As a group of women working towards common goals for STYLE Canada‘s brand and business, we understand the value of peer support in the workplace. So, after our last Supper Club at Soho House, we decided to bring like-minded women in business together and feature them in an ongoing series: #LeadingLadies. Learn more about #LeadingLady Tamar Huggins Grant below.
SC: What was your first experience with technology like?
THG: I was introduced to technology at a young age. My father was into wiring and electrical. He was a carpenter, but he was very much into building computers before having computers was really a thing in every household. We had several because he would go to the computer store and would teach himself to wire things and build things. That was the first time I was introduced to technology.
My first computer was a computer my father had built for me. When I was in high school, my best friend Nicholas and I really connected through our love of technology. He was more on the coding/engineering side and I really loved the user experience side of things. So we would spend our lunch period in the library on the only two computers that allowed us to use a loophole to go on blackplanet.com, which was the social network we were using at the time. It allowed us to create our own profiles, which we did through Adobe Photoshop. We used celebrities that we admired and created profiles with their imagery. We also found codes online from this website called Igotcode.com that had pre-written codes that allowed us to modify things on our page like the colour of the scroll bar and the way that the cursor looked.
There was another website called Toya’s World where she had all of the leaked music that was coming out from popular artists. We were able to grab that and add that experience to our page, so that was really my first introduction to technology and engaging with technology in that way.
SC: How did you come up with the idea of creating a tech and design school?
THG: Prior to starting Tech Spark, one of my companies that I started was called Driven Accelerator Group. It was the first tech accelerator in all of Canada that educated, coached, and provided access to capital to tech founders that were newcomers, females, or POC. We did that successfully for about two years. I helped about two to three cohorts raise between $1.1 million collectively, which back in 2012 and 2014 was amazing, seeing as there weren’t a lot of support systems for POCs or women tech founders at all.
It came to our attention that we were not seeing as many applicants. It was almost as if Driven was way ahead of its time – almost ten years. We realized as an organization that in order to create the impact, we had to look at pivoting from entrepreneurs to students. We realized if students didn’t see themselves as tech founders, entrepreneurs or creators of any kind, there would be no need for an accelerator that focused on Black tech founders or female tech founders if we weren’t cultivating that engagement at an earlier age. So, that’s where the idea for Tech Spark was born.
SC: What is Tech Spark’s ultimate goal?
THG: At Tech Spark we actually use what’s called a massive transformative purpose rather than a mission statement. Our massive transformative purpose is, ‘Spark the brain, change the world‘. That actually came out of an interview that I believe Tupac did with MTV a number of years before his death. It spoke to me as a leader because he was so selfless in that interview when he said he may not be the one to change the world, but he will be the one to spark the brains of those that will change the world.
It was at that moment that I realized that is what our purpose is as an organization. It’s not for us to necessarily take on the spotlight, but it’s for us to help students recognize what’s already within them, and tap into that to show them their potential. That is the purpose of our organization.
SC: What services does Tech Spark provide?
THG: When Tech Spark began in 2015, we started out as a bootcamp. A twelve-week boot camp for young Canadians who were either underemployed, at risk of dropping out of school or already dropped out of school. Every year we pivoted and just elevated the organization and deepened our impact. So after that, we started doing after school programs which allowed us to go into the school versus having programs outside of the school. Once in the schools, we were able to garner the interest of teachers and principals who wanted to have our program during the school day or ‘in between the bells’.
Then it graduated from being a lunchtime program to actually creating courses that are a part of the curriculum. So now we’re at the level where we do three main things. One: we help organizations and school boards identify equity gaps and use a defined lab approach to identify what the challenges are. Then we prioritize what the challenges are and bring all stakeholders, including students, together to devise a formula for student success. Two: We train teachers on how to run culturally responsive courses. We redesign or create new courses that are culturally responsive, relevant and speak to the lived experiences of the students that we serve.
Lastly, we do offer programming in five key areas: coding, gaming, UX Design, virtual reality, and robotics or AI. We provide those programs through other nonprofits, schools, or organizations that are looking to provide programming to young people during the summers, over March break, or throughout the year on the weekend.
SC: Why is it important for Tech Spark to do the work that it does?
THG: It’s necessary for us to do this type of work because for a too long, Black, Indigenous and other POC have been undervalued, mistreated, and have had things either stripped or stolen from them. Things like their culture, their language, their music, their fashion… and it’s being profited from by other groups. It’s important for us to strengthen communities by giving them the tools that they need to become successful in increasing or improving their socioeconomic status, because that is the only way we can be successful as a group.
It is the only way as a community to support one another to be creative without any hindrances or barriers, but most importantly, be able to express who we are and to be able to profit from that. At the end of the day, it’s not just about consuming technology, but being able to create it. Black children and children of colour are overrepresented on the consumption side of technology and underrepresented on the side of creating technology. When we look at the way that wealth is created in Canada and North America, a lot of it is due to majority groups that have either stolen land, properties, and really taken that and been able to profit off of those assets. Being able to hand those assets down to their children to give them a leg up in society.
Unfortunately, those things were often taken away from Indigenous peoples and Black people, and they were unable to own land for a very long time. And even when they did own land and businesses, they were destroyed systematically to oppress them. We’re trying to really show underrepresented communities that they have a lot of power within them to be creators. It’s actually woven in the fibre of our being and we want them to be able to utilize that to elevate their socioeconomic status. That is the only way I believe Black, Indigenous and POC can rise above systemic oppression, whether it be financially, academically, socially, or otherwise.
SC: What is your biggest accomplishment since starting Tech Spark?
THG: In the past five years we have done some incredible work. What I am most proud of is the work we are doing with Durham District School Board. We are creating their first tech entrepreneurship course that is obviously designed to be culturally relevant and responsive. It’s designed to include students who are often excluded from academic programs or certain types of courses. It has been designed for grade 11 students and it’s actually apart of the curriculum.
I am excited about the approach we’ve taken to ensure we are creating programming that reaches those who are often streamed out of academic programs or streamed out of STEM programs because of their race, cultural background or socioeconomic status. So that is something I’m really proud of. We’ll continue that work in several school boards across the GTA and focus on creating a long-lasting impact with every learner that we engage with.
“Black children and children of colour are overrepresented on the consumption side of technology and underrepresented on the side of creating technology.” – Tamar Huggins Grant
SC: How has COVID-19 impacted Tech Spark and the work you do?
THG: In terms of pivoting our programming during COVID, we’re a digital organization. So, COVID has not impacted the growth of our work. I think what it’s done is uncovered many of the pre-existing equity issues that we’ve always known were there. Right now, there is a huge spotlight on it as it relates to Black students and the treatment they receive in public schools across the GTA. It’s actually made our work a lot easier in the sense that we are now able to move forward with changing what the learning experience is currently to what it should be like, and as always, there’s going to be resistance.
However, with COVID as I mentioned, it has really highlighted equity issues from the top-down. And now there is an oversubscribed need for the services Tech Spark provides around addressing equity issues, but doing so in a creative way. You know it’s not enough to just train teachers on the unconscious bias, but to really look at the system and how it’s structured, and to work with those who are in charge of the system to make those changes so that we see success from the top-down.
As devastating as COVID is to the economy and to the health of Canadians, I feel like it’s provided lots of opportunity for organizations that have always done more than just providing fluff services or fluff programming. It’s really providing an opportunity for those who are focused on the deep, intentional impact, to now expand and scale that work.
As of right now, we’re seeking work with not only school boards, but organizations that are influential within Canada like Shopify, Amazon, and IBM. We want to look at the existing programs they have, existing computer programming, or other STEM programs they might offer to children. We want to look at how we can extend our reach by redesigning the experience so that it’s inclusive; redesigning it so that it’s culturally relevant and responsive, and also training their educators on the how’s and the why’s of the change taking place. Plus, how to sustain that change moving forward.
SC: Where do you see Tech Spark in five years?
THG: We’ve actually developed a theory of change that has six steps to it, which can be found on our website. One of the important pieces of change we’re looking to see is change around policies at the ministry level. We’re really looking at how we can obtain data about students, how they learn, how they process information, and what changes need to happen for certain results to be seen. We want to be able to use that data to inform policy change because as I mentioned, it’s not enough to do grassroots programming – things need to change at a systemic level.
The system is much bigger than the school and the school board, and it definitely has its roots within the Ontario ministry and the Canadian ministry, but more specifically Ontario. Being able to have a seat at the table and to help to inform which policies need to be replaced and which policies need to be removed to ensure that education is equitable for all students, especially for those that have been historically disenfranchised within Canada, is important.
People can definitely get involved by visiting our website, techspark.ca, and connect with us that way, whether they want to engage with us through a partnership, make an individual or corporate donation, or become a part of our team. The best place for those who want to get involved with us is definitely to submit a request through our website, especially for organizations.