Elena Scotti/FUSION

Sheena Allen is the perfect example of what can happen when hip hop meets Silicon Valley. Sitting backstage at the Tech808 conference in Oakland last weekend, the mobile app company founder chatted about J Cole, soul food and the proper way to address elders before offering to drop freestyle battle rhymes.

Influenced by the work of early civil rights leaders and an article she’d read on Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old Mississippi native designed the wireframe for her first app in Microsoft Word. Most of the people from her small town couldn’t grasp why was spending her time hunkered in front of a computer instead of out job-hunting like everyone else.

Sheen Allen at the Tech808 Conference in Oakland
Kwan Booth

“My grandmother told me ‘I don’t understand what you’re doing. You better go get you one of those secretary jobs and a steady income,’” she said. With no experience or connections in the tech world, her first app, a document storage software similar to Evernote, didn’t do well, with less than fifty downloads in the first two months.

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But she persisted. Today her six photo-editing and financial-planning apps have nearly 2.5 million downloads across iPhone and Android and have been used by stars including Diddy and Kevin Hart.

Allen sees this success as just the beginning. She hopes to develop a portfolio of media and entertainment companies that will provide more opportunities for people like her—young black women from low-income communities. “20 years from now, when people are Googling my name, it’s not “she just does tech.” I want media, fashion, entertainment," she said. "Tech is just my stepping stone."

This combination of street hustle and business savvy, along with a belief that tech is a pathway to greater opportunities, are two defining factors of a new breed of tech entrepreneur. They learned business skills from Notorious BIG’s “The 10 Crack Commandments” years before reading “The Lean Startup,” and cite Tulsa’s Black Wall Street as being as much a model of success as Uber. This past weekend, at Oakland’s Impact Hub, this emerging community was out in force for the Tech808 conference.

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The “808” references The Roland 808 drum machine, aka one of the seminal sounds in hip hop, heard on tracks ranging from Afrika Bambataa’s groundbreaking “Planet Rock” to Kanye West’s “808’s and Heartbreak.” The conference, which has been held previously in New York and Washington, D.C., covers the ins and outs of starting, marketing and funding a tech company, but packages it in the hip hop aesthetic.

Unlike most tech conferences in the Bay Area, the 120 young entrepreneurs, coders and tech executives in attendance were predominantly black and latino. Speakers for the event were a diverse mix. The conference's website brags, "All of our speakers started at the bottom and built their dreams with minimal resources."

Tech 808 speakers
Tech808

A DJ spun tracks between sessions on venture capital, content marketing and developing a minimal viable product. MC and tech entrepreneur Divine "the 4th Letter" previewed his new album. Anyone who walked in off the street during one of the networking breaks may have easily confused the event for a day party filled with sharply dressed young tastemakers.

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Divine, who led a session entitled “From Crack to Rap to Tech” is a unique example of how hip hop is putting a new spin on Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. While spending 10 years in federal prison on drug charges, Divine read everything he could about the music business and eventually became fascinated with the work of Ben Horowitz, cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz, who is also a hip hop fan.

Soon after his release, Divine reached out to Horowitz on Twitter and over the last year the two have bonded over their shared love of music and business. The rapper has released two songs dedicated to the tech entrepreneur and Horowitz has helped fund Divine’s debut album. These days, in between record promotions and speaking to youth groups, Divine is learning the ropes of Silicon Valley and pitching investors on a financial tech company focused on unbanked and low-income communities.

“On the street I was a hustler, I was a grinder. I never used the word 'entrepreneur,'” he says, reflecting on his transition from the dope game in New York, to rap, to the tech game. “I always had that spirit in me. I’ve just been using it in the wrong way.”

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Divine says that his drive to succeed, the business skills he learned on the streets and his unique narrative are all traits he can leverage as he moves into the competitive world of venture capital.

The tech industry is not known for embracing diversity. But the last few years have seen several hip hop heavyweights increase their Silicon Valley footprint; Jay Z, Dr Dre, Pharrell Williams, and Chamillionaire have lent their names and star power to startups and established brands.

Partially because of these high-profile endorsements, and partially thanks to recent diversity initiatives around tech hiring and start-up funding, young African-Americans and Latinos who never imagined careers in tech are eyeing the field as the next big thing. While it’s too early to call this new community a movement, as urban culture meets tech culture, yesterday’s aspiring MC may be tomorrow’s starry-eyed startup founder.

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The conference is the brainchild of The Phat Startup, a media and events company that works with young urban entrepreneurs. Started three years ago by die-hard hip hop heads James Lopez and Anthony Frasier, The Phat Startup developed a following by packaging tech industry business wisdom for a younger, edgier audience. Its motto is, “Don’t reinvent the wheel, just put rims on it.”

The conference in Oakland
Kwan Booth

Frasier says he believes one of the most effective ways to increase diversity is by incorporating the culture most familiar to his peers.

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“Black people, people of color, we’re very centered people,” he explained. “We love culture. It’s not about something that’s so technical and dry. It has to have some music to it. It has to have some flavor to it. It has to have some style to it. It has to have some swag to it.”

“Tech loves hip hop,” said Wayne Sutton, a partner in Buildup VC, a nonprofit that provides mentorship and guidance to entrepreneurs from under-represented communities. “Hip hop is about telling the stories of the pain points of a community. Tech is about solving the pain points.”

But this potential synergy doesn’t guarantee an easy merger. Despite tech’s embrace of hip hop music, making space for the people who created it is a much bigger issue.

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“The private sector hasn’t really opened up to us,” said Khalilah Rucker, an aspiring tech entrepreneur with a background in urban music marketing. “They take maybe one of us at a time, and that person has to navigate and learn the way to bring in others, but as a black community, we need to bring back the Black Wall Street and we need to build our own wealth and learn from each other and bring each other in and build each other up.”

While there have been some recent successes and pushes for more diversity in Silicon Valley, the lack of a relatable culture and community can make tech a lonely place for many people of color, which is something Tech808 emphasizes in its advertising. "Have you ever been to a tech startup conference and felt alone?" asks its website. Racial bias, sexism and tight-knit informal networks still provide serious barriers for many underrepresented people trying to enter the industry.

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“Had I been one of those Harvard guys, or Stanford guys or Berkeley guys, I would have had investors kicking down my door,” Allen said, recalling her difficulty navigating the world of venture capital. “But I wasn’t. I was a little black girl from Terry, Mississippi.”

Sutton says that the main thing conferences like Tech808 and recent initiatives can do is shine a light not only on how few women and people of color are working in tech, but also how few investment dollars are being directed toward more diverse companies.

“We’ve still got to run 100 miles per hour. We are at no point where we can take our foot off the gas pedal, in terms of pressuring the investment world to invest in more diverse portfolios," said Sutton.

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Frasier agrees that much work still needs to be done, but feels that gains are being made and that the potential rewards are too great to pass up. He compares the opportunities available in tech to building a house for a family in need.

“You can start giving us hammers, you can start giving us nails. You can start giving us the wood and let us build it ourselves," said Frasier. "Learning to code is the hammer. Learning how to code is the wood. Learning how to code is the raw material that it’s going to take to pave the future for our people.”

Kwan Booth is a journalist, creative writer and media consultant focused on the future of communications, community, art and technology. He is Online Editor for Making Contact Radio, the editor of the Black Futurists Speak literary anthology and posts musings on tech, culture and life at http://boothism.org.

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Kwan Booth is a journalist, creative writer and media consultant focused on the future of communications, community, art and technology. He is Online Editor for Making Contact Radio, the editor of the Black Futurists Speak literary anthology and posts musings on tech, culture and life at http://boothism.org.