Angelica Ross’ TransTech Summit Is Providing Trans Community With Tech Skills To Get Jobs — And Protect Themselves
Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic

Before Angelica Ross was a well-known actress in the industry, she was living and working in Hollywood — Florida that is. At that time, she was paying her bills as a model and escort after suffering discrimination in other industries (including while attempting to serve in the military and working in food service). She went from posing in front of the camera to teaching herself the skills necessary to be behind it. She learned how to use photo software programs like a pro, as well becoming proficient in graphic design and web development. An “early adopter of technology,” she was able to become adept at all things tech, including teaching herself coding.

As she was working to make her dream of being an actress come true, she was also able to take her love of and skills in tech and start her own company, TransTech Social Enterprises, in 2014. Her hopes were to support those in the trans community to learn the same computer skills and more that pulled her out of hard times. The CEO would go on to create the TransTech Summit. Filled with speakers and workshops, the event provides attendees with the tools to benefit their current careers, learn new skills to be afforded or create new opportunities, and to assist LGBTQIA people in networking with one another. It’s an opportunity for full empowerment. This year’s four-day event, a free virtual one starting on the Transgender Day of Visibility, March 31, and ending Sunday, April 2, has come a long way from its beginnings.

“We started our first summit at the Groupon headquarters [in Chicago], and I believe that was in 2017 or 2018. We did two years and took off a couple years and then last year was our first year going virtual. And then this year’s kind of like an explosion,” Ross tells ESSENCE. “We have just way more speakers. I think we have over 60 speakers at the workshops. We have multiple days of programming, so it’s going to be much, much bigger, a much, much wider conversation than before. It’s like I’m a proud mother watching her baby grow.”

Workshops will cover everything from tech in Hollywood, health wellness and technology, racial justice, diversity representation, inclusion, media marketing, advertising, healing and more. Anything you can think of, from handling burnout, learning how to edit in WordPress, and highlighting apps for change, like COMMUNITYx, the world’s first and leading social impact technology company, will be highlighted.

We chatted with the star and tech CEO about the inspiration for this important event, what attendees can expect to learn and hear throughout it, and how she feels about the visibility of trans women and men these days, as well as the work that still needs to be done for the community.

ESSENCE: Where did the idea for the TransTech Summit come from?

Angelica Ross: Well, I had been going to tech summits all over the place, not just tech summits, but just conferences, from LGBTQ focused conferences to tech focused conferences. I just realized that there was probably a space missing that is centered by trans people, one in which we are centered enough so that everybody who is in our environment is not only watching out for the violence, but it’s like they’re also educated and informed so we can truly be an asset to one another.

What was it about tech in particular that you felt was important to equip trans women and men with these types of skills?

I was what they definitely call an early adopter of technology in general. I grew up just being so techy and putting together the home computer. I loved being on the computer. But I knew that for one, I was part of a community that was being, I would say, trafficked into sex work. People really don’t put two and two together when policies are created that prevent trans people from being employed. Then they don’t understand that we’re criminalized for choosing all other options. And so, I had to create a safe space for folks to both continue to use whatever assets they had in hand, but to put a barrier of protection, harm reduction, which I felt like was the computer.

So many folks started learning how to build websites or they could build adult websites that could still provide them the income that they were looking for, but would provide a safety barrier between them and their target audience and their clients. So for me, that was a part of my story, that I kind of found a way to choose something other than streets, other than posing on someone else’s website and being exploited by someone else. I took the power into my own hands and decided when, where, and how much. So that was really, to be honest, the real basis of it all. So much of my community doesn’t even understand, or hasn’t even been able to heal from the trauma of having to do sex work. So that’s one of the workshops that we’re having at the TransTech Summit. “TRANSformation: Sex Work and Healing.”

So it’s everything from soft skills to very hard skills and learning to code or learning to use social media for digital advocacy. So it’s not just about coding, it’s all about how the intersections of technology can support and maybe give you access to opportunities. So many of our community members have been faced with sort of the decision of, “Do I do sex work or not? Because I can’t get a job.” So we try to not only provide resources for folks who do make those decisions and not shaming people for making those decisions, but we also provide alternative resources so that they can build their careers in other directions.

What kind of topics are you going to be covering in the workshops, in addition to the healing and some of the more technical conversations?

We have everything from folks pursuing their PhD in the tech and computing fields, to “Beauty Means Business.” This is our second year doing that workshop with beauty business professionals like Merrell Hollis who’s been a staple makeup artist on The Wendy Williams Show, but he’s also been my makeup artist for many years. Simone “Japan” Tisci, who’s a celebrity makeup artist, but she was also featured on Legendary. And my manager EJ, who manages a lot of topnotch makeup artists like Yolonda Frederick, who is Ciara’s makeup artist and was my makeup artist for American Horror Story.

We’ve always been talking about how trans people, especially trans women, many of them have been the masterminds of makeup and fashion but have not been given the authority in that in the industry. We talk about how to take those skills that they have and turn it into business, and be about their business. Because beauty is a billion dollar business, and we want to get our folks into it. So, yeah, literally everything from translating the hustle, translating your survival tactics to actual work skills. I will be giving a keynote. We’ll be having workshops on how to process databases and just knowing basic database administration, learning Adobe Creative Cloud. I cannot be more proud of this summit because there’s everything. There’s even somebody teaching them how to do reels and TikToks. Because listen, I’m pretty sure I need to sit in on that class.

The TransTech Summit, I know it begins on the Transgender Day of Visibility, on March 31. How do you feel about the visibility of your community right now and what work still needs to be done?

To be honest, I think the visibility has definitely improved matters. But as my grandmother would always say, “The world gets wiser and more wicked every day.” So we just have to stay vigilant because the work is not over. And I think that that’s going to be a continual theme that I think my community really understands, but it’s like a relay race. And that’s why in the TransTech Summit and in our workshops, we have so many workshops that focus on healing. Because we understand that part of this work is healing. You actually can’t even do this work, broken. It’s just really, really hard because the energy alone will take you out.

And so you really owe it to yourself and to your communities to heal. Because when you bring yourself into the collective, you’re bringing all of that. You’re bringing your hurt and your joy. You’re bringing your value and the things that you’re challenged with. So we understand that there’s a time for learning and there’s a time for healing and there’s a time for action. And so it’s just something that for us, it’s going to be an ongoing process regardless of what the scoreboard says. We understand that our society is very invested in perception and manipulating perception to make it seem like the goalpost has moved when in fact, we haven’t moved that far. So as much as I can say that there has been some great progress made, what I do still know is that Black trans women are still dying.

I am still scrolling my feed and still seeing Black trans bodies being pulled from lakes and dumpsters and found in hotel rooms and on the street. And there’s a real serious conversation to be had. And I want to just call out that, just because everyone’s in Hollywood, doesn’t mean that everyone is accepting. There are people in the hip-hop industry, as well as in the TV and film industry, who are homophobic and transphobic. And some of them might even be LGBTQ, but have internalized homophobia and transphobia and so they move differently. And so when you have folks like myself and the cast of Pose bringing in an era of unapologetic representation, it shakes the foundation of what others have used to get into the room.

And so there’s a conversation that has been hesitant to have, but we’re having it. And there have been many, many allies like your Sheryl Lee Ralphs and Gabrielle Unions and Janelle Monáes and the folks who we can look to in the room — your Alfre Woodards and even Will Smith. We were presenting at the Critics Choice Awards recently with the cast of Pose and he came off stage after winning his award and showed me and Dominique [Jackson] so much love. And for me, that’s the progress and full circle moment, when we have men like Dwyane Wade and Will Smith showing love to queer and trans Black people. And also showing that change in the way that they raise their own children.

Learn more about TransTech Summit and register to attend at TransTechSummit.com.

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