Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler, founder of Trans*H4CK, somewhat stumbled into the tech industry after graduating from Northwestern University, where he received the school’s first-ever PhD in African-American studies in 2011.Despite his degree, Ziegler said he had a hard time finding a job as a black trans man.
“I finished school at 29, and spent all these years at school and then struggled with transgender discrimination in a way that I had never, ever before,” Ziegler told me over coffee at Oakland’s Awaken Cafe, located just down the street from where he hosted the first-ever Trans*H4CK. “I transitioned through my final years of grad school and it was really difficult to find support at the school I was at.”
Ziegler ultimately ended up in Oakland, Calif., where he met a business partner with a similar interest in fashion. The two decided to open up a vintage clothing shop, which Ziegler says ultimately led him into tech.
“I started networking with a lot of entrepreneurs in Oakland and the Bay Area, attending lots of meet-ups and things like that, and kind of stumbled into tech because it’s everywhere here,” Ziegler said. “And you kind of have to figure out a way to meld the work that you do as a business owner with the growing startup world.”
One of the events Ziegler came across was Tribeca Hacks, a series of hackathons and workshops that merge the worlds of video content and technology. Ziegler attended, but as a black, queer person, he said it wasn’t the most welcoming experience.
“I was like, ‘Oh, tech really sucks. It’s all white, nerdy people.’ It was a pretty difficult experience the whole weekend. I didn’t show up for the final day because, I feel like I’m a pretty strong person in social settings, and that was a really defeating space in a number of ways.”
The Beginning of Trans*H4CK
Despite Ziegler’s negative experience at the event, he walked away from it feeling inspired to bring the hackathon model to transgender advocacy. He turned that experience into a positive one, and ultimately created what is now known as Trans*H4CK. In May 2013, Ziegler launched a GoFundMe campaign to host a hackathon for transgender empowerment in Oakland.
“It took me three months to raise $6,000 online, which is kind of ridiculous,” Ziegler said. “That was my first realization that black people don’t get paid in tech.”
Trans*H4CK officially launched in September 2013, with its first hackathon hosted at the New Parkway, a local art gallery in Oakland. Since then, Trans*H4CK has hosted three other in-person hackathons, which have resulted in over 30 projects created geared toward the transgender and gender non-conforming community.
The last on-site event, pictured above, happened last November, in partnership with the Harvard Innovation Lab. Things seemed to be going pretty well on the outside, but Trans*H4CK had trouble finding funding. For a little while, Ziegler said he had started thinking he would have to sell Trans*H4CK to another group that was passionate about transgender empowerment. Before Ziegler could entertain the idea long enough to see it come into fruition, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and his philanthropist wife, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, reached out offering to fund Trans*H4CK with an $85,000 grant.
“Getting funded was a beautiful gift,” Ziegler said.
Trans*H4CK Post-Andreessen Funding
Now, Trans*H4CK is able to move online, and will host its first virtual hackathon in January, with the goal of to making it highly accessible to trans people all over the world. That being said, Trans*H4ck will continue to host in-person events, like weekly hack nights. Trans*H4CK will also relaunch its speakers series online in January, with the whole month featuring trans in tech broadcasts.
“We’re hoping to have hundreds of people across the world come to these events where trans people in tech, who are actually building tech, will share their projects that they’re working on, will probably demo products that they’re working on,” Ziegler said. “There will probably be live coding sessions to really show what technology transgender people are making in the tech space and not just be like, trans people are here.”
Both the hackathon and speakers series will use proprietary virtual conferencing technology from BlackStarMedia, Trans*H4CK’s parent company. BlackStarMedia, founded by Ziegler and developer Tiffany Mikell, is a virtual events platform that offers organizers tools to customize and moderate online events. BlackStarMedia’s first customer, outside of Trans*H4CK, was The Womyn’s Freedom Conference. BlackStarMedia, which is currently finalizing a contract with a billion-dollar tech startup, aims to compete with tools like Adobe Connect.
The funding also enabled Trans*H4CK to hire full-time employees, so now it’s not just Ziegler working on it by himself. Early next month, Trans*H4CK will launch a transgender in tech survey in order to try to determine how many trans people are in tech. Right now, there are no hard numbers around trans people in tech because no one has done the research, Ziegler said. The survey will also ask trans people in tech how much money they make and where they work. In the Human Rights Campaign’s latest report for LGBTQ equality in the workplace, Google, Airbnb, Twitter and several other tech companies scored perfect, 100% scores for having things in place like global non-discrimination policies or codes of conduct that specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. What the report lacks is the number of trans people in tech, their true experience in the workplace and how often they’re promoted. In addition to the speaker series, weekly hack nights and virtual events, Trans*H4CK is going to double down on its focus around trans men in tech.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of love for us in the world,” Ziegler said. “In the technical space, I critique the diversity conversation as only talking about white women. The past year we’ve seen diversity in tech start to mean black people now, and latino or hispanic. And then people are like, ‘Ok, we’re beyond gender now,’ but no, we’re not beyond gender because we don’t really talk about trans people.”
Gender doesn’t mean white women, and a lot of people don’t seem to realize that, Ziegler said. There’s still a lack of critical conversations and spaces for trans people, especially trans men.
“In tech, masculine identified trans people don’t get a lot of spaces to be, to function, or to be recognized in a lot of ways,” Ziegler said. “I really want Trans*H4CK to be that space.”
2016 Diversity in Tech Conversations
Everyone’s talking about diversity, but very little is happening, so I wasn’t surprised when Ziegler said that diversity has become a pejorative word, and that people have been leveraging it in a way that is really off-putting.
We have to say racist. We have to say the R word. We never say it. That blows my mind. They say sexist all day. People never say that this space is racist. Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler
“I think people have the best interests in mind, but the conversation has become so stagnant and repetitive,” Ziegler said. “It isn’t pushing anything forward, and isn’t really focusing on the root of the issue that people are fucking racist.”
What’s fascinating, Ziegler said, is that a lot of people have opinions around diversity in tech (myself included) but dance around any talk of racism and anti-black policies.
“We have to say ‘racist,'” Ziegler said. “We have to say the ‘R’ word. We never say it. That blows my mind. They say sexist all day. People never say that this space is racist.”
Next year, Ziegler envisions the diversity in tech conversation becoming more about LGBT inclusion, but not necessarily the T (transgender). If transgender does become part of the mainstream diversity conversation, “it won’t be Trans*H4ck, and I think that’s because of me,” Ziegler said. “I think black trans men aren’t palatable to the mainstream idea of what trans is.”