On a sign that adorns the premises of the vibrant New York technology charity, All Star Code, the bold messaging could not be clearer. Displayed in large writing are the top ten principles that inspired the charity’s creation. Most prominently placed, and one that will ring true to many Americans, is number one. It reads: “Boys Matter: Young men of color are one of our nation’s greatest sources of untapped talent.” This is a sentiment echoed throughout the organization’s activities, which primarily aims to prepare talented young men from minority backgrounds for careers in science and technology.
The west Chelsea offices have the look and feel of a traditional start-up. It is at once informal, accommodating and inclusive – the key ingredients that the charity, one year in, has thrived on. And yet, the protagonist behind its creation had until recently been very much an outsider to the technology community.
Former Wall Street Journal business journalist Christina Lewis Halpern, the founder and president of All Star Code, had a front row seat to observe and analyze the growth in income inequality and those with assets, who “reaped the seemingly ever-increasing rewards.” Through interviews with the upper echelons of the business world and covering real estate during both boom and bust, she became quickly attuned to the wealth gap.
“The gap is very stark in the U.S. with the average white household’s net worth of $110,000, compared to the average black household of around $6,000?” says Lewis Halpern. “It is a terrible problem. When I left the newspaper I was determined to see what I could do to make a difference.”
The daughter of one of the most charismatic and powerful African-American businessmen in the U.S., the late Reginald F. Lewis, Lewis Halpern didn’t need to look far for inspiration. The month before her father died in 1993, she was named to the board of his foundation at just 12 years old. The Reginald F. Lewis Foundation had for many years funded grants of more than $10 million to various non-profit programs and organizations. It was dedicated to supporting youth, arts and education programs that help minority communities.
Through writing a memoir on her father’s life, called Lonely at the Top, Lewis Halpern was fortunate enough to speak to the professor who ran the access program her father attended and which ultimately encouraged him to pursue law. “My father was one of the first African Americans to work in a white-shoe law firm on Wall Street in the 1960s and 1970s, and was a pioneer in his field,” she says. “He did this because of an access program. Run by Harvard Law School, the program would recruit college juniors from black colleges in the south and bring them to the city to introduce them to corporate law.”
Speaking to the now 85-year-old professor and Holocaust survivor, she felt immediately empowered and spurred on to create a prep program that was as effective as her father’s. It was by chance that she attended her first ever technology conference, a world very different from the corporate environment she was used to reporting in. “It was an entirely new world, and it opened my eyes to how few black and brown young men were active in the technology industry. It was clear this was the next economic opportunity and was where the wealth, innovation and job opportunities were,” says Lewis Halpern.
She notes that if her father were a young man today, he would no doubt be working in technology. Through researching the industry and looking at what was available, it was clear there were some great programs for young women, such as Black Girls Code, but a lack of opportunities for young minority men. “In honor of my father’s legacy – and everyone else who has fought for equal rights – I created this program to help the future generation of youth catch the next wave of opportunity,” remarks Lewis Halpern of her intentions for All Star Code.
Just one year in from creating the non-profit organization, Lewis Halpern is by no means short on ambition. Dedicated to closing the gap between young men of color and the tech industry, she is keen to train more than 100,000 students in coding over the next ten years. The charity does this through a number of methods, which include providing mentorship, industry exposure and intensive training in computer science.
Last year, All Star Code ran its most high profile event so far, a six-week summer intensive course designed to educate, inspire and equip 20 talented high school boys with the knowledge and skills needed to pursue careers in science and technology. Attendees were challenged to come up with business ideas, a brand and marketing strategy, and were then tasked with pitching them to a panel of judges. At the brand-new Spotify headquarters in New York’s Flatiron District, All Star students would put their ideas to the experts, ranging from a portal to discover indie music to a digital hub for reggae enthusiasts. It was one of many visits to leading technology companies.
“We run a diverse program, from buildathons, hackathons and programming, to looking at personal narrative, team-work and talks from industry,” says Lewis Halpern, who believes there are certain stereotypes of what people look like and what computer science is. “Students at first think computer science and coding are boring, sitting working on code in a back room alone, very similar to homework. Yet coding is so much more. It is an opportunity and an entr?e into a dynamic and incredibly social and creative field, that involves solving problems, building things and collaborating.”
She believes the best ways to counter stereotypes is through promoting and showing more diverse faces in popular culture. “There is this mentality that there is some kind of party going on in the tech space. The reality is if you don’t know the right people you’re not invited and we’re looking to change this,” says Lewis Halpern.
African-Americans comprise less than 1 perent of startup founding teams, a statistic that the All Star Code founder finds outrageous. She acknowledges there are many reasons why there is a distinct lack of diversity in the technology field. It is clear that access and education are two major challenges, but the former journalist considers the lack of awareness of the industry to be a big problem among underrepresented minorities.
“Since the technology field is so collaborative and informal, it really is built and developed in a way that makes it very difficult for underrepresented minorities to penetrate the industry,” notes Lewis Halpern. “Many students we speak to have never heard of a hackathon or even knew there was such thing as a computer scientist. It’s clear we need more access in the pipeline.”
There are many success stories already from All Star Code with a very diverse range of students and backgrounds. Roughly 70 percent come from low-income backgrounds and others from specialized technical schools, but for many it is their first real exposure to technology professionals and organizations.
“One student had tried everything to get an internship, but had no luck. He had no one to reach out to and help him. He came to our program and within weeks was offered his first paid internship,” says Lewis Halpern. “Lots of our students have never worked before, or coded, so it is a real eye opener. Virtually all our alumni are coding and 95 percent are either pursuing a career in technology or have said they are interested in studying computer science in college.”
A number of alumni are now running their own popular organizations and hackathons. One such success has been The Young Hackers, which aims to break barriers through hackathons. The organization, run by former All Star students, has already held a 12-hour collaborative problem-solving event, with more than 20 hacks and over 100 people in attendance.
She credits the technology community as one of the major reasons All Star Code has become so popular and had such a great first year. The charity has had an impact on more than 200 students in that time, and Lewis Halpern is keen to quadruple that in 2015, through expanding its programs and summer course.
“We’ve been incredibly lucky with the support the technology community has given us. Many companies have embraced the idea of All Star Code and been wonderful in both mentoring and letting our students visit and do workshops in their spaces,” she says. “We knew there was so much talent out there who would be eager to code, and just didn’t know the field existed. It is very rewarding to see how their lives can change for the better. One student said, ‘I was seeing the world as black and white before, and I needed All Star Code to provide that color I was missing.’ It is very heartening to hear.”
Lewis Halpern’s grand ambitions do not stop there. As well as her aim to teach 100,000 students over ten years, she hopes to build training and mentoring programs run by her alumni. The charity is currently devising a course that will teach them how to lead workshops for new students. She also believes All Star Code can expand to many other U.S. cities. “Our organization is built on lean startup principles, designed to be mobile and not tied down to one location. It’s an exciting time and we will continue to break down barriers and raise awareness to help more young men from minority backgrounds get the skills, networks and system knowhow to succeed in careers in computer science and technology.”
This post originally appeared at Nature’s Soapbox Science blog.