EXCLUSIVE Interview with App Developer Aaron Saunders #BlackExcellenceJavonni Brustow
Photo Credit: HaitTechSummit.com
When thinking of the Smithsonian and who would be designing their software, only the biggest of firms would come to mind, but that isn’t the case for their new African American Museum that just opened in the National Mall months ago. The person responsible for the museum’s app is a black developer by the name of Aaron Saunders, Founder of Clearly Innovative. In an area where many formerly black neighborhoods such as U Street are now filled with establishments full of black art, without the ownership or patronage of who is on portrayed on the walls, it’s good to see the museum is being true to its name by employing African Americans to do work for their premier African American museum. When asked what it was like to be such a part of history, he said that for a small firm it’s a big deal but being a black person it adds another layer and on top of that. Being a resident of Washington, DC and having children and friends that you can tell that you built this app is just an added bonus.
Aaron told us a story of how he was having his car worked on in the Petworth neighborhood of DC and during a discussion about what he did for a living as an app developer and sharing that he designed the app for the Smithsonian African American History museum, the mechanic had a look of pride and shock. “Sometimes you normalize things because it’s a part of your life, but I realize I was blessed to give other folks opportunity to be a part of this. It’s a part of history and no one can take that away from them.” As for what it’s like getting through the process of creating an app for the Smithsonian, it may come with its share of bragging rights but he says he was nervous the entire time, but of course it turned out great and everyone was happy; so much so that he has some add on work to do with it as well.
Luma Lab is a small business incubator at Howard University that came about during an internal marketing project where they were shining a light on potential opportunities where they decided that a business incubator would be a great chance for people of color to create worth where you don’t necessarily need a degree for the light to illuminate, to show, to expose people to opportunities and exposing people to technology.
Aaron has started a middle school, traveled the world, done projects in Europe, across the United States, wrote a book, created a company all through technology. “I see the power technology has and all the opportunities it can bring with a barrier of entry that is quite lower than what most think.” As for the back story of the school, when speaking to students in Prince George’s County, Maryland, he realized many didn’t know anyone in the tech field, so it’s hard to get in a field if you don’t know anyone. He also said it’s important for kids o see someone that looks like them. Partnered with Diversity in Tech and 100 Black Men, unlike the Hackathon he hosted in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC, Tech Exploration had mentors for all and even had a pitch deck that kids made for marketing where some learned coding, some learned videos and the best speaker did pitches, etc. The point of it all was that each of those facets were a part of the tech field. Once complete, for the next few years it was his goal to find a way to create a space for these types of events and continuously provide support.
Before the Howard opportunity came about he did summer camps, middle school, Boys and Girls clubs, a large public interest was shown to his education efforts leading him to try to balance business and education. Originally looking East of the River for much less than 8,000 square feet, the size of the incubator space he finally settled on, his focus was that if he was able to bring together a solid team, articulate his vision well and could get the money to help to do something positive and hopefully grow so despite all of the potential negatives, he thought there was a huge upside to applying for and ultimately winning funding from Howard University and the Mayor’s office in DC to run a business incubator. As of now the incubator will be open February 2017, a space that when complete will have desks set up, electronics, and let people know it isn’t just about tech, that small businesses run the community but tech can grow their business.
If there is any advice Aaron would be able to share with the next generation, he says to go with what your strengths are. As an example, he writes software and tried to teach a 12 year old how to do it and it didn’t work. He noticed the child spends a lot of time on Youtube and showed him a stop motion Lego video he made. Find your passion and if it is around technology, there is likely to be an opportunity there to be realized. That stop motion video the 12 year old showed him could be a career and taking moments like that helping others to realize their potential is what he tries to do. Also worth mentioning is that most of Aaron’s employees don’t have Computer Science degrees, something that most people are 100% convinced is necessary to be able to do anything in technology. Statistically, most in the field are men, but not the case under his leadership. Out of a team of 19 people, it’s comprised 75% of women. People are brought in as apprentices to get a chance to get their feet wet and gain experience in a new field. He even found a person from Twitter, proving the point that everything we post online matters and yes, people are always watching.
As an Adjunct professor at Howard, Aaron tell the pros and cons of getting a computer science degree. African American and Hispanic students earn nearly 20% of computer science degrees while making up only 9 percent of the tech industry and less than 1 percent of tech company founders, clearly showing the need for more minorities to be in the field. Despite all of the opportunity without having one, having his degrees made a difference in Aaron’s career at some point. The boot camp approach to making money quickly works for some but they often regret it. While at Howard you have the opportunity to invest time into being the best in the field. One of the challenges when talking bout the numbers of computer science degrees is that too much of a focus is placed on social media. Most of the blacks getting computer science degrees are going to Fortune 500 companies who have relationships with these colleges and they are intentionally recruiting minorities.
Considering all Aaron has done over his career from running a middle school, creating the app for the new Smithsonian African American History museum in the District, he says he enjoys what he’s doing now the most because he is able to have an impact on people. He got married late in life at 40, had a son, got older, realized opportunity, used the privilege he had to help others and instead of complaining he asked what can he do to help other people. For Harlem Tech Week he did a speech where Michael Jackson’s Bad album was on the next to last slide with a quote from Man in the Mirror on the last one. People say they are only one person but he’s written a book, does summer camps, has a newly formed non-profit, all because as one person he decided to do one thing. You don’t know until you try. You can say it all started with a May 1979 middle school science fair is where it started where he taught himself the basics on a Commodore Pet that no one had touched for a straight 3 months. He read the manual and figured it out.
Right now in the tech education field, STEM learning has become the trend and the need for getting more children involved in it. the easier way to get children involved in STEM, Aaron says is to stop calling it STEM. It’s easier to get kids excited by calling it something else. The M on the end is the killer. Aaron uses himself as an example saying he’s horrible in math. “You’re excited about computers but you have to take all these math classes. Are we saying the only way to be successful in tech is to be great in math? During parent career days, they say my child isn’t good in math. What do I do?” He says it isn’t necessary. Writing software is more about creativity than math.
Trying to find how to not make it all about grades, kids are afraid to risk their GPA to take his class. They’re making life decisions because they’re worried about a grade and losing their scholarship. In his the innovation space it’s a complimentary program where you can take classes that wont impact your GPA so you can have the chance to experiment in your field without wreaking havoc on your GPA.
With the completion of the app for the Smithsonian African American History Museum, just what is next for Aaron Saunders? His long term strategy is to conquer the world, have M3 locations near HBCUs or near colleges of people of color so he can create those spaces for people to give back time and not have to have an MBA, like Howard’s requirement along with creating opportunities for teachers and students. He’s also building a list of mentors for helping those looking to go further in the tech industry. Aaron Saunders has been named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Black Business and Professional Association, added to the list of the Washington City Paper’s 30 Interesting people of the Year, Washington Business Journal’s Power 100 and included in the 12 people profiled in their book of lists.