“Pittsburgh is small and I came at the perfect moment when the claim to fame for the city is technology and I was the engine to get the conversation going about black tech.”
After studying biology at Howard University and traveling to Senegal on a health scholarship, Kelauni Cook realized pre-med wasn’t for her, but wasn’t exactly sure what was. She spent the subsequent year in wanderlust living on friends’ couches in New York and Los Angeles, teaching English in Spain, and substitute teaching at her high school in Chicago. In 2016, she landed in Minot, North Dakota to help her sister open a business and spend time with her nephew. The plan was to study and get into a Ph.D program for cultural anthropology, but a family friend from Microsoft told her about the high demand for coding, which ultimately led her to Pittsburgh: “I Googled ‘free coding boot camps’ and after clicking through a couple of pages I found Academy Pittsburgh, which focuses on coding for minorities and females. Three weeks later I was packed up and heading to Pittsburgh without any connection to the city, the people or the culture. But I had a plan.”
She found housing easily in her newly adopted city, opting for an apartment not far from Academy in Arlington, a sliver of a neighborhood above the South Side Slopes. The coding bootcamp, however, was intense and not without tears and struggle. Kelauni cautions against the “Anyone can code!”marketing, but does offer sound advice for those interested in the field. “Make sure you have abundant patience, enjoy puzzles, and have a high tolerance for failure. I often joke that software developers make so much money because we’re paid to be frustrated. It’s a tedious job, but it’s about making a lot of little parts work together to make something big and it’s really rewarding when it works.”
Kelauni immersed herself in Pittsburgh’s tech industry, attending as many events as she could find. As is true across much of the technology industry, there were very few people who looked like her; when there was, it was a black male. “This sparked my curiosity and I decided to host an event called ‘Where is Black Tech in Pittsburgh?’” What Kelauni thought would be a small community panel discussion drew 80 participants including several members of Pittsburgh’s city council, Google staffers, and a sponsorship from Carnegie Mellon University. “It was the best decision I ever made, not just for my career, but how much Pittsburgh embraced me. I don’t think I would have had that kind of support in another city.”
The event spurred an onslaught of local and national news coverage and emails from individuals asking, now what? How do we make the tech space more inclusive? From there, Black Tech Nation was born, a “beautiful accident that came out of a community need.” It offers a comfortable platform for black computer science students, tech professionals, and those interested in joining the industry to share information and resources, hosting regular meet-ups and events. In addition, Kelauni hosts a “Blockchain Developers and Enthusiasts United” meet-up to engage a broad audience of participants who want to learn more about blockchain technology, news, and investments.
In addition to Black Tech Nation, Kelauni runs AcademyPittsburgh Beta Builders that teaches coding in high schools with a focus on engaging minorities. The after-school program teaches students to build a website that they can use for a college portfolio and the second cohort started in 2018 at Brashear High School.
Kelauni has little down time, but when she does have a spare moment you can find her on the dance floor. A ballet dancer for 16 years, she enjoys “any place with good music, people and drinks.” She enjoys the eclectic scene at Spirit in Lawrenceville, and the diverse mix of patrons (and alleged “best chicken nachos in the world”) at Twelve on Carson in the South Side. Kelauni also loves spending time in coffee shops and her favorite office away from home is the South Side’s Cup-Ka-Joe on 27th Street.
“I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I’ve started and failed at a lot of different projects, but my momentum in Pittsburgh has really been inspiring. I’m excited to see what happens next.”