In Silicon Valley, they call it the 2% problem.
African Americans make up a tiny fraction of the overwhelmingly white and Asian male workforces of major technology companies, the ranks of aspiring entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who control the spigot of money and access.
Silicon Valley is taking steps to offer more opportunities to underrepresented minorities in the nation’s fastest-growing, highest-paying industry. But no one is working harder to tear down barriers for African Americans than a growing cadre of entrepreneurs, investors, engineers and advocates pioneering a range of innovative efforts, from teaching kids of color how to code to preparing African American and Latino engineers for jobs in Silicon Valley.
“The movement for tech inclusion has become the most important drive for economic progress and opportunity in black America,” says Van Jones, who founded #YesWeCode with the support of music icon Prince. “Tech has become the center of the bull’s eye for African Americans trying to create hope and possibility in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore.”
For Black History Month, USA TODAY profiled 13 people to watch in Silicon Valley’s diversity movement:
Founder of Black Girls Code
When Bryant’s daughter Kai was in middle school, she began to follow in the footsteps of her engineer mom.
“I was trying to find ways to nurture that talent in her. I was looking for opportunities outside of school. What I saw mirrored what I saw in the industry: Lots of boys, very few girls and not very many people of color at all,” Bryant says.
Kai attended a summer program at Stanford University that teaches kids how to code. She was the only African American and one of just a few girls enrolled. Bryant did not want her daughter to feel isolated as she had in her electrical engineering studies.
So she created a camp of her own. In 2011, Bryant launched Black Girls Code, which introduces girls of color to computer science with the goal of building a new generation of coders. It has introduced more than 4,000 girls in nine cities to computer science. By 2040, Bryant wants to reach 1 million girls whom she calls “tech divas.”
Young women in the program “find their voice,” she says. “We are creating a powerful community of women skilled and confident about what they can create in the workplace.”
Her students heading to Dartmouth, Princeton and Spelman to study computer science “will change the face of technology,” she says.
Laura Weidman Powers
Co-founder and CEO of CODE2040
Determined to make Silicon Valley representative of America one engineer at a time, Weidman Powers named her organization after the year of America’s projected shift to African Americans and Latinos making up 42% of the population.
This Harvard and Stanford MBA grad’s ambition is to take on inequality of opportunity in the tech industry and close the wealth and achievement gap in the U.S. for African Americans and Latinos by 2040.
“Not to be overly dramatic, but it’s the future of America,” Weidman Powers says.
Black, Latino and Latina students earn nearly 20% of computer science degrees yet make up 9% of the tech industry and less than 1% of tech company founders, she says.
CODE2040 places software engineering students of color in internships with major tech companies and start-ups such as Apple and Intel. Eighty-three fellows have gone through the program and Code2040 plans to double that with the class of 2016. It has also reached more than 1,000 students through Technical Applicant Prep, which prepares Black and Latino students to land and succeed in internships and full-time jobs at top tech companies.
That work was recognized in December when the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave CODE2040 a $1.2 million grant to expand its programs.
Erica Joy Baker
Senior engineer at Slack Technologies, advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech
Baker started playing with computers when she was 12. Self taught, she loved taking things apart to see how they ticked. That analytical drive isn’t the only thing that made her an engineer recruited by Google and now by Slack. She also refuses to adhere to the status quo. As a kid, she wore a jeans jacket covered in buttons. Her favorite: Question Authority.
At Google, she did just that, repeatedly asking for the company’s diversity numbers only “to get shot down all the time.” She also rallied her colleagues to create a spreadsheet of their salaries which she says exposed some inequity issues.
Now she is addressing a much larger audience. Baker is making a name for herself by saying very publicly what people of color typically don’t dare for fear of losing their positions in the industry. In consciousness-raising essays on Medium and in a steady stream of pointed comments on Twitter, she calls out the tech industry for only focusing diversity efforts on women to the detriment of people of color.
With the blessing of Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, Baker spends 20% of her time on advocating for women and men of color and working to improve their lives in the tech world.
“I see as my duty to hold companies accountable until stuff gets better,” she says. “I am trying to keep moving the needle, to make sure the stuff that we didn’t talk about, the stuff that gets brushed under the rug, gets discussed and gets solved.”
Founding executive director of The Hidden Genius Project
A handful of tech entrepreneurs were determined to help promising young black men uncover their “hidden genius” with an intensive training program that fosters coding and entrepreneurial chops as well as confidence. They built The Hidden Genius Project without paychecks and on a string-bean budget.
“There is so much going on in the world of tech that they did not want these young men to miss out,” said Nicholson, a Princeton grad who grew up in Oakland.
The founders — Jason Young, Tracy “Ty” Moore II, Kilimanjaro Robbs, Kurt Collins and Isaak Hayes — tapped Nicholson to become the nonprofit’s founding executive director in February. He was instrumental in helping Hidden Genius land a prestigious $500,000 grant from Google.
Seventeen young men have completed the program which entails a rigorous summer program plus once a week after school and one Saturday a month. The current cohort is the largest yet: 19 teens started in June.
Nicholson says he’s inspired each day by the young men in the program such as Mathew who went from failing grades in calculus to studying computer science at Cal State East Bay with designs on becoming a software engineer.
Managing Partner with Precursor Ventures
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SOURCE: USA Today – Jessica Guynn