Throughout the past few decades, technology has surged forward at a breakneck pace, opening up possibilities that once seemed like pipe dreams. And while the advances in technology stole the headlines, there was another story being told. This was the story of technology working as 'a great diversity equalizer.' You see, technology wasn't supposed to see race, ethnicity, class, or background. At the time, we all thought that the internet could level the playing fields of all voices. As a Black man at the pinnacle of success in the technology industry, I can look back now and realize how challenging this notion was. And the statistics bear out the fact that we still have a long way to go before equality in tech (or anywhere) is achieved. According to the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission, African-Americans make up less than 5% of the technology industry's entire workforce in Silicon Valley. Moreover, the percentage of African American's in executive positions is speculated to be less than 1% - even though African Americans make up over 13% of the national population.
Black entrepreneurs in IT face far more challenges than their white counterparts. Black-founded businesses receive less than 1% of the total venture capital invested in the country. Lack of access to funding is one of the top reasons businesses fail. And the scrutiny that black-owned businesses face is overwhelming. There are lingering perceptions that the owners don't have the knowledge and experience necessary to run a business or that the integrity of the products or services may not be up to par. However, investors and customers have found themselves to be wrong.
To make a long story short, being Black in tech – and especially as an entrepreneur – means you often have to work harder to find success. It means you will lose out on projects simply because of lingering perceptions, no matter how false they may be. It means you have to experience not being invited to the table for many opportunities. The double-standards are so pervasive that many black-owned businesses rely on downplaying or hiding this fact because they can attract more clientele.
While I wish this weren't the truth that I faced when I set out to launch my company, it has been a constant undercurrent in my professional life, even as I became increasingly successful. But this isn't a story about insurmountable obstacles, even though the data is disheartening. My professional story demonstrates the value of persistence.
Growing up in Chicago, I became committed to supporting economic opportunity across the community, but my interest was always related to information technology and its potential. I have worked with everything from network and data communications and design, network infrastructure, electrical, public safety and disaster recovery technology infrastructure, and safety and surveillance in my early career. I also had the opportunity to write specifications for Y2K testing and network communications equipment. In 2000, I received the honor of being recognized by the International Who's Who of Information Technology. And shortly after, in the days immediately following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, I founded Level-1 Global Solutions, LLC.
Level-1 Global Solutions faced the same challenges that many black-owned businesses face, especially in the early years. But slowly and steadily, the business gained credibility and clientele. We were able to take on bigger projects. In recent years, the company has been involved in integrating IT systems for healthcare facilities, school systems, sports arenas, financial institutions, transit companies, and even the city police and fire departments in Chicago.
As Chicago’s leading IT systems integrator, Level-1 has completed more than 100 large-scale projects for the United States Department of Homeland security, the State of Illinois, Cook County, the City of Chicago, and United Airlines. The firm collaborates with premier architecture, construction and fiber optics firms to deliver the best technological solutions for every need. Level-1 works across many markets, including commercial real estate, government, healthcare, hospitality, intelligent transportation, clean energy, education, aviation, public safety, and smart city development. We currently boast a highly-qualified and professional staff of individuals with diverse backgrounds.
As the founder of Level-1, my career is not one of professional privilege; it has been earned despite the many obstacles black-owned businesses face. I made a decision to never give up on pursuing my chosen career, and I was able to forge my own path as one of the few black men working professionally in this space. But I am able to do what I love and have found success.
Right now, racial tensions in this country are higher than they have been in decades. Things aren't getting easier – at least not in the short-run. But when you commit to doing something you love and continue to show up even when opportunities are scarce, you will become an expert in your field. I would argue that because of the adversity that black IT professionals face, they become better at their job than many of their counterparts. It's not fair, but having more black-owned businesses enter the IT industry (and the economy, in general), is the only way we can begin to transform lingering perceptions and strive for greater equality.
Thomas McElroy, Founder of Level-1 Global Solutions, a technology developer, networking, infrastructure and IT firm that facilitates millions of dollars in contracts for real estate developers, corporations and governments - would love to speak with you. His company implemented city-wide technology infrastructure after 911, rolled out tech solutions for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and built infrastructure for the Amazon bid sites. He was even deemed by Crain’s in 2020 as Tech Entrepreneur of the year.