People always ask me how Prince got involved with#YesWeCode, an initiative I helped to found. #YesWeCode aims to help train 100,000 low-opportunity youth to become high-level computer programmers.
The truth is, it was Prince who sparked the idea.
It was right around the time last year when the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin verdict came out. Martin was an unarmed, black teenager whom was shot and killed in a Florida neighborhood in 2012. My immediate reaction to the verdict was “racism won.”
But Prince had an interesting perspective. He 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.”
Prince said, the question we should be asking ourselves is this: why aren’t we producing more African-Americans and Latinos who are excelling in technology and helping to run Silicon Valley? If we focused on changing that number, then we could change that stereotype — and empower a whole generation.
That was the moment that the seed was planted for #YesWeCode.
We want to flip the script and give our hoodie-wearing youth the same tools, training and technology that the kids have who are taking over Silicon Valley.
Since we officially launched in July at Essence Festival in New Orleans, #YesWeCode has been working with grassroots training programs, educators, politicians and big companies in Silicon Valley, including Facebook and Google. Our goal is to align as many players as possible, to forge a job-training pipeline that will get more high-potential young people into high-paying tech jobs or high-powered incubators/accelerators.
It’s an ambitious project. African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and women of all colors are sorely under-represented in the tech fields. But our efforts are strengthened by the endorsement and support of many VIPs, including Chris Tucker,Michael Bearden and of course, Prince.
What is exciting to see is how closely tied this work is to their own lives. A few months ago, Chris participated in a panel about diversity in technology, relating his own experiences as a black actor breaking into the mainstream as similar to those trying to break into tech.
Other celebs have encouraged us, too — including MLK’s sonDexter King. And the legendary Lauryn Hill told me that she is very inspired by the work of #YesWeCode. Not many people know this, but Hill’s father actually worked in computer technology, back in the day. So the issue has always been close to her heart.
That’s part of the magic of #YesWeCode. It’s a movement that brings together people from every background — from the hood to Hollywood.
So much is possible, if we stop wasting the genius. Youth of color transformed music and sports in the last century. In this new century, that same creative energy must be unleashed to transform the technology sector — creating new work, new wealth and new solutions for communities that desperately need all three.
Out of such an initiative, we could support hundreds or even thousands of Mark Zuckerbergs — with a whole lot of them looking like Trayvon Martin.
For many years, it has been an exclusive, members-only sort of sector but now, new players try to shoulder their way in to a seat at a table brimming with abundance. There’s a new breeze beginning to blow in the thin, exclusive air of the tech giants’ offices in this country, and the direction seems to be that of a call to action for diversity. But with just as many complexities as entrants, how things will truly shake out in the long run is almost anyone’s guess.
The straw that seemed to break the proverbial camel’s back came a few weeks ago when companies such as Google and Yahoo released their diversity statistics. The results were certainly not shocking to people of color currently involved in the tech and tech-related arenas.
Now, there seems to be a bit of arm flailing and hurried activity to create balance and diversity — but it might behoove us all to stop, analyze and ask: Why now?
“Well, (Facebook’s) Sheryl Sandberg helped to create a general conversation about male dominance in the tech world that kind of opened the door to conversations about people of color that was more legitimated inside of the tech space,” offers Van Jones, founding president of Rebuild The Dream and CNN “Crossfire” regular.
“But in addition to this, I think outside of tech, nothing else is actually working. The rest of the economy is tough to find employment in, so the only other powerful place in the economy is Silicon Valley and the tech industry. I think these two things just lined up. If the economy were great, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about this.”
Jones’ organization also spearheads the project #YesWeCode, which aims to train 100,000 low-income youth to become computer professionals in the world in 5-10 years and kicked off a new initiative with Prince during the recent hackathon at the Essence Music Festival.
“We’re an intermediary,” Jones continues. “We’re helping those organizations out here who are focused on training and aim to help them get jobs coding. High potential/low opportunity, under 25.” Considering the number of impressions made at the Essence Music Festival via the hackathon, most would say an impressive first start is under the organization’s belt.
However, there are positions offered in tech that don’t require knowledge in coding such as marketing, publicity, ad sales, business development, and more. So, what happened with diversity in these subdivisions.
(CNN) -- Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Facebook have all releasedtheir workforce diversity reports in the past few weeks. These reports have sparked much hand-wringing about the low number of African-Americans and Latinos who are working in Silicon Valley tech companies. We expect to see a tide of more reports, illustrating a dismal situation needing attention.
But, too often, stunned commentators overlook a simple fact: This problem is fixable.
Tech companies need more workers, and African-American and Latino communities need more work. Silicon Valley has an insatiable demand for genius. Communities of color have an untapped supply of it. Putting aside any blaming or shaming, tech leaders and communities of color could greatly benefit by coming together -- to ensure that America stops wasting so much genius. Neither Silicon Valley nor low-opportunity communities can afford it anymore.
For instance: 70% of "Googlers" are men, 30% women; 61% are white and 30% are Asian. Blacks and Hispanics? Only 2% and 3%, respectively. Google's May 2014 report could best be summed up with the company's own words: "We're not where we want to be."
These reports have their place. But let us first keep in mind: As important as transparency is, simply releasing these numbers won't solve the problem. In fact, Intel, one of the world's largest tech companies, has been openly sharing its diversity stats for the past decade -- and should be applauded for doing so. And yet the company still struggles with hiring minority talent.
Only one thing will make a difference: a job-training pipeline specifically designed to identify, recruit and train talented people from nontraditional backgrounds and low-opportunity communities.
Imagine, if you will, a promising black or Latino child, sitting behind a public school desk in East Oakland. That youth is seated just half an hour's drive from Silicon Valley. But it would take something like a miracle for that child to ever find her way into a coding education program, let alone an internship or job at the world's most famous tech companies, right down the road.
We need to fix this -- and we can. We won't have to start from scratch. Many grass-roots educational organizations are already working to solve this problem. They are inventing and pioneering powerful new models to bring coding education to new constituencies.
Unfortunately, none has reached the necessary scale.
America desperately needs an efficient solution for diversifying talent in the tech sector. If existing programs could work together in smart ways, with the best ones getting support to scale up dramatically, we could create a process that would pull extraordinary talent out of unlikely places, like Oakland, or East Los Angeles, or a Native American reservation, or, for that matter, Appalachia.
One effort to create those synergies and build that pipeline is called #YesWeCode, an initiative I helped start. Our goal is to help grass-roots groups train 100,000 low-opportunity youth to become high-level computer coders.
Here is how we're doing it:
Exposure: First, #YesWeCode, with the help of Facebook, is creating an online platform to unite more than 70 tech-training organizations, so young people can easily and conveniently connect to coding education programs.
Training: Second, we are investing in workforce development programs that target people who wouldn't normally have access or the opportunity to enter careers in tech. Our model includes "boot camps" and accelerated tech-training programs to equip young people with the skills they need to succeed in a high-level tech job.
Jobs: Most important, we are establishing an employers' council to ensure this pipeline results in gainful employment. This council is also building the core movement to open the doors to invite more low-opportunity talent into this pipeline. Top executives at companies like Apple and Facebook have already expressed interest in joining this council and making meaningful changes in their workforce.
Our nation is sitting on an untapped goldmine of talent: amazing young people who have the creativity and the courage, but need the skills.
For example, take Kalimah Priforce. He is a young Haitian-American man who grew up in group homes. After his younger brother was shot and killed behind their childhood elementary school, he made a lifelong commitment to transforming the lives of young people.
At 16 years old, he founded a tech company to serve low-income neighborhoods. Kalimah went on to co-found Qeyno Labs, a start-up that works to close the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) gap in education.
This past February, Kalimah created a pioneering "hackathon" in Oakland, California, to highlight black male achievement. Young black kids came together for three days to connect, create and code.
It was a group of hoodie-wearing, laptop-wielding future Mark Zuckerbergs -- who all look a bit like Trayvon Martin. It was, almost certainly, a sign of things to come.
Plenty of other low-opportunity young people are waiting to live out their own success story. That's a problem we can solve.
We just need to give them the opportunity. Imagine urban youth who are not just downloading apps, but uploading them.
And when they succeed, they will change a lot more than the workplace diversity numbers in Silicon Valley.
Victoria Pannell could have spent her Fourth of July weekend going to barbecues and hanging out with her friends, but the 15-year-old chose to stay indoors and learn how to code.
Pannell, who traveled 24 hours by car with her mom from New York to New Orleans, was one of dozens of teens from all over the country who participated in the Essence Festival’s first-ever hack-a-thon. The event was the official launch of #YesWeCode, an initiative spearheaded by Van Jones (and supported by Prince, who gave it a shout out during his headlining performance) that aims to get 100,000 “high potential, low opportunity” youth to interested and involved in coding.
The event presented the perfect opportunity for Pannell to marry her love for computers and her passion for helping to end child sex trafficking, which was the focus of the application she spent the weekend building. When Pannell was 13, she portrayed a girl forced into sex trafficking in a public service announcement for change.org. The issue has stuck with her ever since. “After I portrayed Monica, the victim, I couldn’t sleep thinking about how there were girls whose bodies were being ravaged by strangers every day,” Pannell said. “Sex trafficking is an operation, and we want to prevent that operation from happening.” Through her application, the Sex Trafficking Operations Prevention app or, STOP, she’d help connect potential and current victims of trafficking to support services like the Polaris Project’s Hotline.
The sciences, mathematics, engineering, and technology (STEM) are the fastest growing career fields in the United States. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates occupations in the STEM field will by 17% by 2018, while non-STEM jobs are expected to grow by 9%. Microsoft projects about 1.2 million jobs will open in computer sciences by 2020—but only about 40,000 Americans currently graduate with the necessary credentials to fill the positions. #YesWeCode is looking to increase the number of African-Americans in STEM.
“I aspire to become a software engineer,” said Zachary Dorcinville, a rising high school senior from the Bronx who crowd-funded $1,500 to purchase his plane ticket to get to the Festival. His team developed an application that uses music to make workout experiences more social. “Technology is always changing and always evolving. I love it.”
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.”
A recent spate of workforce diversity reports from Google, Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn revealed what everybody already kind of knew: The makeup of the tech industry is thoroughly out of whack with the demographics of the Bay Area, the nation and its collective user base. So what now?
For Facebook, the answer starts with getting to the root of the problem, which it defines as unequal access to the skills and training that put a career in tech within reach. To address it, Facebook is partnering with #YesWeCode, a nonprofit whose aim is to teach coding to 100,000 youth from low-opportunity backgrounds.
“There’s this kind of disconnect where everyone in the industry is saying, ‘We have the jobs, we want to employ people,’ but, as you can see with the numbers, everyone’s struggling,” says Maxine Williams, Facebook’s global head of diversity. “We can’t get to the level of diversity we want despite putting lots of effort behind it.”
The first fruit of the new partnership is a search tool, built in part by volunteers at Facebook, that anyone can use to look up local programs that are already offering coding lessons free or at low cost. Right now, the tool only points to about 70 organizations nationwide, but the hope is lots more will join in after #YesWeCode officially launches it tomorrow at the Essence Festival in New Orleans.
“In its most simple form, a mother in South Carolina, for instance, could go to one place and put in ‘I have a boy, he’s 13, and we want to learn how to code this summer,’ and find a program nearby,” says Williams, who joined Facebook last September. “It’s a really basic thing, but as we did the research, we heard people saying, ‘I don’t even know where to put him.’”
The Facebook employees who worked on the tool all volunteered through an internal group called Pipeline Builders, started by the diversity team. “There’s a real hunger to solve this problem,” says Williams. “We constantly reinforce that diversity is everyone’s challenge, because we honestly believe that, with more diversity, we’ll build better products and you’ll have more dynamic experiences within the building.”
By Maxine Williams, Global Head of Diversity
Today we’re making Facebook’s current diversity figures available publicly for the first time.
At Facebook, diversity is essential to achieving our mission. We build products to connect the world, and this means we need a team that understands and reflects many different communities, backgrounds and cultures. Research also shows that diverse teams are better at solving complex problems and enjoy more dynamic workplaces. So at Facebook we’re serious about building a workplace that reflects a broad range of experience, thought, geography, age, background, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture and many other characteristics.
Below is the current demographic data for the company:
#YesWeCode looks to close the coding inequality gap
Shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February 2012, liberal activist Van Jones was talking with his friend Prince—yes, that Prince—about the circumstances of the shooting.
“I think he made the observation,” Jones told TIME, “that when African-American young people wear hoodies people think they’re thugs, but when white kids wear hoodies you assume that they’re going to be dot-com billionaires,” a reference to the outerwear favored by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk. “We just started thinking: ‘Well, how do we turn that around?’”
Out of that spark was born Yes We Code, an ambitious initiative of Jones’ Rebuild the Dream organization aimed at preparing 100,000 low-income children for careers writing computer code. While good-paying blue-collar jobs continue to disappear in the U.S., computer science is a rare bright spot of opportunity for people without a college education. “This is another opportunity for people to make a really serious, solid middle-class income,” said Jones, a former environmental aide in the Obama Administration.
It’s an old yarn by now that computer science is one of the fastest-growing, highest-paying career paths in America. By 2020, half of all jobs in the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Math) fields will be in computing, according to the Association for Computer Machinery. The latest salary survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers says the average starting salary for computer science majors in 2014 is more than $61,000—just about $1,000 shy of the top earners, engineering grads.
Contrast that with the fact that computer science education in STEM has seen a decrease in enrollment in the last 20 years, with a particularly precipitous drop in the past decade as school districts have reconfigured curriculums to meet standards set by the No Child Left Behind initiative. Those students who do enroll in computer science are overwhelmingly white and male. In 11 states last year, not a single black student took the Computer Science Advanced Placement exam for college credit. That may not mean much in a place like Maine, but in Mississippi, where more than 37 percent of the population is black, the statistic takes on a whole new significance.
Put simply, many parts of the country have systematically reduced educational opportunities in the growing field of computer science for students who depend on the public school system. “It has become privileged knowledge,” said Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teacher’s Association. “The haves have continued to get access and the have-nots, however you want to define that, have not.”
A Black Mark Zuckerberg? Hackathon empowers youth to transform NOLA into their own Silicon Valley
Tired of waiting for Silicon Valley tech companies to design solutions for their neighborhoods, New Orleans youth will unite with technologists and innovators to create their own during #YesWeCode Hackathon.
What is #YesWeCode? #YesWeCode is recruiting hundreds of grassroots training programs and teaming up with major technology partners, celebrities and political leaders to promote the goal of training 100,000 low-opportunity youth to become high-level computer programmers.
Watch founder Van Jones explain his vision for this groundbreaking initiative.