Why this trans founder 'hopes to God' you'll never have to use her app

by Kelly O'Halloran
July 19, 2017

mckinley forbes fb.jpg

McKinley Forbes moved to Austin three months ago after receiving a job offer from BigCommerce to join its technical support team. At 21 years old, she’s learning how to code, is on pace for a promotion and recently won a hackathon for an emergency housing app idea.

Not bad for someone without any prior professional tech experience.

But her journey into tech wasn’t seamless. For two months, she couchsurfed and slept in bus stations and got kicked out of said stations as she hopped from city to city in the hopes of finding a new home.

Finding herself — in Austin

A few months prior, Forbes found herself without a place to call her own after coming out to her parents as transgender.

“On January 22 this year, I came out to my extremely conservative family. I had recently gone to protest in D.C. following Trump’s inauguration,” said Forbes. “When I came back, we started arguing about it. I explained how I’m bisexual, how I’m trans and want to start transitioning, and [my father] didn’t want me living in the house anymore.”

So she left. Forbes spent the next several weeks relying on friends and family who were willing to let her crash at their places for a few days at a time.

That uncertainty motivated Forbes to put the full-court press on job applications.

“I applied to nearly 70 positions across Boston, Chicago and Austin,” Forbes said.

Receiving three offers, Forbes committed to BigCommerce and a life in Austin. Within weeks of Forbes’s arrival, she said she’s made a new friend through a work-related game night who invited her to be his roommate.

“Even before all of this happened, my life has been very hectic,” said Forbes. “This is weird that I’m working in tech now because I’ve always worked really odd jobs. I’ve worked in restaurants; I’ve worked in a glass and window factory building windows. I’ve done landscaping, I’ve done coffee shops. For three years now, my life has been pretty chaotic — and now it’s oddly stable.”

The road to tech

Though it seems like Forbes stumbled into tech, she said she's wanted to enter the field since her junior year of high school following an AP computer science course.

“I did well in the class and I enjoyed it,” said Forbes. “But being from rural Virginia, college isn’t much of an opportunity. When you come from a working class family, you don’t have the time to put into it, and you’re constantly working to help support the family.”

Despite these challenges, Forbes was able to complete several coding courses — and now has enough knowledge in her back pocket to crank out an app demo in less than a day.

“A co-worker approached me with an idea, and I said, ‘Give me 12 hours,’” said Forbes. “I built a functional product demo in 12 hours that’s being used internally within the company.”

Tech for social good

Recently, Forbes teamed up with a lawyer out of Philadelphia to work on an app that will help place LGBTQ people between the ages of 16-24 in emergency housing.

The app, tentatively called SafeNight, won HackOut, an LGBTQ-oriented hackathon put on by the local organization StartOut and hosted at HomeAway’s Austin Domain offices.

Together, Forbes hopes to provide LGBTQ individuals who are in danger of being homeless with a quick, mobile-friendly method of locating safe, temporary housing.

Similar to Airbnb and HomeAway, Forbes said the app will provide a database of thoroughly vetted safe houses and connect folks in need of housing with open rooms for one to five days.

While Forbes’s own journey has led her to a career in tech, she said many individuals who find themselves in similar situations aren’t so fortunate — often turning to drugs and other self-destructive behaviors that can lead to permanent homelessness.  

“We want to start with emergency housing then transition to long-term housing, and then offer career coaching,” said Forbes. “There’s extremely hard drug use with heroin and other narcotics amongst the queer population, and we want to curb that as much as possible. We hope to God you’ll never actually need to use this app.”


Image via Facebook.

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