Part of the problem is students’ skills gap; the other part is Silicon Valley’s network.
Network is a word you’ll hear often from founders of similar nonprofits with the accompanying refrain: the need to expand Silicon Valley’s predominantly white and Asian network of employees, who hold nearly 91 percent of the area’s tech jobs. Code2040 was founded in part to improve these statistics by leveling the playing field. “It’s very much still an old boys’ club,” Gardner says of Silicon Valley. “You have the same kinds of people hiring similar people to do the same kinds of jobs. We’re here to disrupt that and get more people into that network.”
In addition to partnering Code2040 participants with internships at tech companies, the organization makes a point of introducing students to black and Latino CEOs and venture capitalists. “If you don’t see someone at the top who looks like you, or has a similar experience as you, it’s hard to picture yourself in that same position,” Gardner says. It’s a sentiment echoed by Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant, who has written about “feeling culturally isolated” during her pursuit of an engineering degree in college; she has since launched her organization to bring more black female students into lucrative tech careers. In its nearly three-year run, Black Girls Code has reached more than 2,000 girls in cities from San Francisco to New York with day-long classes on computer programming, coding, and mobile-app development.
Charles Jones, a high school sophomore in Oakland, says he was interested in participating in Hack the Hood this summer after hearing his teacher talk about Web design in class. As part of the program this summer, the 16-year-old used the free website-builder Weebly.com. “One of the best parts was learning to use the Internet in new ways that I didn’t know existed,” he says. “Even just the ability to search things more specifically by using quotation marks was new.” Jones says his dream job, which had been to become a doctor, has changed—he now wants to become an engineer or a scientist, something he hadn’t thought of before Hack the Hood. And he’s excited that the program may help other kids like him, kids who didn’t know much about technology but now have a chance to learn more about the industry. “I think it’s a really valuable resource to help educate people who aren’t exposed to these opportunities,” he says.
“We need new minds to create new and relevant products for the people buying their products, which is increasingly coming from minority populations,” Young says. “If we’re not teaching minority students these skills and involving them in the process, that will be a huge societal cost to all of us.”
With these programs in their infancies, it’s difficult to determine their effectiveness just yet. But at the very least, their goals are clear. “We want to give students the skills to intern at a company like Facebook and then start their own company,” Young says. “We want to set up a systematic solution to bring more black youth into these tech industries—and broaden the industry as a whole.”