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Hidden Charlotte – Exposing Charlotte’s Black Tech Industry

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By Tonya Jameson

Photos courtesy of Jon Strayhorn

The movie “Hidden Figures” was a wake up call to Black men and women about our contributions to the tech industry. While mainstream media focuses on the dearth of Black people in the tech industry, Charlotte-based The Plug is highlighting our stories.

The daily newsletter covering Black start-ups, entrepreneurs and innovators doesn’t settle for bemoaning the lack of Black people at tech companies. Instead, it celebrates “Black Tech” success stories and is creating a virtual community for Black people in the tech industry.

Sherrell Dorsey, 30, started The Plug in April 2016 as an experiment. The Seattle, Washington native wanted to do work that would change lives. Before starting The Plug and #BLKTECHCLT, a networking event, she worked as the Charlotte marketing manager for Uber. She was in charge of creating partnership and driving user growth. She also did contract work for Google Fiber.

Her passion, however, was creating change as a contributor to Fast Company, The Root, Atlantic City Lab and other publications. She grew tired of seeing mostly white people highlighted in those publications. So, she started to The Plug to highlight Black people in tech.

Her goal was to find five stories a day. It started as an experiment, with just a list of 75 people, mostly friends. For the first eight months, Dorsey worked full-time and wrote for The Plug. Today, The Plug has tens of thousands of subscribers, and she works at it full-time.

“I just wanted to see if this is something people would be interested in,” she said. “Companies are looking at diversity and inclusion spaces. They’re interested in telling their stories and sharing their initiatives.”

They were interested in The Plug and hungry for more.

In December, The Plug hosted the first #BLKTECHCLT, a networking event. She wanted to create connections for Black people in the tech industry here. Dorsey said she attended entrepreneurial events here and rarely saw Black or brown people.

Dorsey and her team expected 20 people to attend. Fifteen minutes after the doors opened, the event was at capacity.

Dave Ellison, senior IT recruiter at Avidxchange was one of the people who attended. He immediately signed on to make Avidxchange a sponsor of the #BLKTECHCLT series in 2017. He saw Dorsey talk about the intersection of technology and design, driving conversation of entrepreneurs of color at the Google Fiber event. He remembered her passion and her drive. He knew he wanted to work with her. #BLKTECHCLT was the perfect opportunity.

“Sherrell was doing something that was unique and necessary,” Ellison said. “It takes strong charismatic community organizers to drive the kind of conversations that Sherrell is driving. She is so charismatic. She is so passionate.”

The quarterly event draws about 200 people. Other sponsors include: the Knight Foundation, Carolina Small Business Development Fund, Tech Talent South, and City Startup Labs. Each event is different. Former Carolina Panther Mushin Muhammad spoke about entrepreneurship at the one in June. Stephanie Thomas, senior associate at Impact America Fund, talked about venture capital at the March event.

Many networking events for Black people are mostly parties, but #BLKTECHCLT is truly a networking event. Ellison said he has made business connections there, and is in talks with Johnson C. Smith University about working together.

Dorsey also has a partnership with the Raleigh-based Carolinas Small Business Development Fund that developed a $100,000 micro-loan fund for Black entrepreneurs in the Charlotte area.

“Everywhere you go, there’s a need for capital for everyone; there’s especially a need for capital for people of color,” said Awamary Lowe-Khan, executive vice president of the Carolinas Small Business Development Fund. “We have to figure out a way to inject capital in our communities.”

The partnership with the Carolinas Small Business Development Fund is part of Dorsey’s ever-changing plan for the organization. She wants The Plug and #BLKTECHCLT to leave a footprint here. She hopes eventually to set up in one of the local co-working spaces, and create partnerships with major companies in Silicon Valley.

“We see it as an asset to the community,” Dorsey said. “It belongs to the community.”

With The Plug and #BLKTECHCLT, Dorsey and her team have created a community that is coalescing and will likely have a broad impact on the city.



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