The technology sphere has long been criticized for its lack of diversity. With a measly 10% of Blacks making up computer science degrees, and only 9.2% of Blacks and Hispanics representing the industry, major players across sectors are joining forces to help fill the technology job gap with a diverse talent pipeline.
One of these public-private partnerships include the head honchos at the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency (AWDA), TechSquare Labs (TSL), and The Iron Yard, collaborating collectively to teach Atlanta’s underserved youth coding and entrepreneurship. The 13-month CodeStart program fully funds the 15 selected students who receive resources like their own laptop, access to personal coaches, and housing located walking distance from TechSquare Labs – a first of its kind approach to any innovative workforce development training program in the country.
Hypepotamus sat down with Michael Sterling, executive director of the AWDA and Rodney Sampson, partner and head of diversity and inclusion initiatives at TSL, to get the inside scoop on how the team hopes to bust the homogeneous bubble by taking a new approach to curating a more diverse and robust tech ecosystem.
How did the coding and entrepreneurship program come to fruition?
“I went into Rodney’s office and I walked him through what we did at the Workforce Agency and he talked about what he did in technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship,” said Sterling. “And I said, ‘you know it would be really great if we could come up with a program that trained some of these underserved, disconnected youth that I work with all of the time who are not sure what they want to do beyond high school.’”
“So Rodney and I literally sat down at that moment – and we didn’t even have any paper so we used sticky notes – and started mapping out what a good program would look like. As we talked through all the pain points I said to Rodney, ‘you know we should also include housing.’ One of the biggest issues I’ve had is that I’ll help out a young man or woman and then they go back into their neighborhood and are surrounded by their same circumstances. I’ve lost a couple of people I work with when they go back into a neighborhood with negative elements and they don’t have the type of support system they need to succeed. So I thought, why don’t we figure out a way to house them and add that to the program.”
“After we went through all of the pain points that might crop up and wrote out a rough draft of the program, Rodney went back to his team at TechSquare Labs and I talked to my team and said, ‘let’s come together and launch this in January of next year.’ And everybody thought I was crazy, but I said, “we’re going to do this and we’re going to have an awesome public-private partnership.”
What are you offering through the program and what partnerships make it all happen?
“Ultimately, we ended up with a 13-month program for the 15 students we’ve selected. The Iron Yard, who came on later as a partner, is doing the coding training on the campus of TechSquare Labs and I’ve got to give them a lot of credit. The CEO, Peter Barth, flew down from Greenville, SC, met with us multiple times and was really interested in everything we were trying to accomplish.”
“Along with coding, there will be and entrepreneurship curriculum for students interested in starting their own company. We are still vetting some of those details out and plan to add more components along the way. We may make a “shark tank” type of process for students if they have a great startup idea. And we may even end up with an individual group of investors willing to work together with our students to make their ideas come to fruition.”
“Our main focus is to build programming that nurtures talent development. Our recent partnerships generate a curriculum focused on building skilled coders with entrepreneurial acumen,” said Sampson. “In order to build great companies and invest in those companies, you have to start with developing the talent.”
This is the first program of its kind in the nation. Can you talk about what makes it so unique?
“Well to start, they each get a $500 monthly stipend,” stated Sterling. “We also provide each student with a laptop, pay for their full tuition through the program, and pay for their housing. They also meet with mentors and have their own personal coach they meet with once a week to talk through whatever issues they are experiencing.”
“For us, It’s recognizing that there is more than just that hard skill of teaching someone how to code. We are working to solve a lot of the other issues that would prevent somebody that was otherwise interested. And that’s really what Rodney and I did that day we mapped this whole program out. We looked at what would prevent a young person, who is traditionally disconnected or doesn’t even know to be interested, from taking part in a program like this and if we can figure out how to give them the resources so that it doesn’t prevent them from doing it, then let’s give them the resources to do it and let’s see if it works.”
Do you hope to continue this year after year? What’s the long-term vision?
“We want to see how it works out and that’s definitely what this pilot is all about. It’s about proving and demonstrating that we can take youth who would not traditionally go into the technology field and if we can train them and get them ready to go into a large or mid-size company to code, or become intrepreneurs within a company, or help them become entrepreneurs; if we can teach them that, then we can go out and teach another 15 students and then another 20, 30, and 40. We can really start to chip away at the gap between skills needed for some of these jobs. We can also increase the diversity and inclusion within the technology ecosystem in the city of Atlanta.”
What does this program say about the City of Atlanta?
“I think what it says about our city is that no one can solve these problems alone. It takes a number of different partners at the table working together. I could have stayed in my silo and said, “I’m just going to do the Workforce Development stuff and I’m going to try and send some kids into the technology field and we are just going to do what we do.” But rather than doing that we reached out and established a meaningful partnership with TechSquare Labs and The Iron Yard. We are all working together, collaborating, and bringing resources to the table, and when you do it in a meaningful way everyone is committed to the end goal.”
“These students are going to be contributing so much more to our city and that is going to mean a lot. Not just from a technology perspective and filling those jobs, but for the economy of our city. I think you’re going to start seeing businesses get more interested in this because you’re not leaving creative talent, innovation, entrepreneurship, and energy on the table but you’re bringing it with you and contributing it to the economy.”
“There’s a convergence happening right now between diversity and innovation,” stated Sampson. “Authentic innovation includes diverse people, ideas, and experiences. Authentic diversity includes innovative opportunity for all. If we intentionally infuse diversity into Atlanta’s “tech” workforce and startup ecosystem, we will continue Atlanta’s legacy of democratizing opportunity; and that will be very special.
“Globally, Atlanta has a reputation for being one of the most diverse and inclusive technology and entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world – thanks to the early work of Kingonomics and Opportunity Hub. Today, TechSquare Labs, AWDA, The Iron Yard and others are building on this platform to ensure that Atlanta can once again become “the city too busy to hate – even on the job or in the startup community. Through initiatives like CodeStart, Techhire and beyond, we can gain new perspectives and fresh ideas that will keep Atlanta constantly evolving and relevant- well into the future.”
Learn more about CodeStart and support the cause by visiting their GoFundMe page.