There is something to be said about striking out on your own in a field where not too many folks look like you. Some would consider it foolhardy, others may think it brave. But it takes a certain kind of person, one fearless and focused, to make the seemingly impossible possible. Silicon Valley is rife with them, White 20-something wunderkinds changing the world around them while making a mint. Though STEM fields still grapple with the diversity issue, there are a number of New Jacks changing the landscape while putting their cities on the map.
Take Neal Sales-Griffin and Jimmy Odom, for example — two Chicago natives whose paths crossed in the most serendipitous of ways. A year prior, Sales-Griffin had recently quit his job at a venture capitalist firm to start a web design and development school, The Starter League. Odom, a film student with dream job at Apple, was one of the school’s first applicants. Months after graduating from the program, Odom quit his job, going on to start We Deliver, which allows local merchants to provide same-day delivery for their products. Both men hope that their respective entities will bring forth a much-needed change in the industry.
“Diversity needs play a role in everything you do,” says Odom, whose venture beat out 69 competing startups to win $100,000 at Techweek Chicago, one of the nation’s largest technology conventions. “The fact that we had a strong, diverse team helped. The more diverse you are, the better you’re able to provide for the majority.”
For Sales-Griffin, the key to The Starter League’s success is its design. “We’ve set it up so that collaboration is a necessity, says the 26 year-old, whose outfit generated over a million dollars in the first year. (Students pay $2,000-$8,000, depending on the class.) “We have students constantly working together in and out of class, in groups, with mentors. Traditional computer science classes seem more focused on weeding people out than letting them in. The idea is to make technology accessible to everyone.”
Through partnerships with a number pf local schools and universities like Northwestern University and the City Colleges of Chicago, Sales-Griffin is doing just that. “Anyone can and everyone should learn how to build software,” he says. “There are a lot of interesting stories about folks who grew up with a lack of exposure to technology, or grew up hating math and science and leave here doing amazing things. I want to provide others with the opportunities I didn’t have.”
In contrast, Odom had always considered himself a technologist; enrolling in Starter League merely meant that he was no longer depriving himself the desire. “I dropped down to near-unemployment,” he says, chuckling. “To me, technology was the future of the world, of the economy, and I wanted to go all in.” What initially began as a frustrating, intimidating experience gave way to what he describes as the “best feeing in the world.”
“I was working on this particular concept for weeks and I wasn’t getting anywhere,” he recalls, “one day, after sleeping at my desk overnight, something clicked and I was able to break through the wall and it was like, unicorns and rainbows. That’s when I knew I could be a developer.”
Odom also credits his time at Apple with shaping his work philosophy, one that defines culture not by the number of foosball tables you have in the breakroom, but by the overall customer experience. The experience, Odom maintains, is what matters most.
“When you interact with a brand, that experience is long-lasting. When I think about tech companies and innovative products, I think, ‘What experience am I having? Are these companies looking at me in binary, or are they looking at me as a human being?’ It’s a fundamental thing.”
Odom also shares Sales-Griffin’s desire to help bridge the digital divide through mentoring. With Future Founders Foundation, Odom’s able to share his story with students in high schools all over the city. “I didn’t know I’d been an entrepreneur all my life. I didn’t find that out until I was in my twenties. And I wish I’d had someone around to tell at that age.” Both men acknowledge the roles that mentors have played in their careers, and stay in contact with them regularly.
Though neither CEO has experienced any racism in the industry thus far, Sales-Griffin admits to picking up on “you’re not one of us” vibes on occasion. “When your background shows that you haven’t been exposed to traditional training, people are skeptical. But when they talk to me, they’re welcoming.” Odom agrees. “We’ve gotten a pretty positive reception,” he says, adding, “I think the industry is hungry for minority entrepreneurs.”
“We aren’t where we want to be, but it’s better than where we were,” says Odom. “In the next 10 years, you’ll see more owners of color, more kids will be asking how Instagram works. We’ll no longer be consumers, but creators.”