When the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we do business, technology opportunities shifted from Silicon Valley to Main Street. Nevertheless, many Black tech professionals — especially those in the Midwest — weren’t afforded the same opportunities as their colleagues. However, the Midwest Tech Project — based in Grand Rapids, MI — hopes to change all of that.
“The Midwest has had to overcome a lot of adversity due to it being in the heart of the Rust Belt,” said co-founder Jonathan Jelks, exclusively. “As industry moved out, technology moved in — and it’s a question of whether these big tech companies can see that.”
“Careers in technology don’t just involve engineering and coding,” agreed co-founder AJ Hills IV. “They involve everything from cybersecurity to front-end and back-end development, even e-commerce, and social media management. The point of our company is to allow Black men and women to see that there are many, many ways to transition into a full-time technology career.”
Together with their partner Willie “Willie The Kid” Jackson, The Midwest Tech Project has built a business portfolio that is helping the small business ecosystem in West Michigan grow.
For his part, Hills is a City of Grand Rapids Business Developer that oversees the City’s Equal Business Opportunity Program and Micro Local Business Enterprise certification with a focus on increasing business equity in West Michigan. He’s used this position as an opportunity to connect Black Midwestern professionals with the opportunities they deserve.
“We try to go for the low-hanging fruit first,” Hills said. “We have events where companies — like Google, like Microsoft, like all the big tech companies — to come in and talk to the community. The community then gets an opportunity to see what they want — what they’re looking for — and even, sometimes, to offer them jobs, which is of course the ultimate goal. The job, really, of the Midwest Tech Project is to democratize the information available to tech professionals, and to create partnerships that are within our own ecosystem.”
However, the founders of the company don’t want to just focus their efforts on technology. Like many young professionals today, they’re serial entrepreneurs. Hills works with his wife on real estate investments and a non-profit organization; Jackson & Jelks are owners of a new music discovery streaming platform called radi8er and executive producers on an upcoming documentary, “I Too Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled,” — a biopic of the great Harlem Renaissance poet & playwright.
Their diverse interests don’t keep them from pushing the Midwest Tech Project forward in other ways, though. They’ve even found a way to help the formerly incarcerated: TechX, which is also under the Midwest Tech Project’s umbrella.
“This is the program that allows us to help Black men and women that are coming out of prison to obtain, and keep, gainful employment,” said Jelks. “When we think of strategies that can reduce recidivism rates while offering viable employment opportunities to a forgotten community, tech is the great equalizer. There aren’t many candidates who can fit the culture of technology and possess the resiliency necessary to thrive than those returning home seeking to start a new chapter.”
For more information on The Midwest Tech Project, visit their website here.