Frederick Hutson, founder and CEO of Pigeonly, spent five years in prison and launched his startup while in a halfway house in Tampa. Today it’s a multimillion-dollar company that offers tech solutions for connecting inmates with their families.
Passionate about the data revolution, Michael Beal left a high-paying career on Wall Street and in private equity to found Data Capital Management, a public and data-driven hedge fund, with an experienced team of data scientists and quantitative researchers.
These two success stories in the making couldn’t be more different — and that’s the point of Blacktech Week. Blacktech Week, now in its second year, is a celebration of innovators of color. But more important to co-founders Felecia Hatcher and Derick Pearson, the week of events aims to inspire the current and next generations to be makers and shapers in the digital revolution — and not to be left on the sidelines.
To that end, Blacktech Week brought in more than 80 speakers, including serial entrepreneurs, data scientists, engineers, sci-fi aficionados, musicians, government officials, venture capitalists and a professional football player. They offered advice in the hallways and opened up their PowerPoints on the stage to share their wisdom on starting and growing businesses with several hundred entrepreneurs, professionals and students attending the 2½-day conference at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus.
The summit was part of a weeklong series of events that included the launch of PowerMoves, a new accelerator program for entrepreneurs of color in South Florida; pitch competitions; youth coding events; parties; and a women’s entrepreneurship track and brunch.
Most of the sessions on Thursday focused on starting, scaling and funding businesses. Jeff Hoffman, co-founder of Priceline and seven other companies as well as a Grammy-winning producer and film director, reminded the audience that Priceline started around a kitchen table.
“What is the one thing that most differentiates and distinguishes you? That is your brand asset,” Hoffman said. To get a true idea of what that one thing is, ask 10 of your customers why they do business with you, he said. Then around the brand asset you can begin to build a brand personality: Think Ben and Jerry’s or Richard Branson.
In Priceline’s early days, the team got a lot of advice to expand into many areas beyond hotel rooms, he said. That’s bad advice for early-stage companies: “Pick one thing you are good at and win a gold medal.”
Another mistake for startups: believing “everyone” is your market, Hoffman said.
“You don’t have a marketing budget for ‘everyone.’ ” Instead, start with one city or segment, he advised. Within that you need to find the “Oh my God, where have you been all my life?” customers, he said. That segment of raving fans is in other cities, too, so it will become clearer where to expand next.
He also advised founders to spend a block of time every week in their target market’s own environment — and not in sales mode, but in listening mode.
Beal spoke about the difficulty of leaving a lucrative career and taking the plunge. That move involved going back to Harvard, cutting expenses in half and persuading his family to support his plan. “For me, I did not want to be an entrepreneur but I knew I had to be. . . . I hope we can be the people powering the data revolution just like the white guys who powered the industrial revolution. That’s why I’m here.”
Hutson, who developed his first technologies in the Tampa halfway house in 2012, had an inside view of his customers — quite literally. When the time came to market his product, he targeted inmates and their families with direct mail rather than trying to work through the bureaucracy of the prison system. It seems to be working: He now runs a 25-person company in Las Vegas with multiple products on the market.
Another theme running throughout the day: the power of mentorship.
“Nobody showed me how to do anything – I wanted to be the role model of success for my brothers and my kids,” said professional football player Santonio Holmes, who is launching The Dream Foundation this month for mentoring youth where he grew up, Belle Glade. “When you have a dream, you help someone, you mentor someone, you guide them, you talk about your mistakes so they don’t make them,” he said.
For Hatcher, an entrepreneur who also founded Code Fever for teaching coding in underserved communities, a key benefit of Blacktech Week is making connections. This year’s event drew participants from Europe and Africa as well as from around the Americas. This year, the Blacktech Week team expanded the scope to include more content on consumer goods, lifestyle, music and entertainment to broaden the audience and to better connect with the Miami community. For instance, Thursday night there was a session on music, sports and pop culture with rappers, producers and others in the entertainment industry.
Hip-hop artist Spectacular Smith, who also co-founded a tech business, Adwizar, that helps entertainment industry influencers grow their followings and make residual income off their social media, was checking out Blacktech Week Thursday afternoon. “Anything to do with supporting my people, that’s what I’m all about. I love to see other people be successful. At the same time, I never know who I may meet here,” he said.
Hatcher, Pearson and their partners, including the Knight Foundation, plan to continue Blacktech Week as an annual week of events during Black History Month, along with other events and workshops throughout the year.
Blacktech Week continues Friday, covering topics such as cybersecurity, digital health and building impactful tech cities and including speakers such as renowned scientist and inventor Dr. Thomas Mensah and Rony Abovitz, founder of Magic Leap. It continues Saturday with a women’s innovation brunch, featuring Kathryn Finney, who last week released Project Diane, a report that showed that of the 10,238 venture deals sealed from 2012 to 2014, just 24 were to black women founders.
Runs through Saturday.