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Startup’s project backed by Serena Williams aims to break down barriers

Crystal Moore. (Karat Photo)

As a middle school student in the small Mississippi town of Collinsville, Crystal Moore would spend lunch in her school’s computer lab. She also observed first-hand some of the barriers to Black socio-economic advancement that can be acute in the rural South.

Now she’s helping break down those barriers at Karat, a Seattle startup where she was recently tapped to lead a project to help increase the number of Black software engineers in the U.S.

“The more we can get black Americans, or people of color more broadly and women into the tech sector, the more we’re going to improve their social economic mobility,” said Moore in an interview with GeekWire. “And for me, that’s not just changing their life. That’s changing their family’s life and changing the trajectory of people in their communities.”

The Brilliant Black Minds project supports Black job seekers via practice on the company’s platform for technical interviews, along with other services.

The program also has the backing of tennis star Serena Williams, who invested an undisclosed amount in the effort last year. The project dovetails with Karat’s business of offering technical interview services for companies, which attracted $110 million in venture funding in October 2021 at a $1.1 billion valuation.

Moore has spent much of her career focused on supporting diverse populations of students and professionals.

She was previously vice president of partnerships at Strategic Education, which operates for-profit educational institutions like Strayer University, and senior director of business development at e-learning provider Fullbridge. She was also a fellow at the White House Domestic Policy Council at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where she was involved in a White House initiative supporting historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).

Moore spoke with GeekWire about how the project supports Karat’s call for the industry to double the number of Black engineers in the U.S. and shared her views of the effect of the tech downturn on diversity.

Breaking down barriers

Barriers to Black participation in tech include fewer professional connections, limited information about how the industry hires, and fewer opportunities to practice technical interviews, said Moore.

In her own family, tech careers were not emphasized. “They are not, or were not, talked about often at Black dinner tables as a career path,” said Moore. “In my family, it was ‘you’re going to be a doctor, a teacher or a lawyer,’ pathways that our moms and grandparents knew.”

Just 5.7% of all software engineers in the U.S. are Black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the early 2000’s, leaders in industries like banking, law and consulting began to make efforts to support Black employees and diverse workforces, said Moore. With increased self-examination as part of the Black Lives Movement, tech has recently begun to catch up. “I think we are at an inflection point,” said Moore.

The recent spate of layoffs, however, has increased uncertainty about how that trajectory will continue. Since Moore took on her new job, layoffs at tech companies have accelerated and Karat itself shed 47 employees.

Brilliant Black Minds remains a priority for Karat, said Moore, and she is hiring for her team.

Working through a downturn

“There is a popular saying that goes, “When white America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia,’” said Moore. “Unfortunately, that’s what I’m seeing when I look across the industry and my LinkedIn feed these days.”

Listings for diversity, equity and inclusion roles were down 19% last year, according to a report in Bloomberg, which identified layoffs in such roles at Amazon, Meta and Redfin. 

Moore said she’s similarly seeing layoffs in recruiting, human resources and diversity, equity and inclusion teams. “The reality is there are a lot of Black people in tech in those types of roles,” said Moore. As budgets for these departments constrict, “the challenge for the tech industry will be continuing to hire for strategic tech roles in an equitable way.”

“That’s how Serena frames it, the more you practice, the more you can get through those doubts and uncertainties around what the interview process may look like.”

Outside of tech companies, other industries are ramping up their tech pipelines, said Moore, “Businesses are still making strategic investments in tech and many companies are leaning into digital transformation to survive and thrive in this market,” said Moore.

These investments will create new opportunities for people going through the Brilliant Black Minds Program, she said.

Practice makes perfect

The program works by providing interview practice, peer interaction, and connections with seasoned industry veterans for mentorship. A Discord community provides a space for participants interact, build study groups and practice interviews together.

The program aims to provide “wraparound support,” said Moore. “When there’s few similar faces in a space, it’s really important to know who those other faces are and to build community.”

After candidates go through practice interviews, Karat connects eligible candidates to its hiring partners for first round interviews. Karat teams up with companies that have a priority on placing candidates from the program, including Citigroup and Amazon Prime Video.

Karat also partners with Howard University and other historically Black colleges and universities, the National Society of Black Engineers, InternHacks and other organizations to facilitate access to the program.

Karat has more than 2,500 Black engineers in its Brilliant Black Minds community and has conducted more than 3,100 practice interviews since the program started in 2021. It’s open to all current and aspiring Black software engineers in the U.S.

Not only does Brilliant Black Minds provide practical skills, it also helps engineers build confidence, said Moore.

“We have a term here at Karat called ‘FUD,’ for fear, uncertainty and doubt. And what we found is that for a lot of Black engineers or aspiring engineers, the technical interview can be overwhelming. There is a fear factor element to it. And so, practice is how you get over it,” said Moore. “That’s how Serena frames it, the more you practice, the more you can get through those doubts and uncertainties around what the interview process may look like.”

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