How Dell & Microsoft are investing in higher education
… and closing the race and gender gap in tech in the process.
The two case studies below are expanded from an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled Improving Diversity in Tech With Smarter Investments in Higher Education, co-authored by Reboot Representation CEO Dwana Franklin-Davis and Morehouse College professor Dr. Kinnis Gosha. The article was published on July 28, 2021.
The two case studies below offer responses to a key question raised in the article: how can corporate philanthropic investments in higher education meaningfully address the race and gender gap in the tech sector? We believe these two programs can be models for others, and we wanted to share them in full detail here. Please reach out to us if you’d like to learn more about these programs or connect with program leadership.
Dell Technologies Sales Engineering Course:
Finding the real need in corporate/academic partnerships.
Dell Technologies’ Sales Engineering course is a unique experience for Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta students that has taken a collaborative approach to investments seriously. The class was created out of a key realization that Dell Technologies employees had: students were not applying for sales engineering positions post-college because they didn’t know what sales engineering was. Angela Harper, Director of Talent Innovation, and Tawanna Atwater, Global D&I Leader, approached Dr. Kinnis Gosha to discuss the underlying challenge at hand: how could Dell work directly with higher education institutions (and specifically HBCUs) to prepare underestimated, untapped students for the technical careers that awaited them in the field?
They considered offering an informational session or workshop, but after conversation and collaboration with Dr. Gosha, they developed a new idea. Dell Technologies would create a 16-week Sales Engineering course, taught primarily by Dell executives who developed a curriculum in partnership with Dr. Gosha to help students build technical and professional acumen that would be useful for any role. The class would be primarily intended for undergraduate students majoring or minoring in a technology discipline at Morehouse, Spelman, or Clark Atlanta, but there would otherwise be no prerequisites for the class. Dr. Gosha would be instrumental in bringing the class to life, helping to get students aware of and registered for the course.
To date, the course has been offered twice, and it’s been a success for students and for Dell. Over 90% of students said they would recommend the class to others. The class has a 4.7 satisfaction rating, putting it among the top 10% of classes for student satisfaction at Morehouse. In a testimonial, one student said, “the class has given me, personally, a voice, because it’s part of the criteria of the class for us to speak, ask questions, and to have meaningful conversations… And beyond that, the class has prepared me for the future ahead of me.” Dell has hired over 15% of the class for full-time roles.
There are multiple needs addressed in this case study. First, for students, the need is exposure to and direct teaching from a top tech company that prepares them for the workforce. Second, for faculty, the need is a forum that leverages the resources, experience, and network of the private sector to build bridges into the workforce. Dell’s solution meets both. Putting together a semester-long class with executive-level speakers is intensive, and its success relies on Dell employees volunteering their time and experience. The team at Dell believes the investment is worth the energy — and we agree. And the third need, which relates to the following case study, is the company’s need for diverse talent.
Microsoft Technical Resilience Program:
Preparing students for the workforce that awaits them.
Margaret Price, a Principal Strategist at Microsoft, was grappling with a fundamental truth: there are more jobs available for tech workers than there are skilled people ready to fill them. Based on LinkedIn calculations, hiring for engineering roles across the U.S. grew 25% from 2019 to 2020. 150 million tech or tech-adjacent jobs over the next five years will be open, and that number is only increasing. At the same time, universities are seeing a large dropout rate in introductory computer science courses, winnowing down the field of potential developers significantly. This is especially true for students who haven’t had prior computing experience in K-12, but the reasons students leave computing are varied and complex (lack of support, lack of visible role models, etc.). The group of people who actually make it into computing careers is small and homogenous, and many can end up feeling excluded by workplace cultures that don’t match their own backgrounds and experiences. “Far too many talented people avoid choosing or actively decide to leave tech because it can be unwelcoming,” Price said.
Instead of focusing on bolstering technical skills, Margaret and her team audited twenty years of research on fostering confidence, resilience, and belonging to equip a diverse generation of students with the skills they needed to participate in the vibrant tech workforce. They came across promising results on mentoring from a team at Mt. Holyoke College and reached out to them directly. Out of this partnership, the Microsoft Tech Resilience program was born.
Working collaboratively, the two organizations redesigned a curriculum to foster two types of interactions: near-peer mentoring (newly enrolled students coupled with students further down the pipeline) and industry-led mentoring (computing students coupled with Microsoft employees). The goals of both are the same: cultivate an inclusive CS culture, teach necessary skills students need to succeed in the workplace like resilience and growth mindset, ultimately aiming to increase retention, reduce attrition, and foster a sense of belonging that complements introductory computing courses.
The Microsoft and Mt. Holyoke teams developed an approach to grow “resilience,” culminating in a toolkit that outlines clear and simple skills to recognize discomfort with a growth mindset, strategize solutions individually and collectively, and pivot from a difficult situation to a productive one. These principles are grounded in interpersonal relationships, and the program they developed allows for one-on-one experiences between students and Microsoft mentors as well as small group sessions with other students facilitated by Microsoft mentors.
Microsoft has tested the 6-week program, and they’ve run two cohorts to date with over 190 colleges, universities, and community colleges. The program has engaged 1062 students, including 40% who identify as both women and people of color and nearly 200 Microsoft employees. The feedback so far from students has been extremely positive, with one student saying, “The curricula helped me develop a growth mindset and cognitive flexibility to bounce back from failure and try new approaches … [N]ow I actively coach my brain into not giving up and not getting bogged down by failures or bugs in code, but instead treating them like fun puzzles to persevere through them with renewed energy… This program changed my life; I was debating dropping the major before going through it but now I know I DO BELONG and can do it.”