Meet the “Unicorn” of the Canadian Tech Scene, Tamar Huggins, CEO of Tech Spark Inc.

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Walker’s Legacy Profiles recognize unique women of color in business who embody the legacy of Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire. In this installment, meet Tamar Huggins, CEO of Tech Spark Inc.


Tamar Huggins is on a mission to educate 20,000 underrepresented students by the year 2022 through her company Tech Spark, which is Canada’s first technology and design school of its kind. Due to her country’s lack of representation of women of color in technology, many describe her as a “unicorn.”

In this interview, she talks about the programs she’s implemented for black youth to not just be the largest consumers of technology, but to be the creators as well. She’s on a personal mission to change the paradigm that technology is “for the rich, Asian kids,” as some of her students hold to be true.

  1. Can you share with us a little about your background and what influenced you to get into the technology field?

When I was in grade 10 my best friend and I taught each other how to code. We would spend our lunch in the library designing and coding our own blackplanet.com pages. When I got to college, I studied creative advertising at Centennial College in Toronto and graduated as a media planner. Early in my career, I worked with clients such as Nike Canada and Motorola where I was responsible for integrating technology into their advertising campaigns. During the recession, I lost my advertising job and decided to start my own business. In 2012 I started DRIVEN, Canada’s first accelerator for women and people of colour. We helped our startups raise 1.1 million in capital under two years but I felt inside that we needed to create a larger impact. I then pivoted our business model to focus on tech education for girls and children of colour and launched Tech Spark in 2015.

2. Tell us all about Tech Spark Inc.

Tech Spark is Canada’s first tech and design school committed to empowering young girls and children of colour through innovative tech programming. We teach children and youth how to build mobile app prototypes, engineer movable contraptions through virtual reality and storytelling through coding. Since 2015 we’ve educated 450 students across the Greater Toronto Area. It’s always been a dream of mine to operate our programs within elementary and high schools and this year we’ve begun to do that within the Toronto and Durham District School Boards. Our goal is to educate 20,000 students by 2022 and with support from our funders The Ontario Trillium Foundation, Access Alliance, and Compugen we are able to impact the lives of underrepresented students.

3. Tech Spark is Canada’s first digital tech program of its kind–connecting underserved youth to meaningful career and educational opportunities. What factors have contributed to its success thus far?

Nothing we do is possible without the support of the amazing women and men who teach and mentor for us. We do more than teach tech– our programs focus on building the social and emotional skills of our young people. In order to do that we ensure our team reflects the students we serve. We come from the same backgrounds and communities our students come from so we are able to relate to and connect with them on a deeper level.

4. What are the current statistics surrounding the youth’s consumption of technology?

North American youth are highly connected, with black youth being the largest consumers of various forms of technology. However, we see a disparity when looking at who is creating the technology and engaging with tech-related programs at the post-secondary level. Our children are falling behind, this is a fact, but we need to ask why and do something about it. I asked myself and others this question in 2012 and the reason I found is that girls and children of colour do not see enough of themselves in tech and so they don’t think it’s for them, “It’s for the rich, Asian kids” one student said. It’s sad. The solution I’ve found is building a company with a “for us, by us” approach.

5. What are some of the apps/programs that graduates of Tech Spark have been able to create?

Our students are encouraged to create apps that relate to their own experiences. So we see students building app prototypes in the area of social media, homework support and mobile gaming. We use Marvel App which allows students to first create paper prototypes before turning them into clickable prototypes on their devices.

6. You are on track to educate 20,000 youth from Tech Spark by the year 2022. What types of resources and collaborative partnerships are essential to meeting this goal?

In addition to funding resources, partnerships with other nonprofits allow us to reach youth in programs they operate that are not necessarily tech-focused, but the interest to learn is definitely there. Corporate sponsorships allow us to hire more educators and expand our reach into more schools. Support from organizations in the US would also allow us to expand across the border and bridge the gap between the Canadian and US tech education systems.

7. Describe what it’s like to be a female entrepreneur of color in Canada. What support systems, if any, are available?

Many people have described me as a unicorn, because women of colour in tech is such a rarity here in Canada.

We don’t have a strong tech community here like the US does is several of its cities. However, I am on a personal mission to change that, and I aim to do so through Tea & Tech. Tea & Tech, is a monthly series of intimate events where tech founders, enthusiasts, and employees of some of the fastest-growing tech startups will share their experiences, challenges, tactics & strategies they use to grow their products and businesses.

8. Who has inspired you to blaze the trails that you have thus far?

My inspiration comes from God. When I realized the plan He had for my life I didn’t believe or accept it at first. Over the years I’ve come across many people who help me push my vision forward. Angela Benton has been a huge inspiration to me since 2012, I truly admire the work she’s done for black and female entrepreneurs in the US. Her challenges and successes really inspire me to continue my own work here in Canada. Also, a lot of my inspiration comes from the students I serve. I’m really doing this for them. The gifts and talents I’ve been blessed with are not for me alone, but for me to share with others.

9. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self?

I would tell my younger self, do not be afraid to do things that make you feel scared or uncomfortable. If I had that advice earlier on, I would have made certain life decisions sooner rather than later.

10. Where can the audience reach you to learn more?

I can be reached on LinkedIn and Twitter.

www.tamarhuggins.com

www.techspark.ca

 

Jessica Smith

Jessica Smith is passionate about connecting marginalized populations to resources that position them for success. As a business counselor at the Women’s Business Center of Northern Virginia, she equips aspiring business owners with the tools they need to become economically empowered through entrepreneurship. She teaches monthly business startup classes and conducts daily counseling sessions to meet the individual needs of her clients.

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