CTX Blog

Mapping Black Entrepreneurship

March 25, 2021
Black History Month

[Written by CTX student MacGregor Surles]

On February 10, 2021, Whitney Kotlewski hosted an inspiring and insightful presentation about the incredible work she does for the African American community. Kotlewski is one of the founders of Black Girls MAPP, which is a community-focused group at the company ESRI that helps connect and empower women of color in the field of Geographic Information System (GIS) that provides the ability to map, analyze and assess social issues.

Kotlewski is in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Basketball Hall of Fame and credits her foundation of leadership to the experience gained from her basketball career. She then joined ESRI and immediately noticed the lack of representation of the black community, so she decided that change was necessary. Kotlewski didn’t just want to talk about black issues; she wanted to act on them. She created Black Girls MAPP to help pioneer GIS to make progress in black communities. Her journey started by mapping black women who were involved in GIS to establish a network for future women entering the field.

With the success of her first project, Kotlewski saw another opportunity to impact the black community. A new goal was set to inspire young entrepreneurs, to illustrate what is possible and how they can fulfill their dreams. She created an app incorporating GIS to help place black-owned businesses on the map. This effort accomplishes two things: to help support and grow the businesses and help gain perspective on where new entrepreneurs can be successful. This app was one of the first of many to start collecting data and information about black entrepreneurs and shy away from the standard government data. This app opened the door for more of its kind and expanded the possibilities of Black Girls MAPP.

After the unfortunate events in the spring of 2020 dealing with police shootings, Kotlewski wanted to recraft how they were able to tackle social issues. They found a new way for GIS to have an impact — story mapping. This concept told the story from both sides of the incident and explored the trends of police shootings, which included who was being shot, whether they were armed or not, and what they had in their position at the time. Kotlewski wanted to spark conversations with this data. She did not want to blame the police but rather put facts out first and help initiate the conversations that will hopefully result in solutions. Story mapping is a revolutionary way to help get people in the community involved and help them become informed on topics to bring intelligent discussions to the table and not ignore issues that are present in the community. The ultimate goal of story mapping is to bring awareness to these prevalent issues so that members of the community can utilize them and take action.

Another accomplishment that Kotlewski can take credit for is her work with People For The People during the months leading up to the 2020 elections. She wanted to take her goals of representation of the black community and transform them to encourage political discussions to become more civic-minded. A reflection of what it looks like to be a united front and come together as a nation was the end goal of this project. GIS was used to help introduce people into the world of politics and help members of the community make informed decisions regarding the elections. This project gained loads of new traction across the United States by helping people figure how to be eligible, certain rules about voting and where they can vote. Her efforts were able to impact countless citizens who were on the fence about voting and helped them be able to make an informative decision and contribute to the national elections. With the successes from this past election, her team is working on improving this technology to expand to local elections across the United States. If you want to find out more about local elections, visit people4thepeople.org.

Kotlewski wrapped up her presentation with encouragement for her audience to find what they are passionate about and run with it. She made it clear that if you pour your heart into your work, you can find what sparks that fire inside of you to make an impact on the world. For Kotlewski, she joined ERIS, not knowing what kind of impact she would have on the world. She first noticed the lack of representation within the black community, and with that, she found her passion for helping her community through her work.

Having the opportunity to attend this presentation was a life-changing experience for me; I was able to gain insight into what being a true visionary is. Seeing the way that Kotlewski can make a lasting impact in the community with the fire and passion she brings was inspiring. She shows us that throwing everything you have into your work produces a result that changes lives for the better. I strongly encourage that everyone views her work because it is amazing what she can do with technology and how revolutionary her work is.