Memphis empowers computer scientists with summit and $700K grant for Black tech owners

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Onstage, four young teens not only choreographed a dance, but coded the lights that illuminated their performance.

“I felt the need to combine my love for science and dance,” explained Kayla Jean-Baptiste, a 14-year-old aspiring professional coder from Brooklyn.

The four teens’ performance kicked off the 2022 CSforALL Summit, a conference of tech leaders, educators and enthusiasts at Graceland on Thursday.

The three-day conference hosted conversations about making the computer science field more equitable and sustainable for students pursuing careers in the industry.

“‘Computer Science for All’ is a national and even global movement to make sure that youth live in a digital world and can navigate that fluently,” said Leigh Ann DeLyser, executive director of the organization. “It’s not an accident that they take everything they know and build the next generation of technology.”

At the summit, local nonprofit Code-Crew raised awareness of the importance of diversifying the tech industry.

“When you only ask one person one question, you only get that,” said Audrey Willis, a co-founder of the nonprofit. “But when you open the floodgates and you bring in minorities, you bring in women, you bring in kids sometimes, it appears completely different.”

Jean-Baptiste joined teenage dancers Claire Chen, Alexandra Francois and Maria DeJesus-Vera to program the lights on their dance outfits. The four dancers learned to incorporate technology into their routine through STEM from Dance, an organization that empowers young minority women to combine their loves of art and engineering.

“When we have diversity, there’s fairness,” explained Yamilée Toussaint Beach, the founder of the organization. “There’s equity. There’s justice. We want to really unlock the potential to be the next generation of computer scientists and engineers.”

“If you put your mind to something and you really want to do it, you should just go for it – no matter your age, your race, your ethnicity,” explained Francois.

Grant for black tech businesses

Outside of the summit, the University of Memphis made a major announcement on Thursday for aspiring tech entrepreneurs.

The United States Economic Development Administration will grant more than $700,000 to the university’s Center for Workplace Diversity, the Black Business Association of Memphis and Community LIFT. Leaders hope the grant, which will be paired with a local match, can uplift Black-owned tech businesses.

According to the Economic Development Administration, the grant will be used to hire more people responsible for raising capital funds aimed at promoting equity. The money will also pay to hire a fund director and training coordinator.

“How do we help and be intentional about supporting Black businesses?” asked Ernest Strickland, the president of the BBA. “The core of that dream – utopia – is growing Black businesses. With our demographic, we can’t be a thriving community without a strong Black core.”