Revenge of the blerds

Fostering community among black nerds in technology and engineering

Blerdology co-founder Kat Calvin
Courtesy Kat Calvin

Kat Calvin wants to see to it that the next time a black man in a hoodie is walking down the street, people will assume he's just an engineer instead of thinking, "He's probably robbing a house." She also wants every young black person in America to know, or know of, someone who is black and employed in a science or technology profession.

To see such a change, this teacher-turned-entrepreneur co-founded Blerdology ("blerds" are black nerds), a social enterprise that promotes technology initiatives and facilitates networking and collaboration among African American students and professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In addition to creating a community to serve its members, Calvin is hoping to transform how society sees African Americans and the aspirations they have for themselves.

"If you can see it, you can be it," Calvin says. "It's important for children of all stripes to see people who look like them being successful in a specific field."

When no one looks like you — in a country where race is still relevant — isolation often follows and undermines feelings of belonging.

Blerdology grew out of an experience that Calvin, founder of a small consulting firm, shared with many other start-up entrepreneurs. There were not enough reasonably affordable software developers who could create (or code) the products a fledgling enterprise needs, such as interactive websites and mobile apps.

To bring supply to demand, she organized a black "hackathon" in Atlanta last November; more than 80 people attended — coders, leaders of new businesses, and consultants. For 24 hours, the developers worked with the new companies and nonprofits to design and create what they needed to get off the ground.

All the coders who attended were black, and half were women.

Calvin was surprised when she kept hearing from them. "I thought I was the only one; I didn't know there were others," she says.

This problem echoed what she’d seen teaching elementary school and from Michelle in Training (MiT), the nonprofit she runs to provide mentorship opportunities for high school girls. Visuals are important, she explains. When no one looks like you — in a country where race is still relevant — isolation often follows and undermines feelings of belonging.

"Solidarity and affinity matter," she says. "You need to know you are not alone."

This summer, Blerdology held get-togethers of African Americans in STEM around the country. In these events, dubbed "Blerds' Night Out," participants gathered over drinks and food in Orlando, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco and New York City. Industry insiders gave intimate talks and local STEM entrepreneurs showcased their work. The New York event included a woman producing animated science mysteries for kids featuring children of color.

After the success of the Atlanta hackathon, Blerdology organized similar events at South by Southwest, the annual technology and culture conference in Austin, Tex., and in Newark, N.J., which Cory Booker, the city's mayor, attended.

There, graphic designer and web developer Vajaah Parker met entrepreneur Derrick Phillip II. They continued to talk and collaborate after the hackathon, and in July they won a competition to redesign the city of Newark's website. The site is scheduled to go live on September 9.

Parker had participated in hackathons before to benefit nonprofit organizations and social justice causes. But the one organized by Blerdology was unlike the others; this time, Parker wasn't the only black woman in the room.

"It was empowering," she says. "The black experience I was raised in was communal; as I went through school and in my professional life, I became more distant from the black community. 'Black hack' brings me back to my roots and reminds me of the sharing of resources that is still present and vibrant in the black community."

With the summer ending, Calvin is already looking ahead. She’s focusing on promoting the image of blerds in pop culture, connecting employers with employees, and educating African Americans of all ages about STEM and the technology behind starting a business. But this former first grade teacher is prioritizing outreach to adults.  

While there are many efforts, including her own, geared toward improving the STEM education of American children, Calvin says, "Boeing cannot hire a 7-year-old engineer today."

"But if we hire their parents," she says, "those kids would be taken care of. We have to start educating adults. It’s more difficult, but we can’t just ignore an entire generation because, by the time the 7-year-old grows up, Boeing might not exist anymore or will be so firmly planted in another country, they’re not coming back."

But of all Calvin's goals, her biggest one?

"To make myself redundant."

Miguel Twahirwa (MSRP '13 & '12), right, and Ellen Weburg (EBICS REU '13) present their work at the annual Summer Research Program poster session.
Justin Knight Photography

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The image of a scientist in the American imagination rarely is a woman or an underrepresented minority. Think Big Bang Theory: The main cohort is all male, and, with the exception of one South Asian character, white.

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