Silicon Valley 101
Code2040 welcomes the next generation of black and Latino engineering students with access, awareness and opportunities in tech
“I discovered Silicon Valley way too late in life, and I don’t want anyone else to make that mistake,” Code2040’s 30-year-old chairman Tristan Walker said to some of the nation’s brightest computer science students. “You folks have the ability to affect technology in sizable and marketable ways that may not have been articulated to you before.”
Walker was speaking to twenty-five teenagers and twenty-somethings who were participating in Code2040’s flagship Fellows Program, which kicked off in June in downtown San Francisco, just blocks from tech giants like Twitter, Pinterest, and Dropbox. The nonprofit that Walker co-founded with Laura Weidman Powers in 2012 creates access, awareness, and opportunities for top minority engineering talent to ensure their leadership in the innovation economy.
While higher education and access to resources are assets when attempting to gain a foothold in the Bay Area’s tech industry, Tristan Walker believes that promoting the potential is just as important. “A lot of people talk about this ‘access issue’ in Silicon Valley. There are not enough people coming through the pipeline, not enough connections being made,” he says. “But one problem I think about a lot that few people talk about is the awareness problem. There are just not enough people who know about all of the potential out here.”
“I wasn’t exposed to tech entrepreneurship until I moved to California for grad school,” adds Powers, the executive director of Code2040, who met Walker at the Stanford School of Business five years ago. “Suddenly I realized that there was a whole world out here that was driving culture and economic growth that I could be a part of. It occurred to me that there are probably lots of other talented individuals from a variety of backgrounds [who] need that same experience of exposure and access, not just around tech itself, but around careers in tech.”
Tristan Walker had a similar epiphany at age 24, when, after working for six years as an oil trader, he gave up on trying to win big on Wall Street and moved to Palo Alto. During the summer of his first semester at Stanford, Walker was hired as an intern at Twitter and became one of its first twenty employees. The following year he was named the director of business development at Foursquare, before becoming an entrepreneur-in-residence at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Walker now owns and operates an online health and beauty company for people of color called Walker & Co.
“I wanted to work on Wall Street because there were archetypes to aspire to,” he says. “In Silicon Valley, I couldn’t really think of folks who looked like me. There are a large number of black and Latino people doing cool things here —they’re just not publicly known.”
The statistics coming out of some of the Bay Area’s most influential tech companies are doing little to combat the media-perpetuated stereotype that it is a young, mostly white, boy’s club. In May, Google revealed that 91 percent of its 50,000 U.S. employees are either white or Asian. Two weeks later, LinkedIn disclosed that black and Latino employees make up only 6 percent of their company. On July 23rd, Twitter fessed up to its own staggering lack of diversity in a blog post stating, “It makes good business sense that Twitter employees are representative of the vast and varied backgrounds of our users around the world,” before revealing that 70 percent of their workforce is male, and only 2 percent is African American. The opportunity gap is also visible in terms of annual median income: The average Computer and Information Professional annual income ($77K, according to the National Science Foundation) is more than an average black and Latino household combined ($32K and $37K respectively, according to the U.S. Censur Bureau). According to the latest U.S. Census in 2010, by the year 2040 minorities in the U.S. will become the majority, with blacks and Latinos making up 42 percent of the population. And with technology-based jobs projected to be one of the fastest-growing employment markets, the nation’s shifting minorities appear likely to be even more underrepresented in the technology sector than they are today.
“When you have a set of founders who are by and large not diverse” — blacks and Latinos comprise around 1 percent of VC-backed startup founders — “that trickles down through the organization’s ranks unless companies are thoughtful about it,” says Powers. “It’s not enough to say ‘I’m not racist’ or ‘We welcome anyone who can do the work’ without thinking about how and where you market your jobs, how you screen candidates, and what structural supports are in place for employees once they get there. Ninety percent of our 2013 fellows received return offers from their summer employers, and 100 percent got jobs in tech. But even cooler is that many of the students reported being recruited for the first time, rather than having to send their résumé out blind.”
The Code2040 Fellows Program is designed to find and train a diverse group of high quality candidates and fast-track them into leadership roles. The ten-week program is both a career accelerator and a way for students to rub shoulders with successful entrepreneurs.
Each fellow receives a full-time, paid internship at a top tech company and attends lectures with founders, venture capitalists, and engineers. Fellows participate in hackathons and learn practical skills, such as how to build apps for Android.
Every Code2040 fellow also volunteers at other Bay Area non-profits that specialize in STEM education as part of the “Pay It Forward” program, and meets regularly with their assigned professional mentors from companies including Apple, eBay, Lyft, and Yahoo.
“Each student gets two mentors, one of which is technical, and one non-technical,” Iris Gardner, Code2040's interim manager of the Fellows Program, explains. “That way they can say, ‘I want to learn iOS, where do I start?’ Or, ‘I want to start a business, how do I build a budget? How do I pitch to a VC?’”
Even though the Fellows Program is officially ten weeks long, the Code2040 staff provides ongoing support to all of its alumni by arranging quarterly calls to review their résumés and run through mock interviews. “Once you’re in Code2040, you’re in it for life,” says Gardner.
One former fellow, Estefania Ortiz, credits Code2040 with connecting her to an invaluable network of peers who have a lot more in common than just their love of writing code. “I didn’t know what to expect with Code2040,” she says. “It’s all about the people, and the people here are doing incredible things. And the permission that we get to connect with the staff, the mentors, and the speakers is just mind-blowing.”
Ortiz was introduced to computer science at 17 while working on her school’s science fair. In order to get additional resources for her project, she joined a research group at Universidad Metropolitana, a college close to her home in Puerto Rico, where she collaborated with a small group of developers who were building Windows applications with a grant from Microsoft. Inspired by the limitless potential the ability to program offered her, that summer she travelled to Pittsburgh and enrolled in summer courses in computer science and electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon.
“Everyone was nerdy [at Carnegie Mellon], and being nerdy was awesome,” says Ortiz. “In my high school it was like, ‘she has a 4.0, so she’s smart.’ I always bought into that until I went to Carnegie Mellon. It was very humbling, and at the same time, I felt empowered by what I was learning. That whole experience taught me that I didn’t need to go back to high school — I was ready to go to college.”
When she returned to Puerto Rico, Ortiz enrolled in online computer science courses at Stanford, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon, and designed her own curriculum for the remainder of her high school career. The following year, she was accepted to Stanford, where she was introduced to Code2040 through the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). During the 2013 Code2040 Fellows Program, Estefania worked as a software engineer at Facebook; this summer, she was hired as an intern at the virtual farmer’s market GoodEggs.
“I belong here [at Code2040], and at Stanford it’s sometimes unclear,” says Ortiz, who will start her junior year as a computer science major in the fall. “But here, we’re all minorities in tech. We all understand each other on that level, which allows us to get to know each other on a much deeper level.”
Seated at the Code2040 orientation, surrounded by the organization’s third and largest group of fellows, Tristan Walker encouraged the new recruits to nag CEOs, prepare to fail, and, most importantly, take risks. “A lot of Silicon Valley companies will say that they just want to find the best and brightest engineers,” says Walker. “But one thing Code2040 is proving is that they haven’t found everyone. We can partner with these organizations and find more.”
We asked the Code2040 founders and fellows how they plan to use technology to change the world.
This is what they said:
“By empowering tech talent from all backgrounds to become creators in the innovation economy so they can change the world themselves.”
Laura Weidman Powers
Executive Director & Co-founder
“That’s easy—by leveraging the culture to make technology famous. I believe that all international culture is led by black and Latino culture in the U.S., and it’s all about getting access [to] and awareness of technology in the hands of the most culturally influential demographic in the world.”
Chairman & Co-founder
“Technology has made huge inroads in First and Second World countries, but what about back home in Zambia? It has changed it the last few years, but it still is not able to fully tap into the power and impact technology has today—the infrastructure just isn’t there to support it. But imagine the power a few laptops or tablets could bring. Imagine the things they could learn with a constant and stable connection to the rest of the world.”
Tenji Tembo, 20
University of Maryland, Baltimore, majoring in computer science
Intern at MustWin LLC
“Because I am a first-generation college coder and Mexican American, I want to use technology to change the world by first making it more accessible to underrepresented communities. Second, I want to build a system that programmatically assesses the topic of diversity and reproduces graphs and tables to show the misalignments and problems Silicon Valley has.”
Alex Rodriguez, 22
University of California, San Diego, majoring in computer science | Intern at Findery
“I’m going to use technology to broaden opportunities and change opinions and stereotypes about minorities, and in particular women of color.”
Patricia Perozo, 19
Stanford University, majoring in computer science
Intern at Facebook
“I hope to create more access to technology for people back home in Nigeria. I believe this will greatly promote economic equality and social justice. For example, my mom suspects that her power bills are inflated, and my knowledge of software engineering has empowered me to build an app that monitors how much power a home consumes in a month. It’s not state of the art, but it fulfills its purpose, so that my mother can take an informed action.”
Jessica Mong, 21
Claflin University, majoring in computer engineering
Intern at Survey Monkey
“I thought computer science would lead to a future with a bunch of guys coding in a room somewhere, and I want to change that perception. I’m really interested in robotic prosthetic limbs and developing better ways to integrate them into the body, specifically in having them translate signals from the brain into motion.”
Mopewa Ogundipe, 19
Carnegie Mellon University, majoring in computer science
Intern at Instagram
“I want to use technology to reform education. Online education has incredible potential to make learning more interactive, empowering, and engaging than ever before. I’d like to be a pioneer of the ed-tech industry. I want to make it [computer science] cool. I want little kids to pretend to be doctors, cops, fireman, and also computer scientists.”
Alex Triana, 21
University of California, Berkeley, majoring in electrical engineering and computer science
Intern at LinkedIn
Code2040 empowers diverse talent to change the world through technology. Join them in their mission!
Photos by Abby Wilcox
You want to change the world. We want to tell people about it.
Let’s do it together. Storytelling for Good: Medium’s first non-profit storytelling grant, enabling you to craft and share your stories in the world.