Connecting Kids from Diverse Backgrounds to Tech Skills

There is no better time than the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy’s Week of Action Celebrating STEM and Black History Month to highlight the tremendous progress being made at organizations, schools, and companies across America to advance the growing “Tech Inclusion” movement—aimed at connecting students from diverse backgrounds to technology classes, skills, and careers.  

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama issued a call to better equip American graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. The President noted that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are crucial to America’s economic future, and that students with STEM skills will be a driving force making the Nation competitive, creative, and innovative.  And we know that  it’s in the country’s best interest to ensure that this STEM workforce taps into America’s full talent pool and harnesses what is one of the Nation’s greatest assets—diversity. 

That’s why the White House has issued a call to tech innovators to work together to ensure that all youth—particularly those from underserved and historically underrepresented communities, including women and girls—have the opportunity to study STEM subjects and participate in the technology sector.

I had a chance to chat with a few all-star individuals who are making strides toward our shared goal of connecting kids from communities across America to tech opportunities. Here’s what they had to say:

Kimberly Bryant, Founder and Executive Director, Black Girls Who Code

Tell us about the goal of your work and what kind of progress you are seeing?

Black Girls CODE is a non-profit organization with a focus on introducing girls (ages 7-17) of color to technology and creating the next generation of tech leaders and creators.  Since our organization was founded in 2011, we've seen our program grow from a local Bay Area n on-profit with 12 students, to a national program reaching over 2,500 students to date with 7 domestic chapters and 1 international chapter in Johannesburg, South Africa.  The demand for our program has been incredible and we have requests for chapters in over 50 cities across the US and in Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

What is one thing we can all do to support tech inclusion and to help ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to learn tech skills?

Support organizations such as Black Girls CODE and our other partner organizations and afterschool programs which are leading the way in teaching coding to the youth of today.  This support may come in the form of volunteering your time, making a monetary or in-kind donation, or introducing students to the services we offer. It's also imperative that we all work to get coding classes in our local K-12 schools so that students have access to these skills both in and outside of the traditional school setting.

What advice can you offer young people of color interested in technology?

Learn how to become a "creator" of technology and not just a "consumer". There are many free resources online to introduce yourself to computer science and many programs such as ours to engage young people in the technology space.  Take advantage of those opportunities as a chance to learn new skills which you can partner with your current interests to change your future.

Laura Weidman Powers, Co-Founder, Executive Director, Code2040

Tell us about the goal of your work and what kind of progress you are seeing?

CODE2040 is a nonprofit organization that creates pathways to educational, professional, and entrepreneurial success in technology for underrepresented minorities with a specific focus on Blacks and Latino/as. CODE2040 exists to make a direct impact on the achievement, skills, and wealth gaps in the United States. 2040 is the year when the US will be majority-minority. Our goal is to ensure that, by that same year, Blacks and Latinos are proportionally represented in the leading edge of America's innovation economy as technologists, investors, thought leaders, and entrepreneurs.

CODE2040's flagship program is our summer Fellows Program, which places high performing Black and Latino/a software engineering students in internships with top tech companies and provides mentorship, leadership training, and network development. We're so excited to see the students that come through the program, which just completed its second year, begin to launch projects, products, and their careers. 90% of Fellows get return offers from their CODE2040 summer employer, and several of our Fellows have taken experiences from their summer and brought them back to their campuses. 

For example, four 2013 Fellows, Randi Williams and Perry Ogwuche at University of Maryland Baltimore County, Deary Hudson at University of Houston Downtown, and Carlos Folgar at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, are all putting on their campuses' first-ever hackathons (24hr events where coders, designers, and others come together to build new projects). Randi and Perry's hackathon, hackUMBC, took place this past December and introduced over 100 students to the skills and mindset needed to turn their talent into a buildable and marketable idea.  Deary's and Carlos's are coming up this Spring and we're so excited to see their impact.

What is one thing we can all do to support tech inclusion and to help ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to learn tech skills?

Mentor! There are lots of pieces of the puzzle, but one important one is making sure that all students are encouraged and supported. It makes a huge difference for a student feeling doubt - or one who doesn't know how to begin - to have a role model in his or her life who can gently point the way and give a pep talk when needed. Learning these sorts of skills is hard, but nearly anyone can give it a shot now with the online resources available such as Codecademy (which you can access via CODE2040's toolkit that shows the path to scoring the tech internship of your dreams).

What advice can you offer young people of color interested in technology?

You CAN do it! Tech, startups, and entrepreneurship is a very "fake it til you make it" culture, with people acting confident to project competence, which gets them access bigger opportunities than they would otherwise receive. It's easy to get intimidated by people acting like they know what they are doing or talking about when you're feeling a little lost. Lots of students of color we talk to report experiencing "impostor syndrome" - even if they don't know the formal name. It's the feeling that you don't belong, your achievements don't really count, and someone is going to find those things out. It's super hard to achieve and advance if you feel like you don't deserve your successes! It's not easy to overcome, but my biggest piece of advice for young people of color is for them to know that they DO deserve to be in the room, people want them in the room, and that they should feel proud and confident when they achieve something great. 

Brian Forde is a Senior Advisor to the US CTO for Mobile and Data Innovation at OSTP

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