When it comes to networking and learning more about a variety of topics, Meetup.com has become a go-to website. On Meetup, users can join groups based on their interests and then gather together offline. The site hosts groups for book clubs, outdoor adventures, and networking, and several groups specifically for black professionals in technology have made an impact in cities across the country. Mike Street, organizer of the New York-based Blacks in Technology (BIT) group, describes Meetups as “good way to get off of the computer and meet people in real life. You can develop a vast network of people who can help you in any situation.” This BIT group, which has more than 820 members, originally started in 2009 and Street took over as organizer in 2010. The group hosts a variety of events every month, ranging from casual brunch get-togethers, to events in conjunction with larger organizations and companies, to Q&A sessions over Google+ Hangouts. Street said the group has attracted marketers, developers, designers, and even human resources recruiters.On October 30, about a dozen members of the group gathered via a Google+ Hangout to hear from Brian Shields, co-founder of IncubateNYC, an incubation program that helps entrepreneurs. The session featured a Q&A between Street and Shields about IncubateNYC and entrepreneurship, as well as questions from the group about advice for starting their own businesses. “Our main goal is not just to create a blacks in technology community in the New York area, but also bring more visibility to the different professions in technology and the people working in tech who are African-American,” Street said. On the other side of the country, Blacks in Technology-Los Angeles holds monthly meetings in Google’s Venice, CA offices that consist of a featured speaker and time for questions. John Malonson, the organizer of the group, said BIT-LA was originally for tech professionals and tech-savvy people, but it has now grown to include people who just have an interest in technology and want to learn more. “We never want technology to be a barrier or hurdle for entry for anyone,” he said. “We average 40-plus members who show up each month, physical attendees to bounce ideas off of and if people have questions.” He also highlighted the nearly 400 group members who are available to ask questions and connect online and on the Meetup site. Malonson said the group has focused a lot on social media lately, and hosted Wandia Chiuri as she spoke about “Magic Tricks for Viral Growth” in early October. While the specific topics change, both of these Blacks in Technology groups try to focus on issues that interest their members, no matter how versed they are in technology. And members can learn from one another, as Malonson said. By getting together in person and getting to know people with various backgrounds, careers, and years in the industry, there is always someone who can answer questions or help out other members. Going forward, Street said he hopes to start a board to assist him in organizing the group, but the main goal for the coming months is to grow in numbers. Malonson agreed: “I’d like to double the size of the BIT-LA group and we want to make it accessible for people for people who can’t physically attend.” Google+ Hangouts, he added, were one way to do that. Networking with other African-Americans is an important element for blacks in technology. “I noticed that I might be one of the only black people at other Meetups,” Street said. “We wanted to create a safe, comfortable space for people in the industry to come and gather and close the gap.” Malonson said that several people who joined the group then commented that they had been looking for such a place to connect with other black technology professionals for a long time. He also highlighted the importance of connecting with larger groups outside of Meetup groups, such as the Black Data Processing Associates. Additionally, on October 6, an event for black women in technology, Focus100, was held for the first time. Street also added, “it is important to go to the larger Meetups [and other industry events] because your career should exist outside of your racial identity.” Overall, while Meetups start online, they bridge the gap between online and offline, and can be a place for more experienced tech experts to learn more or for newer professionals to get a foothold and start to grow. Meetup Groups that focus specifically on African Americans in technology add an extra layer of networking to the lives of black professionals. While connecting in larger forums may be educational and insightful, these in-person meetings can build a community and help make the industry feel close-knit. This can lead to mentoring relationships, more partnerships among black professionals, and an open and comfortable entry point for those interested in getting into the technology industry. Increasingly, we’re seeing technology-focused groups for African Americans forming in places across the country. If this is your area of interest, seek one out and sign up. And if you’re a member, tell us what it’s like in the comments.
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