The truism about tech’s lack of diversity is that it’s a “pipeline” problem.
At least that’s what tech leaders and companies often say when questioned about why their ranks aren’t inclusive enough.
Is it an honest answer? Kind of.
Does it also shove responsibility for fixing the problem onto everyone else? Yes.
How do you fix it? It’s not easy, because there are so many segments of the so-called “pipeline” from primary education and then on and upward into the tech industry’s culture itself.
But certain companies and leaders are taking baby steps toward helping to fix it.
The Robin Hood Foundation, Google for Entrepreneurs, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Capital One dFUND, Arbor Brothers, New York Community Trust, Verizon, reddit.com founder Alexis Ohanian, and the Bernard F. & Alva B. Gimbel Foundation are giving $1.75 million to the Coalition for Queens.
Coalition for Queens is a non-profit that teaches tech skills to New Yorkers. They run programming courses over nine months for adults from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds. The organization’s founder Jukay Hsu said his non-profit has been able to raise the average income of graduates from $26,000 to $73,000.
“When you’re talking about making a more inclusive tech ecosystem, there’s actually already a tech community growing here in Queens,” said Hsu, a New York native who started doing workforce development after leaving the U.S. military.
The program, which is free, targets a group that has at least 50 percent women, 50 percent underrepresented minorities and 50 percent immigrants. No background in programming is necessary and the participant’s annual salary can’t be more than $45,000.
They run two sets of courses teaching both iOS and Android development. (Android is the new course.) The classes are about 22 hours a week, with homework on top. Hsu plans to target 60 students in this cohort. He hopes that if he can continue to prove the model’s viability, he’ll partner with the CUNY system, which caters to 500,000 students.
In addition to Hsu’s program, there are many other efforts like this on the West Coast too. But they have different target age ranges, incomes and skill levels. YearUp’s Silicon Valley chapter, for instance, target young people in the 18-24 age range who might not have had the chance to go to a prestigious four-year university, but have the drive and ability to work at local tech companies. SamaUSA is running a program that teaches more basic digital skills to low-income workers of a wider age range so that they can handle resumes and social media online. Then there are programs targeted at teens like East Palo Alto’s Streetcode or Oakland’s Hack the Hood.
“I don’t see this as an educational non-profit,” he said. “This is about working on the education system as a whole. There are other coding programs, but they don’t necessarily talk about urban policy issues or broadband access.”