When it comes to creating computer programming and Internet start ups, you’re more likely to imagine a socially awkward, gangly white man with unkempt hair and thick glasses than you are a young, black woman from Howard University. But Tiffani Bell is that woman.
One of two black women featured in Black in America 4: The New Promised Land- Silicon Valley, Tiffani was one of eight African American entrepreneurs who took part in the NewME Accelerator Program. The program, which housed the eight entrepreneurs under one roof last summer, was designed to prepare and train African Americans to present and acquire funding for their online businesses.
Madame Noire caught up with Tiffani Bell recently to talk about her start in computer programming, getting along with her housemates, her business and being a role model.
How did you initially get into programming?
It was from when I was a kid, actually. I had the V Tech Pre Computer 1000 that my parents bought me back in first grade. You could play games and stuff on it but I got tired of the games that got built in. So I was just flipping through the user manual one day and they had directions on how to program that to a computer and make your own games. I started making little simple hangman games. That was kind of my first foray into programming but I was like six, so I didn’t keep up with it. I actually wanted to grow up and be a cartoonist. Probably later, around fourth-fifth grade or so, I started building web pages. Still just tinkering. So that kind of kept up. So around tenth grade, I turned fifteen and my uncle bought me a programming book. And I ended up reading through that. It’s been off and on for a few years but I finally just kept up with it and ended up going to Howard for it. That’s kind of the start.
Did your parents know what you were doing? Many adults today don’t know anything about programming. Did they know that was actually a skill?
Not really. Not at all, really. More of just like, “what is that?” ‘Why are you on the computer so much?” Even today, they really kind of don’t know. But they know, ok, this is important, finally, it’s not just kids playing on the computer and doing absolutely nothing.
So you mentioned you went to Howard, then you graduated and had internships with IBM. How did you make the transition from a predominately black environment to a predominately white, male environment?
That transition wasn’t that bad for me. I was a military brat so I grew up with a bunch of people around that were diverse. I’ve had white best friends, Asian best friends, black best friends. It wasn’t a stretch to say ‘oh yeah, it’s a bunch of white people now.’ I say going to Howard, from the environment that I came from before, was more of a stretch. It was like “wait, there’s all these black folks, so you mean an HBCU is mostly black people? I’m like, ‘where’s everybody else at? Is there another campus or something?’ That transition [to IBM] wasn’t all that bad. I joke that I spent more time talking about Porsches and golf. So the end of the summer they were like, ‘you fit in just fine with us.’ I was like, ‘Yup, I know.’
How did you hear about the NewME Accelerator Program and what made you decide to take part in it?
Probably March of this year, they [Angela Benton and Wayne Sutton] e-mailed me and told me what they were doing as far as a start up house. And it turned into an incubator after that. I really didn’t pay much attention to it. I was like, ‘Well I’m at work right now.’ They didn’t have anything official at the time. Then they sent me a bunch of slides two or three weeks later with information on sponsors and housing. They were like you should be a part of it. As an example of a black woman, in technology, who’s actually technical. So from there I was like, ‘Ok, well that’s cool.’ And I left my job.
Because I had the idea for “Pencil You In.” I’d been working on it all that time but I still hadn’t gone full time with it at that point. Because I was like, ‘You’re still not at a point where you’re entirely ready to.’ Apparently, you’ll never be in a perfect spot to do something. I was like, ‘All right, this opportunity presented itself, so let’s take advantage of it.’
Tell us what the experience was like, what was it like living in a house with all those men and Angela?
Me and Angela had our own room. It was funny because it was the biggest room in the house. Plus we had our own bathrooms and separate sinks. The guys would complain a little bit. Like they’re in there in the suite. I was like, ‘You didn’t expect the founder of the program to be sleeping on the couch did you?’ That was fun. There were no conflicts, none of this whole ‘two black women can’t get along.’ We were actually good buddies in the house. I think of Wayne and Hodge as big brothers. They looked out for us and helped us with ideas.
So it wasn’t like “The Real World” house or anything.
It definitely was not at all like fighting… I mean there was… we kind of laugh because the guys had more conflict than we did, by far. It was like, ‘Who are the woman in the house? Us or them? We got along just fine. It was pretty nice. It wasn’t like “Real World” people fighting or kicking each other’s butts in the backyard. People were there to work and of course make friends. But it was none of this goofing off or somebody’s just here to loaf and be free for the summer.