Let's Talk Tech

Code Blooded: Tech Leaders Without Degrees

After her nephew was murdered Sharon Simmons launched igotem app to help fight crime.

For as much as Black people spend on iPhones, Androids, and mobile apps, we are certainly not represented behind the scenes creating gadgets, apps and social networks.

Much of our absence in the tech industry can be attributed to discrimination in one form or another, but in today’s do-it-yourself economy, a large proportion of the blame can be placed squarely on us.

But take heart.  We can do better.

Through online tutorials, free classes, and individual tech professionals who are willing to provide mentorship, the opportunities to learn how to code and develop software are endless and easier than ever before. Next time you think building a tech business is only for White guys with Ivy league educations, remember these four black bootstrappers without college degrees who built mobile apps and desktop software.

Sharon Simmons

When her nephew was murdered while playing basketball, this aircraft maintenance specialist, decided to be more than just a concerned citizen. Born in Dallas, raised in South Central Los Angeles and living in the heart of Houston, Simmons was no stranger to crime. She decided to take matters into her own hands and use technology to combat it. Her solution, igotem app, helps law abiding citizens report crimes in real time and help provide law enforcement with vital information to help put criminals behind bars. Using a smart phone, witnesses can upload a video or image that will be sent anonymously to a local law enforcement office. The application will notify police of the date, time, and location of the crime in progress.

“With no knowledge of the IT industry or coding I was able to raise nearly $10,000 to build the first app and the product made it to the iTunes Store. All on guts and passion,” she explains. Now, her company Trafalgar Solutions Group Inc is a Houston Technology Center Incubation Client, at the HTC-JSC Campus at Johnson Space Center.

But getting this far has not been easy. Without any experience in app design, Simmons (who became known in the Black Tech Community as Grandma Tech) Googled her way into the app building world. She built the first version of the app using tutorials she found online. She interviewed a few developers and learned how to build a story-board, which explains to coders the concept of the app. She bootstrapped the project with her own money to get the ball rolling. Check out this inspirational quote she wrote on her blog: “This took me three months from start to finish. I have no degrees in technology and am not able to code. All I have is pure passion and a desire to help others. I can make a difference in the way we use technology to help our everyday lives. Maybe I am the next “female” Steve Jobs. And if I can do it, then I know you can too.”

Leo Grand

Leo Grand, 37, was homeless when Patrick McConlogue approached and asked him “I will teach you to code. Or, I will give you $100 in cash, no questions.” Grand, who lost his home after getting fired from an insurance company chose to code…out on the streets, by Chelsea Piers during one of New York City’s coldest winters. It took 10 hours per day for four months, but on December 9, Grand launched Trees for Cars, a mobile carpooling app that connects drivers and riders.

The app is available on both iTunes and Google Play. Grand wrote every line of code and all proceeds from it will go to him. Now, McConlogue is pushing to develop a two month coding and life course in a group home where in addition to computer science, the homeless will get sessions on financial management, individual counseling, and placement programs.

Naithan Jones

Naithan Jones never went to college, but now he is the CEO of a company last valuated at $6 million. “This can only happen in America,” says the Kansas City native. At one point in his life, he was homeless living in a car but with help from others he was able to hustle his way up the corporate ladder. A good Samaritan got him a job at Sprint’s corporate office, working in the mail room, he leveraged that into one promotion after another and later became the only person without a degree working at Gartner Research and the Kaufman Foundation, following that. At Kaufman he was the director of the fast track incubator running entrepreneur education programs. That’s when he got a whiff of the tech start-up revolution.

His wife’s family were farmers and his brother, a chef, bought ingredients from local farmers. He wondered if there was a way to connect the two and help small independent farmers sell their goods to larger markets and restaurant chains. He quit his job and decided to make it happen. But first he needed startup capital. He didn’t know how to code, but in order to hire software developers he convinced his family to sell everything they owned. “My two girls, were five and six-years-old at the time and I was selling their toys,” says the alum of the NewMe Accelerator. “They were good sports about it.”

But everything paid off. In 2012, his company, Aglocal, raised $500,000 from investors. “If a young black male from a broken home can get to this point. It is possible for you if you continue to try.”

Frederick Hutson

Hutson, who has never been to college, doesn’t know computer programming and spent four-and-a-half years in jail raised an investment of $1 million from a technology venture capitalist for his company Pigeonly, a data company that creates economical connections between the disenfranchised and the free world.

After his incarceration for trafficking marijuana, Hutson became aware of how valuable outside interaction was for prisoners, and realized that there was an untapped market for people who were searching for an economical way to connect with loved-ones in jail. He jumped on the idea, outsourced his software development through and raised capital from family and friends.

For the most part Hutson’s background didn’t hurt him. In fact, it helped that he was transparent about his experience and understood the needs of his target audience firsthand. He also had help with wooing investors. Last spring, he was a participant in The NewMe Accelerator, which is short for New Media Entrepreneurship. The accelerator picks some of the country’s most innovative minority-owned tech firms and invites them to Silicon Valley where they receive mentoring and training with some of the regions most high-profile tech experts and executives. “In the long run, we’re opening it up to people who will use it in a way that will benefit both society and inmates,” says Hutson of his social enterprise.

Are you inspired?  Or do you know of more coders who did it all on their own?  Share your thoughts in comments below.