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KELAUNI COOK is the founder and CEO of Black Tech Nation, a new organization helping to connect Black tech professionals in the region. (Photo by Gail Manker)

‘Black Tech Nation’ gaining notoriety

One Google search changed Kelauni Cook’s life.

“Never, like never,” Cook said. “When I tell you I didn’t know what code was, I’d never seen it. I was like, ‘what is this?’”

“I think in life, when you are called to do certain things, you don’t really have a choice.”

Kelauni Cook, founder/CEO of Black Tech Nation

But Cook, who said she was in a transition period professionally in early 2016, decided to take the advice of her sister’s mentor.

That advice? Looking into the tech field as a profession.

So Cook, at the time a substitute high school teacher in Chicago and North Dakota, decided to perform an Internet search for coding programs.

Now, she’s performing speeches all across Pittsburgh as the founder and CEO of Black Tech Nation, an organization dedicated to uniting Black software developers and others in the tech field into one powerful force in this region.

As the champagne flowed during the Black Tech Nation launch party, Jan. 25 at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, Cook addressed the over-100 supporters at the event, outlining her vision—“Gathering” all Black techs into one space; “Connecting” the Black techs with businesses and other organizations; and “Affecting” government policy by providing solid research data about African American tech professionals to city brass.

KELAUNI COOK, left, shares a laugh with one of many supporters at the launch party for “Black Tech Nation,” Jan. 25 at Carnegie Mellon University. (Photos by Gail Manker)

“I want to get as many of us as possible in the same spaces, in the same places, just so we have that network, and people can no longer say, ‘Hey, I can’t find you guys.’ No, there’s 200 of us right here,” Cook told the audience.

Cook, who hasn’t even reached 30 years old, already has the support of veteran city brass, like Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle. “What she’s attempting to do is critical,” he said. “The unfortunate reality is that in the City of Pittsburgh, there is still a huge gap in terms of employment between White Pittsburgh and Black Pittsburgh, in terms of income gaps, etc., and given the presence of tech (here), really embracing African American tech and really funding it in a real way, and having the Allegheny Conference, foundations, even government truly getting behind it, is critical to closing those gaps. We say we want to be a city for all, but we don’t always necessarily put our money behind organizations like this that are actually doing the work that will bridge that gap.”

Cook is not a Pittsburgh native. She told the crowd that April 2016 was when she first descended on the Steel City, to begin a 12-week free coding program through Academy Pittsburgh in Allentown.

Yes, Academy Pittsburgh is what popped up in her Google search of coding programs just weeks prior as she lived temporarily in Minot, North Dakota with her sister.

Josh Lucas, of Academy Pittsburgh, received her phone call, and said there was room for her in the free program. All Cook had to do was get to Pittsburgh.

She got to Pittsburgh, found cousins she never knew she had, and roomed with them until she found an apartment, which she said she found very soon. The next week, it was time for class.

“The most intense thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Cook said.

By July 2016, she was officially a software developer. Cook could make websites, make apps, etc. It was a game-changer, a life-changer. “I went from being a substitute high school teacher to being a software developer, and my very first job was at the Washington Post as a software engineer,” she told supporters. “It literally changed my life.”

Cook actually worked remotely for the Post from her Pittsburgh residence. She could have moved to D.C. to become a full-time employee. But, Pittsburgh stole her heart.

“I got attached,” Cook told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview after the Jan. 25 event. “How nice everyone was, and how accepted I was in the tech industry as a Black female. I never felt like I wasn’t supported here, or like people didn’t want me to be in the room, even with millionaires. I’ve gotten nothing but support from people from the highest economic levels to the lowest. I didn’t know anyone here a year and half ago, and now I’m at CMU, school of computer science, and they are supporting me.”

Carnegie Mellon University got wind of Cook and her mission to create a healthy organization of Pittsburgh-based African Americans in the tech industry, and provided the space inside the Gates Hillman Center on campus for the Jan. 25 affair.

“She’s an amazing, vibrant, intelligent, brilliant person and a visionary on topics that matter to so many people, so we’re excited to help her get her word out,” said Ashley Patton, director of engagement and outreach for CMU’s school of computer science.

Cook is now the assumed leader of Pittsburgh’s organization for Black tech professionals. But she never sought out to be that leader. After deciding to stay in Pittsburgh rather than relocate to Washington D.C., she secured a job at Academy Pittsburgh, creating a coding program for area high school students, called Beta Builders. A self-described people person, Cook also spearheaded a “Where’s Black Tech in Pittsburgh” event at The Shop in Homewood, April 1, 2017. About 80 people attended, from a variety of professional backgrounds.

But then, what was next?

Cook said everyone began looking to her to continue this “movement,” this momentum of unifying the silent sector of Black tech professionals in Pittsburgh.

Thus, “Where’s Black Tech in Pittsburgh” officially became “Black Tech Nation.” Naturally, a website was built for the new organization, then Cook began finding teammates and supporters for the organization, and the word began to spread. Black Tech Nation is very close to becoming an official 501(c)(3) non-profit organization of which financial donations can be accepted. And she told the audience at the launch event that she would not let African Americans in Pittsburgh become a tech “statistic,” that this new organization will only continue to grow and gain more influence on Pittsburgh’s overall tech scene.

“The beauty of Kelauni is, she’s new enough to Pittsburgh, with some fresh ideas, she’s aggressive enough to be willing to ‘cross the aisle’ per se, she’s not jaded enough to say, ‘we can’t be accepted here,’” Councilman Lavelle told the Courier. “She’s determined to make this work, understands the need and is going to help push things forward. I’m glad she’s doing this.”

Cook has gone from 2010 Howard University graduate, to high school substitute teacher, to software developer. And then, the plan was to leave the area. But, Pittsburgh showed her too much love, too much support, and now, she’s the leader of this new movement in her new home away from home.

“Do I have a choice?” she told the Courier when asked about leading a new nation of Black techs. “I think in life, when you are called to do certain things, you don’t really have a choice. I had no plans of ever doing this, but when things line up how they do, you can’t tell the universe no.”

 

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