According to MTSU’s State of Middle Tennessee Tech 2020 Report, Black employees make up 11 percent of the region’s tech workers. Given the demand for and desirability of these jobs, it seems that work in tech may be what makes Nashville an appealing place to live and work for Black Americans searching for a new city to call home.
The Blacks in Technology Foundation
It’s not luck that draws Black tech workers to a city like Nashville. Rather, it’s the area’s unwavering commitment to making good jobs available to everyone, and the advocacy of groups committed to the best possible outcomes for the whole community. The nonprofit Blacks in Technology Foundation (BIT) is located in seven countries around the world, with 11,000 members. According to the organization’s website, “The Blacks In Technology Foundation is the largest community of Black people in the technology industry. Through community-focused activities, events, and outreach, The Blacks In Technology (BIT) Foundation is ‘Stomping the Divide’ by establishing a blueprint of world-class technical excellence and innovation by providing resources, guidance, networking, and opportunities for members to share their expertise and advance their careers.”
Co-Founder & President Holly Rachel
Co-Founder and President of BIT Nashville Holly Rachel is one of the principals of Rachel + Winfree Data Consulting (R+W), which they founded in 2017. Before meeting her business partner Lena Winfree, Holly worked for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI) as a forensic scientist. Conversely, Lena worked for Meharry Medical College in their Data Science Institute, aiding the college in connecting the medical school, its hospital, and its dental school through the Data Science Institute.
As fate would have it, Lena and Holly attended the same church, and they became friends after realizing that they were both in similar lines of work. After collaborating on a few smaller projects together as a test run, the two formed R+W, a data analytics consulting firm. R+W works with small and medium-sized businesses to develop better data strategies for handling higher volumes of data. In addition, R+W provides its clients with managed services like database administration, infrastructure builds, and helping them locate tech talent.
Holly explains, “We help companies put together a strategy to figure out questions like, ‘What type of data are we collecting?’ ‘What do we need to use it for?’ ‘If we’re not collecting data, how can we get that done?’ and you know, ‘What infrastructure do we need?’”
Since both Holly and Rachel are women of color, diversity and inclusion are really important to them. As of 2021, R+W started providing clients with both diversity and inclusion strategy consulting and data-driven diversity training so that clients can have a diverse employee pool.
“That’s kind of a really exciting part of what we do,” Holly says in reference to the data-driven diversity training provided by R+W. “The whole premise of data-driven diversity is the same way we talk about data with companies—you cannot be affected if you do not have a strategy first, and if they’re not intentional about it.” Holly elaborates, noting that Black employees will frequently witness companies promising initiatives to recruit more Black workers within a company, or offer them better positions. Unfortunately, these promises often go unfulfilled.
“Typically these things don’t get done,” Holly says. She attributes this to the lack of people willing to take up the mantle and drive change. Since it’s no one’s job responsibility to push for positive change, people rarely take the initiative to improve the employment conditions of Black workers in tech.
Diversity and Inclusion in Tech
Seeing that there’s so much slack in the pull for diversity and inclusion, Holly and Lena wanted to do something about it. This is why R+W hosts the Data Diversity Meetup Group for Nashville technologists and business owners interested in data science.
R+W was born because two Black women wanted to network with others in the tech space and collaborate on exciting projects. Holly and Lena knew that their story of finding each other and starting an exciting business would resonate with other Black technologists in Middle Tennessee. Finding other people of color and being able to work with them—or help them with their next project—was an exciting idea for Holly.
“So when we started the company… the first thing we started doing was looking for our community. So, we’re looking for people who are in data—Black people in tech support,” Holly recalls.
In their drive to network, Holly and Lena attended as many tech-related events as possible. They knew that there were a lot of Black technologists in the Nashville area, but they only saw a few Black tech workers at these events.
Through attempts at networking, Holly concluded that Nashville could support a stronger push for representation of Black tech workers. A solution presented itself when she attended a webinar on Black women in data science in 2020, which was co-hosted by BIT. Holly enjoyed her time at the event, and wanted to join BIT, but there was no Nashville chapter for her to join. Holly reached out to the webinar organizers to inquire about what she should do.
Holly recalls, “She said, ‘Well, they don’t have a chapter, but you can start one.’” Accepting the challenge as the answer she was looking for all along, Holly recruited Lena as a co-organizer to launch BIT.
Nashville proved to be a great fit for BIT. Members of the Nashville tech community embraced the foundation’s mission with open arms. Founded in February 2021, BIT Nashville already has 170 members. Under the BIT banner, Holly can ensure that Nashville’s tech community gets the resources and support for its Black employees it needs. Holly says that clubs and groups already exist for Black employees related to particular sectors of technology work, like cybersecurity. As an organization reaching across the aisle, BIT can help Black workers flourish in a broader scope. Such advocacy work will be critical to keep the growth of Nashville’s tech talent going.
Now with BIT Nashville, Holly expects nothing but the best for her fellow Black tech workers.
She states, “I want to see more Black people on boards. I want to see more Black people speaking at the Nashville Analytics Summit, attending the conference. I want to see more Black people involved in some of the other initiatives… I just want to see more representation.” Holly says that doing this will require making information relevant to technology workers—regardless of where they are in their careers—available to everyone so that they can take advantage of it. BIT must also be able to bring initiatives taking place at the global and national levels to local members—like scholarships, mentorships, or certification challenges.
Perhaps the goal most important to Holly is getting Black tech workers to tell their story and share their wisdom in front of a crowded room.
“I think the thing about speaking is that everyone thinks that they have to be an expert,” Holly says. “They think that they’ve got to be in the game 20, 30, 40 years… totally untrue.”