New Philly conference aims to draw communities of color to the city’s tech sector

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Aniyia Williams is founder and CEO of TINSEL. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Aniyia Williams is founder and CEO of TINSEL. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia is set to host its first Project NorthStar conference, a three-day event starting Wednesday that will focus on helping more entrepreneurs of color gain a foothold in the tech sector.

Named for Frederick Douglass’ abolitionist newspaper, the idea came after Mayor Jim Kenney left the 2017 South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas disappointed by the lack of diversity among the participants and speakers. His office teamed up with Black and Brown Founders, a local nonprofit that supports black and Latinx entrepreneurs, especially those with modest means, to create a new conference to engage communities of color in technology.

Diversity is key to growing Philadelphia’s economy, said Aniyia Williams, Black and Brown Founders’ executive director.

“I think it’s best for Philadelphia to do technology in the ways that are authentic to Philadelphia,” said Williams, who founded Tinsel, a tech jewelry company.

Williams, a Philly native, doesn’t have the stereotypical background of a “techie.” She graduated from the High School for Creative & Performing Arts and Penn State, and is a trained opera singer.

After moving to the Bay Area and working for a tech company, her career interests shifted. Within five years, she quit her job to become a full-time entrepreneur.

“I know other people who have made a dramatic change to kind of invest themselves into an opportunity that technology had to offer and it has fundamentally changed their lives,” she said.

However, Williams noticed entrepreneurs of color were not getting funding at the same rates as her white counterparts were.

Research from The Pew Charitable Trusts has found blacks and Hispanics make up 57 percent of Philadelphia’s population, but account for 73 percent of those living in poverty. According to the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, the city’s tech sector is one of the fastest-growing in the nation, and has been helping to drive job growth in the region.

Williams hopes the Project NorthStar conference can help more people of color earn a good living in this field.

“Black and brown people in many ways are already hustlers,” she said. “We have the hustle. We have the creativity. We have the resourcefulness. We have the resilience. We just haven’t necessarily been given a model for how to turn that into something that is like a legal, profitable, sustainable business.”

Conference-goers can look forward to one-on-one office hours with mentors, panels about launching startups, building teams, keeping talent, and growing a business. It will also feature an “innovation village” where nonprofits, companies, and other organizations can meet and showcase their products, and there will be some opportunities to unwind and network with food and music.

The conference runs Oct. 3 to Oct. 5. For more information, visit NorthStarPHL.com.

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