Ninja Innovation

Warriors? Yes. Turtles? No. Changing the World? One Gigabyte at a time

The Career Counselor

Heather Hiles has spent 20 years helping educate underserved children. The former commissioner of the San Francisco Unified School District also ran SFWorks, a welfare-to-work program that placed 5,000 women in jobs. During that time, she realized that we are all lifelong learners and our experiences inside and outside the classroom contribute to the paths we take in life. In response, she developed Pathbrite, an e-portfolio platform that engages learners as young as elementary school age to highlight their best experiences and creations. Each student has a private account in which they can own a copy of what are called digital artifacts: schoolwork examples, test scores, and transcripts. Authenticated diplomas and certificates of completion will soon follow. The content can follow them from high school to college and throughout their careers.

“I believe students should own their own data, whether it is an essay, a video they created, articles they wrote for the school paper, or transcripts,” says Hiles, who at the Clinton Global Initiative last year pledged to donate 1 million free portfolios to public schools and underserved children.

Some 25 institutions of higher learning, including Stanford University and the University of Illinois, have officially adopted Pathbrite. Now with ACT, a leading provider of pre-college and career readiness tests, as a strategic investor, Pathbrite is the only e-portfolio platform in the market that provides electronic copies of students’ ACT test scores.

But it’s not just for show. Hiles employs psychometricians to analyze the data and help portfolio owners optimize their next steps. Pathbrite currently targets those who are in the higher education space, but Hiles’s goal is for the software to be truly mainstream.

“We are all working on a body of knowledge that is unique to us,” says Hiles. “With these portfolios, I think we can…take data about what you know and help you…visualize your path for future success.”

The Buy

Black Guide

Janine Hausif’s iPhone/iPad app, Around the Way, uses a smartphone’s GPS to locate black-owned businesses within a defined radius of the user’s location. Along with partners Sian Morson, a mobile development expert; and Eric Hamilton, who heads business development, Hausif, 29, forged an 18-month exclusive partnership last January with the U.S. Black Chamber Inc., which will offer its 240,000 members premium listings beginning this spring.

The Pipeline

Founded in April 2011, Black Girls Code is Kimberly Bryant’s vehicle to fill the “T” in the STEM pipeline. Last year, while still working full time in the biotech industry, Bryant corralled 400 volunteers to help host workshops that taught various aspects of Web-based technology including mobile apps, design graphics, digital filmmaking, and robotics to 800 girls in nine U.S. cities.

Best City for Blacks in Tech?

Ninjas, Jedis, and rock stars? Don’t forget cowboys. Austin, Texas, is looking more and more like America’s next tech boom city. It was ranked No. 2 by the Milken Institute on its Best-Performing Cities 2012 because of its growth in jobs, wages and salaries, and technology output over a five-year span.

If wrangling, steering, and branding are a cowboy’s forte, then there is no bigger cattle call than South by Southwest Interactive. Known as the launchpad for Twitter and Foursquare, SXSWi is one of the tech world’s biggest events. Some 25,000 entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and industry leaders descend on Austin every March to see what is trending in tech circles.

All Old West puns aside, Austin is no ordinary Texas city. It is the birthplace of Dell Computers and home to the University of Texas, where the state’s center for innovation, the IC2 Institute, lives.  Now with DreamIt Ventures, NewMe, and other accelerators and incubators in the area, the tech atmosphere in Austin is hotter than its average summer temperature of 85 degrees.

Helping black entrepreneurs leverage it all is Natalie Madeira Cofield, 31. Since stepping into position as president and CEO of the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce nearly two years ago, Cofield’s goal has been to get the chamber more deeply involved in Austin’s tech ecosystem. The chamber recreated a black technology council that includes representatives from Dell, Samsung, Apple, and Facebook as well as the city of Austin’s chief technology officer. And Google has signed on to sponsor the initiative. “It’s important for the next wave of black entrepreneurs to be in line with the highest growth industries in the country,” says Cofield.

What else does Austin offer? The cost of living is so much lower, that it gives startups a real chance at work/life balance, says Gina McCauley, an award-winning blogger and the organizer of Blogging While Brown, an annual conference that brings social media, blogging, and tech experts together for education and collaboration.

The Chamber has drawn attention to Austin-based companies such as software and game developer Heatwave Interactive and SalesVu, a mobile point-of-sale, software-as-a-service that has 15,000 registered users worldwide and has grown 30% month-over-month. The Chamber honored Pascal Nicolas, 35, SalesVu’s owner, for his business prowess and foresight to put SalesVu’s services in the cloud and thereby reduce clients’ costs. black enterprise and Dell were also honored by the CCAACC at its Small Business Awards Gala this year. “Natalie has brought together companies that may have heard of one another but didn’t have a legitimate connection,” says Mykel Mitchell, president of Heatwave, which released the popular iSamJackson app. Cofield has made it possible for Mitchell to negotiate future deals with Dell and be 100s advertising agency Sanders\Wingo.

“She definitely gets Web 2.0. She’s exactly what the chamber needed,” says Donell Creech, founder of SoulCiti, Austin’s  portal to black events and businesses, who has curated Blacks in Tech events for SXSW for the last three years.

Cofield, acknowledges that the black population in Austin is decreasing. But that shouldn’t discourage black entrepreneurs with web-based ventures who want to take advantage of Austin’s tech resources. She says: “I feel like Austin is reflective of the changing dynamic of the U.S.”

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