Leon Stephens moved to Seattle from Sacramento when he was 14 and almost immediately he ended up homeless. He came with his mom to meet up with her husband, who disappeared. It took her weeks to find a place to stay.
Stephens remembers spending that winter staying in shelters and sleeping on church floors. During several weeks of homelessness, one night stood out: His mom was saving money to get into an apartment, but spent some to buy him clothes and go out to see a film starring Will Smith, “I, Robot.”
Stephens was tuned into fashion and brand names, and wearing a green and gold plaid Tommy Hilfiger shirt made him feel more comfortable than he had in weeks.
“I watched music videos, so you hear artists talking about specific brands,” Stephens said. “Because it was Tommy Hilfiger, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m the man.’”
Stephens, 24, recently founded Black Rogue, a planned line of fashionable clothing that he hopes can benefit local shelters and homeless services. The idea was influenced by being homeless, but it came to him while he was incarcerated on a robbery conviction.
He was looking to change the direction of his life, and found it at Hack the CD, a tech gathering at Garfield High School in September.
Stephens and his business partner, Garfield High School junior Ralph Redman, formed one of 10 groups at Hack the CD. More than 100 people gathered over a weekend with ideas to start businesses. They worked in teams with designers, programmers and business professionals to flesh out their plans and come up with a sellable prototype in three long days of work.
David Harris, a program manager for the Technology Access Foundation, co-organized the event as the first step toward making Seattle’s Central District what he calls the “Motown for young, urban technologists.”
Harris has worked for years in the tech industry. While networking at conferences, he met a predominately white and male crowd.
It left Harris, who is black, feeling out of place in the community and wondering what it would take to get more African-Americans working in the tech field.
“I think the actual solution is having more tech companies owned by minorities and people of color,” Harris said. “Minority owners hire more minority employees.”
Harris attended another hackathon earlier this year and was impressed by the format: hundreds of people with diverse skillsets and backgrounds gathering together under a roof to turn ideas into realities.
Harris wanted to replicate the format for the Central District’s African-American community, which he said needs more access to technology. He entered the idea into Crosscut’s Community Idea Lab and won, earning six months of co-working space at Hub Seattle, a community-focused coworking space in Pioneer Square, and access to business leaders.
By 2015, Harris hopes that Hack the CD will have a permanent location and continue to support young, black entrepreneurs year-round.
Harris, who comes from Detroit, compared his efforts to record label Motown, which was founded by Berry Gordy. He had heard white artists singing songs by black artists, and he created the label to help young black artists gain mainstream attention. Similarly, Harris said, African-Americans influence technology but are not necessarily its creators and don’t benefit from the market.
Motown, he said, was as much a place as it was a business. The CD could be the same.
“I see the potential for the Central District to be a place that has this culture and these resources to get our ideas out,” Harris said. “Especially from communities that are underserved.”
During Hack the CD, participants created 10 proposals, including an app that would track politicians’ campaign promises, a ride-sharing program in which drivers make bids for a ride and allow the user to decide how much to pay, and Stephens’ T-shirt nonprofit.
The idea for Black Rogue came to Stephens when he was serving more than a year in prison for a robbery. He and a friend tried to do a smash-and-grab at a pawn shop and were caught just a few blocks away. Stephens pled guilty and spent his time in prison getting connected with one of his favorite activities: Reading.
He pored over holy texts from many religions, particularly the Quran and the Bible.
“The whole message in both of those books is the idea that we are all people,” Stephens said, wearing the first prototype T-shirt for his business. The white T-shirt said in large block letters “I am a human being.”
He already has one shirt up for sale at teespring.com/BlackRogue. The website allows anyone to design and sell a T-shirt if they can get a minimum number of buyers. It’s a black T-shirt with the words “Black Rogue” printed in large white letters beside a diamond.
The name of his company is not about race.
It refers to the void before the world was created. “Rogue” comes from Stephens’ sense of rebelliousness.
Stephens is trying to sell 100 shirts by Oct. 19.
If he succeeds, he’ll write a check from the proceeds to a local shelter and use the rest to design a second shirt. Eventually, he wants to run his own website and sell all kinds of clothing: Shirts, jeans, hats, beanies.
Clothing might not seem like a tech venture, but it will rely on technology to thrive, said Hack the CD co-organizer Zithri Ahmed Saleem.
“Every business in 2014 is a tech business, and if you haven’t figured that out, your business is basically obsolete,” Saleem said.
Stephens needs computers and Internet access at home to continue his clothing venture.
More than anything, Stephens said the hackathon gave him something new: “I’ve never had strangers listen to my idea and then take it and believe in it.”