Changing the face of tech: Milky Way Tech Hub opens the door for entrepreneurs of color

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The world of technology is broad but has not always been inclusive. Nadiyah Johnson is working to change that.

Johnson is the founder of Jet Constellations, a software development company that, among other things, aims to elevate non-profits and businesses owned by people of color.

On CBS 58 Sunday Morning, Kim Shine introduced the founder who’s working to help an often ignored set of creators to realize their potential.

Technology is used differently in our everyday lives.

It could be as simple as working your smartphone, or as challenging as trying to reach the stars.

To Nadiyah Johnson tech is opportunity.

And it’s not in some far off, seemingly untouchable place.

It’s right in her own city – Milwaukee.

“Whatever problem you’re trying to solve or whatever interest you may have, typically technology is that thread throughout all industries," said Johnson.

As a computer scientist, Johnson believes tech can be for everyone.

But as a Black woman, she’s seen the industry’s denial of creatives and developers of color.

“The field of technology has not always embraced Black people, Black culture or even Black history – if you’ve ever seen the movie Hidden Figures – and our contributions to this space," she said.

She also noticed the lack of tech diversity in her hometown.

Her company Jet Constellations aims to buck that trend.

“I was seeing that there was this budding tech ecosystem and resources being put toward shifting this narrative that Milwaukee is a tech hub but, as I was looking around, I was unfortunately not surprised to find out that there just wasn’t enough prioritization on getting more Black people or people of color, underrepresented backgrounds into tech.”

Jet Constellations provides software development and resources for developers.

But it’s the company’s social impact division that’s breaking barriers.

The “Milky Way Tech Hub” focuses on community education, STEM and entrepreneurship.

“She put the idea in my mind that tech is a possibility for me," said Shayvon McCullum.

McCullum is founder of Secure Bridges – a non-profit that fights youth sex-trafficking in Milwaukee.

With help from Johnson and the Milky Way Tech Hub, McCullum is developing a web and mobile app where youth, in need, can connect with community partners.

“Technology, honestly, could save so many lives if we really invested in getting more people of color’s minds heard on their ideas," said McCullum.

That’s why, for Johnson, representation matters.

And her work in Milwaukee is being noticed by the second-highest office in the nation.

“It confirmed, to me, that the work we are doing here is so powerful," said Johnson.

Vice President Kamala Harris tapped Johnson for ideas on keeping Black and Brown small businesses afloat, especially during the Coronavirus pandemic.

“COVID unfortunately has taken a lot of jobs but it’s also made the Amazon’s billionaires and things of that nature, right? And so when I spoke with her, I was telling her there needs to be a focus on educating these communities on how to leverage technologies in their business operations," she said.

Johnson first spoke with Harris on the campaign trail and then when Harris became VP.

“That was so surprising. I got the call literally while I’m like watching the inauguration evening events. One of her staffers called me and said, ‘hey Kamala has short-listed you and says that you’re one of the people that she’d like to talk to.”

And by Harris’ second day in office, Johnson says they met again.

“We have these beautiful mom and pop shops, these retail companies and then when COVID hit they were like how do I create an e-commerce store," said Johnson. "How do I sell my stuff online and then of course emerging technologies like what is internet of things, what is artificial intelligence and how can you actually use that to scale your businesses is really important. So I definitely stressed that and she seemed to agree.”

This month, Governor Evers announced his support for the tech industry.

In his 2021 biennial budget, Evers pledged $100 million dollars for a new venture capital program in Wisconsin.

“And we know that if we want to come out on the other side of this pandemic stronger than ever we need to commit to investing in innovation and economic growth too," said Evers during his February address.

It’s a major move, said Johnson – and one that could also help diversify opportunities in Milwaukee.

“Milwaukee is not just a tech eco-system but it’s a tech hub where Black people, people of color, women can thrive," she said.

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