An interview with Oakland native Mercedes Gibson, who now manages Hack the Hood’s small business program.
Do you remember when you heard that Hack the Hood built web sites for local small businesses? What was your initial impression?
Yes. I was a small business owner. At the time, I had a vintage clothing company and I needed a website. I believe I saw an ad on Facebook for the program, recruiting small businesses. I was skeptical about a “free” website, but I also believed in the power of community resources. I was definitely intrigued.
What were you doing before you started working at Hack the Hood?
Coaching with small business, mostly putting on events to generate interest and to entertain, because I love my city and I love local economy. In fact, you can still catch my Open Mic show at The New Parkway on the 1st & 3rd Monday night of the month. I’ve always been drawn to the aesthetics of my community. I remember riding the bus in East Oakland as a kid and seeing the boarded up storefronts and knowing that I wanted to do something about it.
Did you have any experience working in a tech-focused environment before you joined Hack the Hood?
I worked for The Lavender Youth Recreation & Information Center in SF for 8 years, and during my time there I developed an Internship Program which included the Young Women’s Digital Storytelling Project. That was the first time I saw tech used to document the experiences of queer youth. I was so struck by that experience, I didn’t know tech could go there. I took those resources over to Rainbow Community Center in Concord, where we did something similar for queer survivors of violence. These were non-profits, not tech companies. However, I did learn about the importance of using media to tell your story. I love that. Your website is your brand voice, why shouldn’t you control what you say to the world? That is what a website can do for all businesses, big and small.
What is your core job now?
I manage the small business component of the Hack the Hood Bootcamp. It’s my job to provide viable applicants to our Youth Developers, while supporting small business in their application process. I also deeply enjoy organizational & small biz development. I love the rush I get when I learn of a local, small business. Businesses are people's dreams - and dreams are made of hope, determination, grit. In this way, small business is a positive, driving force in our lives.
What do you think Hack the Hood does well in how it works with small business clients?
The beauty of working with small business clients and youth is that, in some ways, they are one in the same. They are both an asset to Oakland, they are both coming to learn, and they can both learn greatly from each other. At Hack the Hood, we facilitate an environment for youth and adults to build together to get businesses more marketing presence and exposure online. Hack The Hood is always growing, improving, expanding. And the process for working with small businesses in our program has become sharper. Seriously - understanding expectations and applying has never been easier.
What have you observed about how the youth web developers are affected or influenced by the small business entrepreneurs they work with?
I love youth development, and that involves helping to build youth-adult relationships. Providing youth the space to act as web development consultants does a few things - it flips the power structure on its head, it introduces a young entrepreneur to an adult entrepreneur, and it provides a real world client to our Youth Developer. In terms of gaining experience with web development and digital marketing, this last impact is critical. It moves beyond theory and role play into actualization. It’s important that the youth we work with understand that there is a person behind the site they are building for a client. When you can put a face and voice to the development process, the idea that you are dealing in the stuff of dreams becomes a lot realer.
What kind of small businesses would do well to have Hack the Hood youth developers build them a web site?
Small businesses, individuals, churches, artists, community groups and local non-profits can all benefit from establishing a stronger online presence. If you were to pay for this web development service, market value would be around $1,000. In this process, what you don’t pay for monetarily as a client you give in time and attention, two things that are essential when collaborating with HTH Youth Developers. As long as you can commit to the build, I would say this is for anyone who needs a premium, starter site. The sites are simple, yet elegant. Honestly, one of the best things you can do is keep your website clear and consistent, which is what our youth are trained to deliver.
Why is now the time for small businesses to sign up with Hack the Hood?
Look around. The landscape of Oakland is changing - quickly. The construction alone beginning on International Boulevard and into San Leandro for the BRT expansion will impact many businesses. When customers see scaffolding and cones they assume you are closed. And for businesses without a brick & mortar store (many owners in Oakland) having internet presence in 2016 is key to be visible and discovered by customers.
The 4 P’s of traditional marketing were invented without digital in mind. Your website can and should be simple, but make sure you are controlling the voice of your brand as much as possible. It’s not enough to simply post a link to your goods & services. Content generation is hot right now and that means weaving your story into everything you do.
Devoting some time to your web presence can influence your customers' decisions and therefore increase your profits. Connecting with local youth addresses the digital divide. With Hack the Hood, you can do both.
Interested in getting your small business involved? Check out these links:
Small business page
Application for small business owners
Small business FAQ
Hack the Hood Blog
News items and musings on tech inclusion, youth development, buying local and more.