Diversity and inclusion scholarship aims to foster sense of belonging in Ann Arbor tech industry

Ann Arbor tech coworking space Cahoots is offering six months of free full-time workspace, plus other amenities, to applicants who are underrepresented in the tech industry.
This article is part of a series about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in Washtenaw County's tech sector. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.

For Michael Gannon, being included in a business community where one experiences a sense of belonging and value is important. So when Ann Arbor tech coworking space Cahoots recently offered him a diversity and inclusion scholarship, he knew it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.

Created last September, the scholarship is funded in part by Cahoots tenants and corporate sponsors such as Comcast. Applicants are given the opportunity to self-identify and express how they feel they don't fit the mold of the typical tech industry worker. Participants like Gannon are given six months of full-time workspace at Cahoots, use of the coworking space's car, a health club membership, discounts at Cahoots' in-house coffee shop, and access to member events.

For Gannon, the scholarship is an affirmation of his company's value to the tech industry.  In 1998, he started his company, Gannon Productions, following his desire to produce a high-quality educational product for children. He created Karate Cat, a multi-platform educational game for children ages 7-9 that follows National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards. In the math-based game, the brave Karate Cat assists other characters who need help against the number-scrambling Calculords.
Michael Gannon at Cahoots.
"My desire to make a game to help kids learn is a reaction to my own life experience," Gannon says. "I’ve been out since I was in middle school and was confronted with violence and bullying from the first day.

"In the end I had to leave school and was deprived of my formal education. But I set the course of my life. I am a survivor and I don’t give up. In my life, I have been discriminated against, had my professional reputation unfairly damaged, and told that I don't have a right to do certain things because of who I am. This scholarship allows me to be in a supportive space with a peer group who values me and my company." 

When Gannon designed Karate Cat and its characters, he made sure they were reflective of the world around him. He is especially proud that about 40% of the game's roughly 20 characters represent diverse communities. Gannon is currently updating Karate Cat to HTML format, allowing for play online as well as Android and iOS devices. A release is planned for the fall. 

"My intention is that my game and company will help kids learn in a way that is fun, entertaining, and inclusive," Gannon says. "Being in a community of other tech companies with accepting peers is what makes the Cahoots scholarship valuable at this stage."

Leveling up

Last year's Black Lives Matter movement, as well as an urge to give back to the community, were the driving forces behind Cahoots taking action to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Ann Arbor tech community.

"There's a lot of privilege in the industry, and we decided that we can't just sit back and do nothing," says Chelsea Hohn, operations manager at Cahoots. "We looked at what we could do and what we had to offer, and that was our space."
Chelsea Hohn at Cahoots.
For Gannon, the space at Cahoots will come in useful as he pushes forward. He's also excited about opportunities to learn from other Cahoots tenants. The company's in-person meetings and events were stalled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so he's looking forward to more networking opportunities.

"We've opened our doors so that, hopefully, doors can be opened for minorities who may have felt unwanted and that they don't have a right to be in the tech community in Ann Arbor," Hohn says. "Maybe they are in our kitchen one day making a sandwich next to someone who can give personal advice, feedback on a product, or can connect them with funding. It happens."

Gaining "equal footing"

Last year when Brandon Martin, founder of Reaction Technologies, got accepted into the Ann Arbor SPARK business incubator program, he moved to Michigan from Texas. He settled into his grandmother's home, about an hour's commute from Ann Arbor. Until he was awarded a Cahoots scholarship, Martin was running his business from there. 

His company, which focuses on safety and situational awareness for athletes, has developed a product that can help train football players to "use a proper, heads-up tackling technique in an easy and repeatable manner while building muscle memory." The product also can be used in other sports as a training tool to help enhance athletes' abilities. 
Brandon Martin at Cahoots.
Help from Cahoots came at just the right time. Having worked with youth sports and high school football programs in Texas to develop and test the original prototype, Martin and his team will start beta-testing this summer with programs in Texas and Michigan. As the company seeks venture capital, Martin says having access to the Cahoots space gives his company "equal footing."

"It's going to make us more credible as a business to have a space where we can meet with our interns and have a fancy boardroom where we can present our product to investors with confidence," he says. "This scholarship will help us show the local tech community that we are a legit company that is growing and worthy of support."

Martin just started his six months at Cahoots in June, but he is already reporting unexpected benefits and inspiration.

"Psychologically, this scholarship is helping me to merge the person I am with the person that I want to be," he says. "I didn't have any business experience when I started out and spent a lot of time trying to get people to believe in me and let me through their doors. Cahoots is reminding me that I have a right to knock on those doors."

Click here to learn more about Cahoots' diversity and inclusion scholarship.

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.