Hidden Figures: Revealing Traits for Success in Tech Entrepreneurship

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox via www.foxmovies.com

Hidden Figures is making headlines with its impressive box office performance, but it’s captured our attention at All Star Code for a very different reason. Each of the three main characters, Mathematician Katherine Goble, Engineer Mary Jackson, and Computer Leader Dorothy Vaughn each perfectly portray one of the three traits we look for among the hundreds of young men who apply to the All Star Code Summer Intensive each year.

All Star Code equips Black & Latino young men with the tools they need to succeed as tech entrepreneurs. In 2017, that means we teach them to build things with code and we show them how the tech world works and how to navigate it in the context of being a person of color. We join other organizations, such as Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code, in the ongoing quest to make the tech world more diverse and more inclusive.

You might suspect that for a highly selective Computer Science and Entrepreneurship program, we are looking for candidates with the most Computer Science experience from the best schools and the most impressive grades and resumes. Instead, we select All Stars based on three key traits, rather than their achievements or academic successes: Growth Mindset, Collaboration, and Hustle.

When someone has a Fixed Mindset, they believe that they are born with a set of innate talent and intelligence, and when they are faced with a very difficult topic, it is an indication that they simply don’t have the talent or intelligence needed to overcome it. When we have a Growth Mindset, however, we know that we can literally become smarter; we can develop entirely new talents and abilities instead of just developing the ones we have from birth.

The real magic happens, however, when students are told this fact about their brains. They can dare greatly and go beyond their first attempt. This is the foundation of how we teach, learn, and work at All Star Code, and we even go so far as to celebrate failure as a team.

In Hidden Figures, Katherine “Good with the Numbers” Goble (the venerable Taraji P. Henson) is tasked with the impossible: solve problems with math that doesn’t exist yet. Because she has a Growth Mindset, she does not see her current ignorance of the solution as a barrier. The difference between her and the other smart people in the room was that she refused to accept the barrier that others saw, or at the very least she saw it as temporary.

Compare Katherine to her nemesis, Paul Stafford (Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons), who believes that because the problem can’t be solved by someone like Katherine because he’s an expert and he hasn’t solved it. Never mind the social and cultural implications of a Black woman potentially (obviously) being more talented than someone like Stafford — this is fundamentally a fixed mindset getting in the way of all of the possible solutions beyond the first attempt. He’s not willing to entertain the very idea of failure; because he’s smart, he couldn’t possibly be smarter.

Mary “I’ve Got to Be the First” Jackson, played by the delightful Janelle Monáe, is the human embodiment of hustle in Hidden Figures. Mrs. Jackson had a goal: be an engineer in the space program. She didn’t waste time; she took one step and then another until she saw the pathway forward: she could influence a judge to bend the rules so she could take the required courses at an all-white school.

We sometimes hear the word “hustle” and think it means to trick someone; in this case, we do expect our All Stars to trick the system a little bit. Hustle in the All Stars’ case means not just working hard, but identifying the best opportunities for them in order to achieve their goals. Instead of focusing on doing “all the right things” — perfect grades and the right clubs and a whole slew of extracurriculars, we focus on kids with side hustles and the ones who know what they want and are working toward it. We can then help them learn crucial skills, build a robust network, and get the internships that lead to real opportunities now and in the future.

And of course, we have collaboration. Dorothy “I’m Not Going Without My Girls” Vaughan (Octavia Spencer!) doesn’t just work well with others; she knows she needs others in order to work well. She has the opportunity to advance on her own, but she refuses the offer to be a Supervisor unless she can bring her entire team with her. In the car, she tells her friends that advancement for one of them is good for all of them, but she still brings others along as she succeeds.

Our All Stars know that they can’t do it alone. They need each other, and they need a support system in order to succeed in high school, college, and as entrepreneurs. We look for young men who already exhibit this interdependence and community-building focus, and we build on it by bringing them into the growing All Star Code network. When they finish the Summer Intensive, they become All Star Code Alumni, which has its own set of programs and support to further develop their own ecosystem of tech entrepreneurship.

All Stars are all in!

I recently sat down with some of our alumni to discuss Hidden Figures, which we’d seen together at a special event in Manhattan. They shared how their own experiences as minorities at elite schools and in competitive computer science programs aligned with each of the three characters’ experiences. They even described something else they all had in common, the characters and the All Stars: defiance. Each of the film characters heard someone say “That’s just the way it is” and just decided not to believe them. All three of the women knew the rules and edged up against them in a sort of polite defiance. Columbia University sophomore and ASC Alumni Devon Howell put it perfectly: “You don’t have to totally negate your belief in the system in order to defy it.

We also discussed the far-reaching implications of selecting future All Stars for Growth Mindset, Collaboration, and Hustle. First, it means that we are not limited to reaching the young people who have already studied Computer Science and have perfect grades. Most significantly, these traits are not randomly selected. They are a representation of success as a member of an underrepresented minority — those for whom the system isn’t already set up to serve. We can be hopeful and defy the discouraging message that there just isn’t enough Black & Latino talent to impact diversity in the tech world. There is, I believe, a tech talent pipeline that is bursting at the seams. All we have to do is look one step beyond our currently limited measures of success.

I hope more films like Hidden Figures are already being made and that they will continue to highlight not only the need for diversity in cutting-edge STEM fields and tech entrepreneurship, but also the traits we can look for in order to bring more and more people into this important work. Luckily for the tech world, our All Stars are already there.

All Stars prepare for Demo Day at SI2016

All Star Code offers a six-week Summer Intensive in NYC for rising high school juniors and seniors. The program is expanding to Pittsburgh this summer and a host of other cities in 2018 and beyond. Sign up here to receive occasional updates on ASC’s work in creating new tech entrepreneurs.

The 2017 Summer Intensive application opens on February 1.