When you picture a successful tech CEO, what comes to mind? Probably a white man, maybe one wearing a hoodie.
Technology is a caucasian male-dominated industry, that’s why getting more diversity in tech has never been more of a priority. In fact, in the last month, a handful of the most well-known tech companies have released data that illustrates this trend, with male employees far outnumbering females, and in the U.S., a white majority rules.
Though these numbers clearly show there’s not enough diversity in the tech workforce, part of the imbalance stems from a lack of diversity in technology education at a young age—many students are unable to access resources that can set them up for a career path in tech.
In 2013, of the 30,000 students that took U.S. high school Advanced Placement computer science exam, less than 20 percent were female, eight percent were Hispanic, and three percent were black. No female, black or Hispanic students took the exam in Mississippi or Montana.
The poorest communities, often the most diverse, have the most limited access to technology. According to a Pew Internet study, just three percent of teachers of the poorest classrooms feel that their students have access to the digital tools they need at home.
#YesWeCode, an ambitious initiative to encourage 100,000 minority and low-income students to learn skills in technology, aims to change that, and provide a resource for students, parents and teachers to find out how best to teach the next generation of entrepreneurs, builders, and makers.
Officially launching July 4 at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, the largest festival celebrating African-American culture and music in the U.S., #YesWeCode will host a hackathon and a “technology village,” making technology a central part of the event for the first time ever.
Prince is headlining the event this year, and the music megastar was partially responsible for the creation of #YesWeCode.
“#YesWeCode came out of a conversation I was having with Prince about Trayvon Martin,” Van Jones, president of Rebuild The Dream Innovation Fund and one of the creators of #YesWeCode, told me in an interview. Martin, a teenager, was shot in a Florida neighborhood in 2012. “Prince said, ‘When an African-American kid is wearing a hoodie, people think he’s a thug, but when a white kid is wearing a hoodie people think he’s the next Mark Zuckerberg.’”
Jones mentioned something about racism to which Prince replied: “No, it’s because we haven’t produced any Mark Zuckerbergs yet.”
Though there are many organizations across the country looking to encourage more minorities to pursue STEM skills—science, technology, engineering and math—resources are still very fragmented. In order to unite these organizations and create a pipeline of underrepresented talent that can equalize the ratio at companies like Google and Facebook, #YesWeCode teamed up with education and career training organizations to provide low-income and minority students with the opportunity to learn technological skills.
Black Girls Code is one of those partner organizations. Founder Kimberly Bryant is in New Orleans this weekend to host a series of events in tandem with the festival that focus on getting young girls excited about coding.
Bryant says getting girls interested in technology and keeping them in the industry through college and into their careers is the key to changing the dynamics in the tech industry overall. Her organization has reached 3,000 students to date.
“The importance of starting early is to give girls the skill set and the confidence for them to go into these male-dominated environments,” Bryant said in an interview. “A lot of the women I’ve seen across generations who have come into the program as students or mentors, we’ve all faced similar challenges—it’s just a different decade.”
Tech Industry Partners Will Help Bridge The Gap
#YesWeCode worked with Facebook to create an online portal that brings together all the organizations working to bridge the gap between low-income and minority students and careers in technology, and give them the tools and resources they need to exponentially grow.
The #YesWeCode website will act as a central support database for organizations across the U.S. that work with low-income and minority youth, and partners will work with these organizations to strengthen computer education programs, as well as support and fund workforce development programs like coding boot camps.
For example, a mom of a 13-year-old girl in Atlanta will be able to use the #YesWeCode database to find the best coding courses, camps and resources to send her daughter this summer.
Maxine Williams, Facebook’s head of global diversity, said getting underrepresented students interested in tech is a matter of letting these students know these opportunities actually exist.
“Inspiration comes in so many different forms,” Williams told me. “It was never a question whether people had the ability, but rather people knew this was an opportunity. Having people that have similar experiences to you allows you to feel like you can get there too.”
Of course, companies like Facebook will undoubtedly benefit from such a partnership. Graduates from #YesWeCode programs who pursue technology as a career may find themselves working at a tech corporation like Google or Facebook who have pledged to increase diversity in their workforces since releasing their diversity data in June.
“It’s impossible to quantify the difference it makes when you have people that apply diversity to problems,” she said.
Creating The Next Generation Of Diverse Entrepreneurs
“Genius and talent doesn’t know any age or racial barrier,” Jones said. “Even though we’re starting off at an African-American event, our commitment is to low-opportunity talent.” Included in that group are low-income Asian, Latino, Native American, and Appalachian students.
“We’re letting genius go to waste—there are so many people in communities of color that have the mathematical talent to do this work,” he said. “Some are former veterans, some are moms … some of them are using their math skills as hustlers on the street corner.”
With the help of programs that connect youth through #YesWeCode, the next Mark Zuckerberg could be a technologist from the minority community, giving future generations an entrepreneur to look up to for affirmation that they, too, can build the next billion-dollar company.
Lead image sreencapped from the #YesWeCode YouTube video.