Growing a Geek Culture in Richmond

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.
(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

Surveying the courseA few weeks ago I was asked to talk with some folks at the Wayne County Area Chamber of Commerce about Summersault's past, present and future, and I enjoyed the conversation and questions very much.  One really good question that came out of the meeting was "how can Richmond better encourage, nurture, cater to technology professionals like the ones working at Summersault?"  I'll simplify that question to be "How can we grow a better geek culture in Richmond?"

It's something that I think about a lot (especially when we're trying to hire someone), but I didn't have a ready answer - partly because there is no simple answer, but partly because I hadn't really ever taken the time to write one down.  Below is a list of ideas and comments, in no particular order, that came out when I put the question to the wider Summersault staff.  I hope that you'll contribute your own thoughts and suggestions, and I'll pass the list back to the Chamber and anyone else I can find who might be in a position to work on some of these things.

  1. If there were more resources and locations in town that catered to the "do it yourself" computer builder/hacker, we might see an increase in people building up their own skill sets.  Opening a Freegeek location here would be a great start.
  2. We need more social venues and public spaces that aren't "the bar scene."  Coffee shops with free wireless access and decor/atmosphere appealing to the 20s/30s crowd are usually ideal.
  3. Technology toys are a luxury, and consumption of them is probably not going to flourish in Richmond right now, especially in a depressed economy.  But, there are a small population of people with dollars to spend on high tech stuff.
  4. Some of the existing computer hardware businesses in town are geared toward fixing broken computers, instead of getting people excited about what's possible with technology, or catering to "gadget lust."   If a computer business could provide an experience more like what you get when you walk into an Apple Store (technology is fun/cool/interesting, not hard/frustrating), they might serve as a better gathering place or hub for local geeks.
  5. Perhaps obviously, more technology-oriented businesses in town will yield a larger number of people, conversations, potential hires, skill-sets, etc.   Having more diverse businesses here in general adds to the appeal of Richmond, and allows geeks to find what they want locally without leaving for Dayton, Cincinnati, Indianapolis.
  6. There's a strong crossover for geeks with bike culture and people generally interested in alternative transportation.  Other hobbies that have a "do it yourself" quality to them are generally found thriving within geek culture, so promoting those (especially cycling) could help.
  7. We need more opportunities for conversation and networking among geeks and people interested in technology.  Whether it's classes or seminars or informal meals, tech people need low-pressure ways to gather. We noted that environment at events hosted by the "Young Adult Professionals" is generally not friendly to introverted geek types.
  8. Younger children need to be encouraged to share and learn about any interest they might have in technology, and given opportunities to really explore it.
  9. Local higher education institutions need to do a better job of incorporating the "Linux culture" into their programs.  A number of local technology businesses (including Summersault) have trouble finding qualified candidates for our technical positions because the local educational offerings are geared toward an entirely different paradigm.
  10. Richmond sometimes needs more "presentable" spokespeople for different parts of its geek culture.  Sometimes the awkwardness and relaxed attire and unique personal hygiene standards that come with being a geek are not conducive to effective public relations and messaging.
  11. Richmond needs to generally be more open to a culture of subcultures - it's okay for people to  have hobbies, interested, specializations that don't fit into some single notion of the "mainstream" way of life here.  We should support and encourage that, not alienate it.
  12. The creative arts are a huge part of encouraging a strong geek culture - when there are artistic endeavors like theater, music-making, film-making, etc. going on in a community, geeks have more opportunities to thrive.

When I asked our group a more direct question about specific actions that an entity like the Chamber of Commerce could take to support geek culture here, we came up with a few ideas:

  1. Fund a grant for expanding the existing Hardware Cooperative into a Freegeek location.
  2. Provide sponsorship for events and gatherings geared toward geeks, but let some geeks organize it.
  3. Work toward having reliable wireless internet access across the city
  4. Include the geek demographic as a target in the marketing that you do for your organization and the city as a whole.

That was the result of our initial brainstorm.  What do you think it means to grow a geek culture in Richmond (or in your own community)?

8 thoughts on “Growing a Geek Culture in Richmond

  1. Chris: Great blog post, as usual. To expand upon the points regarding "do-it-yourself" and creative arts opportunities, we need to find ways to continue to nurture and support the do-it-yourself opportunities offered by Richmond Civic Theatre (for our inner theatre geek) and Richmond Community Orchestra (for our inner band geek). Richmond offers, of course, plenty of opportunities to be an arts observer through the Richmond Symphony Orchestra and the Richmond Art Museum, but to the extent we geeks (I embrace my geekiness) have talent or just plain desire, volunteering as a participant with RCT and/or RCO gives a most satisfying outlet for that creativity AND provides meaningful geeky socialization at the same time.

  2. Something like etsy labs would be cool (http://www.etsy.com/storque/authors/EtsyLabs/) for craft geeks like my wife (shh.. don't tell her I said that...). Or the Maker labs from Make magazine (http://www.makezine.com/) -- even some sort of sustainability DIY culture would be cool.

    I think the underlying thread between all walks of life in geekdom is the amateurish (and I mean that in the purest sense -- people who do it because they LOVE it, not because it pays) approach to their activities. Mark's computer recycling group is a terrific example -- there's some money involved, but it's not meant to be a money-making venture (at least I don't THINK it is...?)

    What about a programming club? Or micro-construction group? Gaming organization? Do I see richmondamateurs.org forming on the horizon? 😀

  3. Item 7 speaks most clearly to me. Organizing a weekly or monthly lunch for geeks may work, but it won't be compelling. Organizing a weekly or monthly rocketry club might really take off.

  4. I think it's telling that there isn't very much socializing between the geek companies that are here, right down the street from one another.

    Partly geeks need to reach out a little more, though this is always going to be a struggle for introverted people. In this vein, I think that point 10 is pretty important to the overall Richmond community, but it's also important to the smaller geek community. You need extroverted, well-spoken people to organize events and reach out to other geeks to get them in the door.

    If there were a stronger geek community, and hopefully with it a good, informal mentor process... the community would build itself. I think a series of mentoring events would be great on many levels, and would build the community two-fold.

  5. I would LOVE a coffeehouse in the downtown/depot district area that was open evenings/late. Aaron and I have talked about opening one but we just don't have the kind of capital needed to start a brick & mortar business.

    I am not a geek though. Of any sort. I promise.

  6. @Melissa:
    I swear I wrote "craft geek" but for some reason the blog software must have filtered it out so it said "craft geek". Weird...

    I like Julie's idea about mentoring. We are regularly looking for interns and workstudies for our web & graphic design teams up here -- it would be awesome if there was some sort of close-knit network of people to make it easier to find other similarly minded folks. I mean, Richmond's not that big -- most of we web developers already know each other anyways; but some sort of organization might be worthwhile. 🙂

  7. You are invited to participate in a 'geek friendly' event. Pick a Saturday in the spring and tell me when and I will help you organize and walk it through the powers that be. This will be the "Richmond Geek Derby" and will be open to everyone. Teamwork will be encouraged to create objects that move, roll, slide and drive down the hill from Main Street to the Logo Building in the Gorge.

    The objects/vehicles must be self or solo powered: no motors.

    There will be different levels for age groups (A)Kindergartners (B) 1st through 5th grade (C) 6th through 9th grade (D) 10th through 12th grade (E) College (F) post graduates/Adults?

    Make a template for the various groups as a starting point so they can take something home to their parents or meet with friends to creatively solve the problem of how to send an object or a person quickly and safely down the hill.

    The geek/creator/makers will have a chance to race in a number of areas, ie; sliders, rollers, foot powered, pedal powered.

    We will start at the bottom of the hill with the "A" group and work our way up to the top of the hill. The sides of the road will be lined with hay for the postgrad geeks who will personally race their creations down the hill.

    Awards will be given based on creativity, attractiveness of the object, speed, teamwork.

    Set up the challenge, plan dates with welders and designers and artists to discuss.

    Create an event and I will help.

    What have I left out?

  8. Let's get back to targeting the younger generations!!! My introduction to geekiness started from the A+ computer program that was offered at RHS. The program began to take of pretty well, expanding to two classes, and then expanding to a CCNA class. However, the class couldn't get the funding needed to sustain that type of environment, and before too long, the kids were learning on 4-6 year old hardware. I doubt we can get the school system to open their minds back to a geek-esque curriculum, so here are my thoughts:

    Maybe we could convince Earlham/IUE/IVY Tech to organize weekly/bi-weekly labs in which senior students, as part of their course-work, brought high school students into a learning environment and spent time hacking away at different ideas. Maybe it could even be a senior project with a recognition given both the college student(s) and the lab attendees...

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