Detroit Free Press: Ford Freedom Awards Focus on Tech Innovation

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Laura Weidman Powers was a graduate student studying youth development and the arts when someone suggested in 2009 that she apply for an internship at a tech company.

"I did it and fell in love with it," she said.

One of the things she discovered is that technology isn't one industry; it's an important facet of all industries.

She also discovered during the internship and subsequent jobs that there were few women and people of color studying or working in the field.

That's what led Powers to start CODE2040 in 2012, an organization that works in multiple ways to connect college students to high-demand tech jobs.

The company has grown from one person, herself in 2012, to 15 people today, and the number of fellows in a multifaceted career program has grown from five in 2012 to 15 this summer.

Powers, 32, of San Francisco, was one of several people who spoke to 1,700 metro Detroit students on Tuesday about the importance of considering technology in their future endeavors.

She shared a panel presentation with others including model, actress and app developer Lyndsey Scott, and Freada Kapor Klein who along with her husband, Mitch Kapor, founded the Kapor Center for Social Impact and Kapor Capital. The couple are this year's Ford Freedom Legacy Award winners, in recognition of their philanthropic efforts to support and encourage women, blacks and Latinos in tech fields.

Juanita Moore, president of the Wright museum, said it is important that this year's Ford Freedom Awards — the 17th annual — have a theme focused on technology. The year's theme is "Celebrating Technopreneurs: Builders of the Innovation Economy."

"We have to make sure that our kids know and understand all the possibilities," Moore said. "If you think about it, Dr. Wright was a scientist. He was an ob-gyn. It's important to bring people in to show young people role models of what they can accomplish."

Among those role models was Scott, who received a degree in computer science and theater from Amherst College, before pursuing a career as an actress and model.

Becoming an app developer helps her have greater control of her acting and modeling business, she said. For example, one app she created — iPort — gives her access to her modeling portfolio.

Scott, 30, who has modeled for Calvin Klein, Gucci, Victoria's Secret and others, credits her parents for instilling in her the importance of a solid education.

"When I was little, if someone said, 'You're so beautiful' or 'You're so pretty,' they'd always say, " 'Yeah, and she's very smart.' "

"I still act and model; but I like focusing on something I can control," said Scott, who has developed four mobile apps.

Several of the speakers at Tuesday's program encouraged students to explore what's available and not be afraid to fail.

"There are a lot of stereotypes about who's good at technology and who isn't," Freada Kapor Klein said. "Some are gender-based and some are race-based. But they all send a message about who fits and who doesn't. And that message needs to change.

"Technology is where all the good jobs are and where the future is, and we need technology to look like America."

Klein started a nonprofit organization called Level Playing Field that seeks to address disparities in several ways, including a summer camp that introduces low-income young people to tech experiences.

Kapor Capital also invests financially to help women and people of color develop their tech-related ideas.

For example, she said, they helped an African-American woman develop an app that allows a person to take a photo of herself with her phone and find a shade of makeup that matches her skin color. It resulted because the brown-skinned woman was having difficulty finding makeup that matched her color at local drugstores.

"You have to have that lived experience to invent an app that solves it," Klein said.

Powers started CODE2040 specifically to address the need for more women and people of color in technology.

She named it 2040 to mark the year that census data project people of color will be in the majority in America.

Currently, only 5% of the tech workforce is black and only 18% of the people studying computer science in American universities is black, Powers said.

Yet analysts project there will be 1.4 million new jobs in technology by 2020, she said. "One million of those jobs will go unfilled at the rate we're going," she said.

Not only will there be good jobs in technology; they will pay well, she says.

The average tech worker earns more than the median household income of a black family and Latino family combined, she said.

The answer is connecting people to opportunities and helping to assure they can be successful, which is what CODE2040 does, she said.

"Our fellows leave with the skills, experience, confidence and connections to succeed," she said.

Powers and others also said people should not fear technology or view it as something beyond them.

"Technology is in every industry," Powers said. "It's in sports, music, travel. Each of these industries relies on technology to function. They all have apps. Coding is really just a computer-related way to solve a problem."

Powers said she's honored to be recognized by Ford and the Wright museum, particularly when it also is recognizing the inventor Elijah J. McCoy as its Ford Freedom honoree.

"Elijah McCoy contributed a huge amount," she said of McCoy, the son of slaves, who has more than 60 patents to his name. "I'd like to think that one day I can have that same kind of impact."

She said that she hopes that young people feel empowered and know that technology is possible for everyone; not a select few.

 

Wright Ring of Genealogy inductees:

Five people will be inducted into the Wright Ring of Genealogy, the terrazzo tile creation in the center of the Wright museum with gold nameplates. The five to be inducted are: Former Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin, the first African American elected to statewide office; Robert Hayden, America's first black poet laureate; Erma Henderson, the first African-American woman to serve on the Detroit City Council; the Rev. Charles Hill, founding pastor of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church and fair housing and labor rights activist; and radio legend Martha Jean (The Queen) Steinberg.

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"Diversity brings so much more to the table - and by focusing outside of the usual and rewarding all sorts of people in tech - we can only make it better. #YesWeCode is doing exactly that."
- Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple

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