HBCU Alum Promotes Diversity in Tech - Higher Education
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HBCU Alum Promotes Diversity in Tech

by Dominique Burns

Arif Gürsel

A tech strategist and proud alumnus of Tuskegee University, Arif Gürsel made it his purpose to empower communities of color in metropolitan Seattle through science, technology, entrepreneurship, arts and media (STEAM).

“Bellevue is like the Beverly Hills of Seattle,” said Gürsel. “Being the richest suburb near Microsoft’s headquarters, you can imagine the lack of diversity. I was relocated to Seattle by Microsoft from Tuskegee where I was a student. So going from an HBCU to one of the richest zip codes in the country was a noticeable change in racial makeup, identity and representation.”

In 2015, Gürsel founded a nonprofit, PACE (Pan-African Center for Empowerment), in an effort to inspire strategic alliances among organizations dedicated to development and diversity.

PACE has already begun its work for this year, launching two initiatives: Black Tech Union (BTU) and Koya Academy, formerly Floodgate Academy. BTU is dedicated to increasing the Black presence in technology and entrepreneurship. Its digital platform establishes a global network of information for students, professionals, investors, corporations, nonprofits and media invested in increasing opportunity. Koya Academy is a rigorous training program for coding and computer science, designed to increase the number of Black engineers in the tech-industry employment pipeline.

The success of Gürsel’s nonprofit prompted him to create opportunities for African-Americans in his town, Bellevue, which has little diversity.

The Union, the newest initiative founded by Gürsel, serves as a coworking gathering spot for the local engineering community of African descent to partake in meet-ups, tech talks and engineering and entrepreneurial-focused conferences.

“The Union itself is the physical manifestation of a community gathering place that I personally have been longing for in the Seattle area for quite some time,” said Gürsel. “It’s the kind of place that I also wished existed in cities that if I was traveling, instead of having to work in a ‘we work’ or random coworking space, this was more of a community-focus place where I could connect with other people of African descent easier.”

Early in his career, Gürsel committed himself to making higher education accessible for students. He developed a curriculum and taught full-stack Web development in JavaScript. And in 2015, PACE received a grant through President Obama’s TechHire initiative, a campaign intended to help fund the creation of tech talent pipelines to expand tech sectors in local communities.

Gürsel has experienced first-hand the gap in diversity when it comes to diversity and inclusion programs aimed at HBCUS. Although he was fortunate enough to attend one of a handful of schools at which Microsoft recruited, tech programs at most HBCUs weren’t on the list to be seen – which has made it harder for Black students to obtain careers and add to diversity issues in the tech workplace.

“Knowing what I know now, when I got hired to Microsoft, there were only four historically Black colleges that they recruited from,” said Gürsel. “Tuskegee, Xavier, Howard and FAMU were the four. So, thinking about that, the fact that I was fortunate to be one of the four schools that Microsoft recruited from was [a benefit of] a diversity and inclusion initiative.”

Gursel, who has been featured in local newspapers and magazines, said he believes that attending an HBCU helped set him up to compete in the tech workplace because it instilled greater drive.

“There is this hustle that you generate and have to have to survive HBCUS,” he said. “Traditionally, Black communities have been underserved, so I think when you got to a historically black university that hustle is amplified.”

In the past, Gürsel took it upon himself to teach people how to code out of his office in the evenings, where he ran a start-up business during the day. In addition to his efforts to teach those interested during his down time, he hosted events to focus-group test new products.

Gürsel’s strong passion for community prompted him to open The Union on the Juneteenth holiday this year on June 19.

“Looking at The Union as a coworking space and facility whose goal is to empower the Black communities and to learn how to network, I couldn’t think of a better day to launch than Juneteenth,” said Gürsel. “It signifies mental independence, it signifies doing for self, it signifies how we start to move into a digital age for some of the things we were doing. That day for me was about repurposing history to make sure it’s always relevant moving forward.”

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