Laura Weidman Powers
Co-Founder and CEO, CODE2040, CODE2040.org
San Francisco, CA
The data are disturbing. According to CODE2040, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that is creating pathways to success for people of color in the tech industry, there will be one million jobs in tech that are unfilled by the year 2020. And while Blacks and Latino/as earn 18% of the computer science bachelor’s degrees, their makeup in the Silicon Valley workforce—the world’s technological center—hovers at somewhere between five and ten percent.
Perhaps more alarming is what happens before these students enter the workforce. Nationally, about one-third of students majoring in computer science drop the major. Among people of color, that number jumps to an astounding 70-96%. Students who feel socially isolated and lack exposure to the tech industry and to mentors who look like them find the path too difficult to navigate alone.
CODE2040 was founded in 2012 to change all that. It is the creation of two dynamic Bay Area entrepreneurs, Laura Weidman Powers and Tristan Walker. The two met while at Stanford’s business school. As people of color, they were struck by the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley’s booming tech culture, and the two set out to do something about it. Today, Walker is chairman of CODE2040’s board, while Powers runs the organization.
By the year 2040, the United States will be a “minority majority” country—and Blacks and Latino/as will be fueling that conversion; it is projected they will comprise 42% of the total population. Named for that symbolic year, CODE2040 is breaking down the barriers to entry for people of color by educating the corporate world and supporting and mentoring people of color.
In 2012, CODE2040 launched its first class of Fellows. Five Black and Latino/a college computer science students were placed as paid interns for 12 weeks during the summer with a host of Bay Area tech companies. In 2016, 80 Fellows will be working around the Bay Area, earning $1,000 each week. In addition to working on essential programs, the CODE2040 Fellows receive a full complement of wrap-around services. They are supported by get-togethers two to three times a week with other Fellows; the programming includes workshops on entrepreneurship and tech topics as well as a chance to hear from a variety of speakers: top Bay Area engineers, venture capitalists, and CEOs. Importantly, each Fellow is mentored by a tech professional. Opportunities to network with top industry professionals are a vital ingredient of the summer Fellows program.
The program changes lives. Just ask Alexandria Cattron. She was already in the enviable position of being a student at Stanford University, but she felt out of place as a Black woman in the computer science department. Alex was one of the five inaugural Fellows in 2012. She speaks of her experience, “I wasn’t confident. I didn’t see myself as part of the tech industry. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and CODE2040 helped me figure it out. I began a start-up [when I graduated]. I took a risk and pushed myself technically and responsibility-wise…It was so important for me to meet other students of color who were interested in tech and entrepreneurship.” Today, Alex is CODE2040’s Technical Manager.
CODE2040 has a successful earned-income model: corporate partners purchase packages that give them access to CODE2040’s unique diversity programming, and the opportunity to host CODE2040 Fellows. Fully aware of our nationally changing demographics, corporate Silicon Valley is invested in the kind of system change that CODE2040 is offering.
The lack of diversity in the Bay Area’s tech industry has been a leading news topic since 2014, when two major companies, Google and Intel, released their startling diversity figures. In this post-release environment, the earned-income model for the Fellows program has been particularly successful: it is virtually self-supporting. Other programming is supported by corporate and foundation funding, most notably from Google and the Knight Foundation.
Lisa Lee, who first interfaced with CODE2040 as a diversity manager at Facebook and who continues that partnership as Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Pandora, speaks to the value the organization provides to corporations: “I value the thought partnership and thought leadership they provide. It allows us to be creative about diversity. They facilitate a number of really thoughtful trainings with their corporate partners. One of their curriculums is now a mandatory part of our senior management training.” She adds that she also values “the actual hires we’ve been able to add to our talent pool. Two of our three interns from last summer have been converted to tangible hires.” This summer, they’ve more than doubled the number of CODE2040 interns to seven. Pandora is not unique among the nearly 100 corporate partners: 89% of CODE2040 Fellows are asked to return to the company with which they intern.
CODE2040 is in the business of education—educating corporate culture to shift the dynamic and educating students of color so that they believe in their bona fides. “You recruit people of color by educating them,” remarked Karla Monterroso, CODE2040’s VP of Programs. As Powers and her colleagues have honed their model over the years, they’ve initiated a robust campus ambassadors program that generally steers clear of the elite schools (where students of color often have distinct advantages) and recruits from the top talent among the tens of thousands of Black and Latino/a computer science majors at more than 60 more mainstream college campuses.
That talent is being recruited to take part in two programs that are helping scale the CODE2040 model: the Technical Applicant Prep program (TAP) and Tech Trek. TAP is focused on the students earlier in their technical journeys: those students who need some support, training, and exposure to networking opportunities. TAP prepares these students to secure and succeed in tech-sector internships and jobs. Programming includes in-person retreats with like-minded students, workshops that cover how to obtain a job in tech and interview skills training, mentorship, and a pipeline to CODE2040’s growing list of corporate partners. Two to three times a month 30-50 TAP members at a time take part in training webinars, usually hosted by one of the companies in CODE2040’s growing network. Started in 2015, TAP has already reached 1,000 students of color around the country. Like the Fellows program, a portion of its budget is supported by the organization’s revenue-generating model.
Anthony Williams attended CODE2040’s first TAP program in Spring 2015. He recalls that he came to the Bay Area on his own, and was nervous about the program, “It was a really scary moment, but I was able to feel comfortable. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had. The experience built my confidence. I feel I can do these things now,” he said. In fact, he is currently a 2016 Fellow and this rising senior at Cal State Long Beach has also created a nonprofit site to inspire people to chase their dreams.
In the spring of 2016, CODE2040 held the inaugural TechTrek, an alternative spring break for tech-minded students of color. Forty students were selected (out of 320 who applied) to come to the Bay Area for an intensive introduction to the tech industry. They made visits to 10 different corporate campuses, spent the week in community with like-minded and like-looking students, and took part in programming that covered topics like imposter syndrome and how to have each other’s backs. They discussed how to talk about their communities of color. They learned how to create an action plan, and they met with CEOs and other high-level managers at the area’s leading companies.
Beginning in 2015, CODE2040 extended its support to technical entrepreneurs of color through a Google-sponsored Residency program. Black and Latino/a entrepreneurs with early-stage companies in seven different cities were each awarded $40,000 and given unique access to mentoring from both Google and CODE2040. The three-year commitment Google has made to this program underscores its early leadership in changing the diversity landscape in the tech sector. It’s also providing a way for CODE2040 to scale into other cities.
According to LeShane Greenhill, a 2016-17 Resident from Nashville, he’s expecting to meet with his fellow entrepreneurs nine different times over the 12-month residency. He was preparing to leave for San Francisco in late April to meet with the other Residents to discuss and receive advice from the tech industry’s thought leadership about their respective business models, revenue models, pitch decks, and their approaches to leadership, diversity, and inclusion. Greenhill discussed the access to resources, including to people on a national level, that he was already benefitting from, just weeks into his year as a Resident. Of the woman behind CODE2040, he says, “Powers comes off as a very humble person. She’s willing to take the daggers in order to push her vision forward. And she’s driving us to be as driven as she is.”
Pandora’s Lisa Lee concurs, “I think Laura is one of those quiet forces. Her leadership is not that stereotypical, charismatic, in-your-face style. Her style is very thoughtful and very infectious. It’s been demonstrated by the incredible run they’ve had over the past few years. I would add that they have not only grown, but they have adapted to how the conversation has shifted in that time.”
Powers had worked in the nonprofit sector for a few years after her graduation from Harvard, and headed to Stanford for a joint business and law degree with little understanding of Silicon Valley or the tech sector. But all that has changed. Mimi Fox Melton who runs the organization’s TAP and Tech Trek programs, says of Powers, “I’m smart, but Laura is brilliant.” She adds, “She’s tough as nails, with a heart of gold.” Powers is using those smarts and her business acumen to create a pipeline to the booming tech sector for tens of thousands of people of color without easy access.