A problem that has been secretly weighing on Silicon Valley for years, rose to the surface last June, when companies like Google and other tech giants revealed their diversity reports. Data from Google, in particular, showed that among their employees worldwide — only 2% were African American, and only 3% were Latino.
While many have demanded solutions to the tech industry’s diversity problem, people like Van Jones, founder of #YesWeCode, are working to ensure that the next generation of tech revolutionaries and innovators are diverse and given equal opportunities.
#YesWeCode is an initiative working to become the United Negro College Fund (UNFC) equivalent in the computer coding education space.
“The UNCFC does a great job of getting scholarships to African Americans who want to go to black schools, but unfortunately nobody is doing that yet for African Americans, Latinos, and Native American students who want to get a specialized education in computer coding,” Jones said.
#YesWeCode wants to find and finance the next Mark Zuckerbergs and Sheryl Sandbergs in communities where no one would be looking for the next big tech luminary.
For Jones, whose background includes working for grassroots organizations, the White House, and for championing various social causes, the idea for #YesWeCode first came about when Jones and Prince, the legendary musician, were discussing racial issues that followed the murder of 19 year-old Trayvon Martin.
“Prince pointed out that every time you see a black kid in a hoodie he’s a thug, but if you see white kids in the same hoodie, they think he’s Mark Zuckerberg,” Jones explained.
“He said, it could be that we haven’t created enough black Mark Zuckerbergs, and maybe we need to be focusing on that, so that the next time you see a black kid in a hoodie, you think he’s on the way to a million dollar startup.”
The #YesWeCode initiative is striving to reach 100,000 underserved youths. They hope to train a future generation of high-level computer programmers.
#YesWeCode is ultimately set on showing those who are disadvantaged that opportunities exist in industries they may have never considered for themselves before.
“We probably have a million black kids playing basketball this weekend, imagining themselves going to the NBA, but the NBA only hires 15 kids a year. There’s only 450 playing basketball in the NBA pros. Mathematically, that doesn’t make sense, meanwhile the technology sector says that they’re going to be 1,000,000 workers short in 8 years,” Jones said.
The program is taking steps toward reaching their goal of 100,000 youths by creating hackathons, where programmers and developers come together to code and create new products.
Their first hackathon, in partnership with Qeyno Labs, was held last year in Oakland, California.
“The ideas and the products that the kids were coming up with were so original and extraordinary. They were coming up with apps to help kids in foster care, help kids with the criminal justice system, and even helping prevent kids from being professionally trafficked. It was a very different set of problems than just another photo sharing app,” said Jones.
#YesWeCode is currently using hackathons and bootcamps — fast and intensive programs that train individuals to be developers — to catalyze their movement. But they still face their biggest challenge of scaling their efforts.
“Trying to figure out a way to help the bootcamps scale and include more people from our community has been our biggest challenge, but that’s where we’re also going to meet our biggest success,” Jones said.
Right now the program is preparing to host more hackathons, launch a scholarship fund, and they will launch loan fund this fall, which is intended to help those between the ages of 18 and 25 attend a bootcamp.
As Jones looks forward to this fall, he explained that his ultimate goal for #YesWeCode is not just to change the culture of Silicon Valley. Rather, he also wants to change the culture in the hood.
“Nobody is telling our kids that it’s fine for you to be able to download an app, but you’ll really impress me when you can upload one. I tell young people all the time, don’t show me your rap, show me your app,” he said.
“The future is being written in code. We need to have a big movement for inclusion in Silicon Valley. If our young people have the tools to not only get jobs, but to solve problems, then the future could be very bright.”