LOS ANGELES — It was a day of networking, collaboration and the exchange of ideas as business owners and stakeholders dispensed advice to the next generation of creators and entrepreneurs about the growing opportunities in the technology industry.
Nearly 700 students, founders, entrepreneurs and business-minded professionals from all over Southern California attended the Urban Tech Connect conference at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center May 16.
“We hope that you will walk away smarter and with a lot of information today,” said Derek Smith, organizer of Urban Tech Connect and founder of Plug In South L.A., who addressed the youths that filled the audience during the morning session.
“We are focused on building the next generation of young entrepreneurs and their startups, whether it be in music, gaming, food or creating the next app that will change how we eat, think and live,” he said. “Our program is designed to get you to thinking about your future once you finish high school and attend a university.”
Pausing, he added, “We know that the talent and brain power in South Los Angeles is there.”
Special guest Anthony D. Mays kicked off the program with his talk titled “From Compton Foster Kid to Google Software Engineer.” Mays shared his journey in an effort to inspire the audience that regardless of any adversity they might face, they could still overcome the odds.
“I grew up as a foster kid,” Mays told the audience. ”I was physically and sexually abused at the age of 4. I and my two brothers were taken to Martin Luther King Hospital. We were examined and placed in foster care.”
Mays said he bounced from home to home. But at the age of 8, he and his brothers were placed with a loving foster couple.
“They bought me a PreComputer 1000,” Mays recalls, saying it was love at first sight. “I taught myself how to code and build programs with it.”
As a student at UC Irvine, he experienced firsthand that minorities in tech were few and far between.
“There was only one other African American in my computer science class,” he said.
At a college campus recruiting booth, he met representatives from Google.
“I didn’t think Google would have me because I was from the ghetto,” Mays said. Google urged him to apply for an internship, but Mays said he threw the application in the trash.
In 2011, Google contacted Mays for an interview, but Mays was nervous during the interview. He was turned down.
“In 2013, they called again,” he said. Once again afraid of rejection, Mays responded, “No, I’m good.”
“I survived rejection, abuse, poverty, and impostor syndrome — at one point, I thought that I was not good enough to compete in the tech world,” he said, adding that no one in his family had ever worked in the technology field.
Mays said he was astonished when Google called a third time. Mays said he studied hard before the interview. When he walked in the room, five engineers were there to grill him with a battery of questions. This time around, Mays was hired.
Addressing the dearth of minorities in the technology field, Mays said, “Tech was designed to be used by us, not built by us. But we can change that.”
He said he has dedicated himself to encouraging young people to enter the technical field.
“The guys working in tech from Compton, South Los Angeles and Watts, we represent a fraction of the talent that is out there,” he said. “If we all decide to put in the time and work, there’s an opportunity to change our communities. The most important thing is making up your mind to do it.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was a special guest, added, “It’s all about building a technology infrastructure in our community and making sure we have access to technology in order to break up the digital divide.”
Pausing, he added, “Take your technology and do the good work. We need to fight the homelessness problem so that young people will not have to live in poverty. You can be part of the greater good,” he said.
Karim Webb was on a panel titled “Tipping the Scales: Accessing the Cannabis Industry.” He said he plans to actively recruit residents in South Los Angeles to get involved in the cannabis industry, which is projected to be worth an estimated $50 billion by 2026.
“We intend to have a national footprint to create opportunities and wealth in the community,” Webb said about the cannabis industry.
Webb said he also hires at-risk youth to work in several Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants he owns.
Songwriter, DJ and producer the Arabian Prince was the featured guest on “Championing Next-Gen Technologists.” One of the original members of the Compton rap group NWA, Arab said he taught himself coding, launched a special effects animation studio and is in the process of opening several open lab incubators.
“There’s no place where you can go to experience technology,” said Arab, who hopes to create a community of techies. “Everybody listens to music or watches movies or TV. Open labs will be a place where entrepreneurs can create.”
Arab said that he became interested in video games in the early 1980s.
“Instead of smoking weed and drinking, I taught myself how to code, create video games and to do 3D animation,” he said, adding that he has created special effects animation on more than 100 feature films.
Arab said that is greatly impressed by the young gaming whizzes who have made their fortunes in the video gaming industry.
“I own a video and an Esports company and I’m walking around with 14- and 15-year-olds who are millionaires,” he said.
“If you have an idea, take your idea and concept and do research,” Arab advised. “It takes consistency and tenacity. Don’t stop. Keep pushing. You can reach out to somebody. Don’t wait. Do it. Because if you don’t somebody else will do it,” Arab said.
Cassie Betts, founder of Made in South LA, an urban economic accelerator who moderated the panel titled “Cultivate Those Geeky Roots in South LA,” predicted that there also will be booming opportunities in the field of robotics.
“The robots are coming,” she said. “The world is going to need people to build and maintain them.”
Barney Santos, founder of Gentefy who is currently building a tech incubator in Montebello, said that a budding entrepreneur may experience rejection from their own family members.
“Your family members may try to discourage you to pursue technology or business because they are injecting their own insecurities on you. But you have to believe in yourself. Be the best person at a skill. Pursue your passion and be really great at it.”
“Be around people who are supportive of your dreams,” advised Kasha Stewart, senior director of product management for Beach Body, a fitness streaming platform.
Abraham Jenkins, founder and CEO of Launchpad, a multimillion dollar software company, remembers growing up on welfare and sleeping on his mother’s couch.
“Ten years ago, I started my company with a thousand dollars,” he said. “We went out and talked to potential customers to buy our software. Today, our software is being used in 100 cities.
“I got mentors and I talked to people,” Jenkins said of his success. “It’s about skillset, hustle and determination.”