software developer at Genuine, a Boston digital marketing agency.

“What does Black Twitter in Tech look like?” Chandler asked. “Here, I’ll go first.” Her photo followed, along with her new title.

That single tweet drew reaction from around the world: Kentucky, Michigan, California, Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria. Some of those responding had been working in the technology industry for decades; others were asking questions about the best schools for learning how to code, or how to find a mentor.

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The original tweet has more than 4,500 comments and shares, and it led Chandler, who lives in Cambridge, into an unexpected role as a catalyst helping to elevate the profile of Black people working in the tech industry, and to draw more of them into it.

In many smaller tech companies, it can be tough to find a single Black employee, but at larger companies that have more developed human resources departments, and more established diversity initiatives, the numbers seem to be trending upward — slowly.

A report published by the Massachusetts Tech Leadership Council earlier this year said Black employment in technology roles had risen from about 3,942 people in 2015 (or 3 percent of the industry’s employee base in the state) to 7,541 in 2018 (5 percent).

A similarly slow rise is happening nationally — from 7 percent in 2010 to 9 percent in 2019 — and at individual companies that voluntarily release diversity data. At Boston-based ezCater, which operates a food-ordering website for group meals, Black employees accounted for 2 percent of the workforce in 2016 and 4 percent in 2018.

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Chandler says her initial objective was simply to spotlight Black people already working in the tech industry. She had only recently entered it herself, having been through a four-month Web development boot camp organized by Resilient Coders, a Cambridge nonprofit. But shining a spotlight on Black people in tech quickly turned into helping employers attract and retain them.

“I started getting lots of direct messages on Twitter from people who wanted to know, ‘Can you recruit for us, because we have a diversity problem,’ ” Chandler says. “Even though I didn’t have experience, I just said yes, because it seemed like an amazing opportunity to get more people who look like me into this industry.”

After she started doing some informal matchmaking between workers and employers, she noticed there was sometimes a retention problem. Some new hires didn’t find the culture of the hiring company welcoming. So Chandler began to offer diversity, equity, and inclusion consultations to employers.

“I’m the middle-woman outside the company,” she says. “I’m working in the candidate’s interest, not to protect the company.”

She can relay feedback from new hires to company HR reps to help them understand “how do we solve problems and resolve biases,” she says. “Some companies love the feedback, and they want to work to get better. Others are difficult, and there are excuses why they can’t fix current processes.”

Chandler says she often opts to stop working with companies in the latter category.

Chandler’s 2018 tweet developed into a website, an e-mail newsletter, and a business called #BlackTechPipeline. (She was initially working with companies pro bono, but later started charging fees.) The newsletter generously gives visibility and links to other diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants. Chandler has balanced #BlackTechPipeline with a full-time job, and it hasn’t always been easy. In April 2019, she quit the job at Genuine after five months “because of how overwhelming it became.” She now works for a Florida company, G2i.

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“I’m working all the time, pretty much,” Chandler says, in addition to home-schooling her 7-year old son. But “this has always been my passion,” she says, noting that she grew up in a Cambridge household in which issues of bias and racial equity were always part of the conversation.

The next stage for #BlackTechPipeline is a job-postings board, which Chandler hopes to launch sometime in July. In addition to job listings, each employer will have a profile page that can showcase “an in-depth, transparent description of what it’s like to work at that company, with photos of the team,” Chandler says, and details on the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

David Delmar Senties, executive director of Resilient Coders, calls Chandler “a huge presence in our alumni community.” One of the central accomplishments of her Twitter activity, he says, is that “it’s tearing away the idea that Black tech talent just doesn’t exist out there, which is a prevailing sentiment that we have to contend with.”

Chandler says the work she has been doing has been focused on Black workers in tech nationally and internationally, and that she has only just begun to get connected to local organizations such as the New England Venture Capital Association, which runs a coaching and internship program for minorities called Hack Diversity. Both Tom Hopcroft, CEO of the Mass Technology Leadership Council, and Chris Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, say they haven’t yet met Chandler or heard about her efforts.

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“I am like this lone little planet out there — with friends,” Chandler says.

It’s a positive sign that Boston has a cluster of nonprofits, for-profits, and trade groups working to gather data, create opportunities, and ultimately increase the percentage of Black workers in the tech industry’s workforce.

Chandler’s #BlackTechPipeline is one of the newer entrants in that cluster; the Massachusetts High Technology Council, founded in 1977, plans to introduce a new diversity initiative Thursday. But we need more connections and collaboration between these entities, so that they’re amplifying — rather than duplicating — each others’ efforts, and sustaining the focus on this issue over time.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.