Hacking the Science of Black Nerds

Ahead of SXSW this week, the women behind Blerdology talk hacking, technology and embracing your inner geek.

Posted: 03/05/2013 08:00 AM EST

Kat Calvin and Amanda Spann are proud to host what they call “giant geek parties.” Black nerds — or blerds as they call themselves — are now the cool kids.

Calvin and Spann run Blerdology: The Science of Black Nerds, formerly known as #BlackGirlsHack, an organization that celebrates and enhances the Black tech community. They hope to provide a safe space for people of color who are interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and who may not feel like they fit in the often white world of technology.

“I feel like STEM is the new Black,” says Kat Calvin, 29, founder of Blerdology. “There are a lot more blerds/Black techies/people who are in the Black tech and the STEM community out there than people think.”

Blerdology hosted its first hackathon in Atlanta in November. Fifty Black coders and developers created mobile apps and competed to win the hackathon championship. Ama Marfo, whose team created a website for her Airfordable company, was declared the winner. A successful startup investor was in attendance and said he has plans to invest in her company.

“It’s a really amazing thing to actually help someone put the pieces together and build something that may become the next high growth company in this country,” says Amanda Spann, 26, PR coordinator for Blerdology.  

The proceeds from these events — for-profit businesses who need apps/projects built pay a fee — go to local nonprofit organizations. The proceeds from the Atlanta hackathon went to nonprofit tech organization Black Girls Code, which focuses on teaching young Black girls about computer programming in cities across America.

These “giant, geek parties” generally focus on a theme or how to solve a certain problem and can last up to 72 hours. For example, in the summer Blerdology will host a hackathon in Detroit. Coders and developers will think of innovative ways to solve problems through technology about energy issues in Detroit. In April in Newark, New Jersey, the group has partnered with Rutgers business school to host its second hackathon and proceeds will go to the Centers for Collaborative Change, an organization that makes sure residents of Newark are aware of the advancements in their neighborhoods.

This week they head to perhaps one of the biggest nerd extravaganzas at South by Southwest (SXSW). Blerdology along with the Blacks in Technology House will host Black Hack Hollywood, where participants will create innovative apps and websites for film and music. Electronic Arts, the gaming company, has teamed up with Black Hack Hollywood to provide prizes for the best projects.

But since starting the organization, Calvin and Spann have decided to expand its reach beyond the hack. They hope to reach out to any Black person who’s even remotely interested in technology and all things nerdy. And instead of going to major tech hubs like New York City, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., they’ve decided to focus on second-tier markets, like Newark and Detroit, where people may not be getting as much tech love as they should.

“There is no one path to technology; that’s the beauty of innovation,” Spann said. “Something that we’re really focusing on with Blerdology is that everyone is not meant to be a developer or a coder, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get involved with STEM.”

Calvin says there are “a million different ways that you can be a nerd.”

She’s more of a traditional nerd, if you will. (She had Deep Space Nine paused on Apple TV during our interview.) She’s a lawyer by profession, but an entrepreneur at heart. She founded Michelle in Training, a mentorship program for girls in D.C., and Character’s Closet, where shoppers can find their favorite outfits from their favorite TV characters' closets.

Spann’s career background is in entertainment and marketing, and she’s worked for a host of brands. But like most folks technology touches part of her everyday life. She is starting up Glamobile, a fashion tech hub.

With their organization’s brand-spanking new title and direction, Calvin and Spann hope blerds really start to be the next popular kids.

“We’re focused on fueling ambitions, facilitating collaborations and just making blerd life a little more awesome in general,” Spann said.

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(Photos: Courtesy of Blerdology)

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