Tristan Walker code 2040The digital divide is real. Fewer than 4 percent of Black and Latino students study computer science and only 1 in 14 technical employees in Silicon Valley is Black or Latino. The opportunities are there but people of color are either left behind or lack the education to pursue these lucrative careers. Computer science jobs, for example, have the highest starting salaries in the U.S. at $77,000 per year, which is nearly twice the median household income of a Black or Latino family.

To combat this alarming gap in the tech sector, Tristan Walker and Laura Weidman Powers co-founded CODE2040. CODE2040 is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to create avenues to educational, professional, and entrepreneurial success in the innovation economy for underrepresented minorities with a specific focus on Blacks and Latino/as.

Powers, CODE2040 executive director, was named by Goldman Sachs as one of the 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs of 2013.

Through its flagship program, its summer Fellows Program, CODE2040 places high-performing Black and Latino/a software engineering students in internships with top tech companies and also provides mentorship, leadership training, and network development. The Fellows Program is designed to accelerate students’ success, fast-tracking them to becoming tech leaders.

CODE2040´s Iris Gardner, manager, events and outreach, tells TNJ.com more about the growing organization.

TNJ.com: What led to the creation of 2040?
Iris Gardner: Tristan Walker and Laura Weidman Powers co-founded CODE2040 in early 2012. The pair met at Stanford business school and each worked in technology after graduating (Tristan at Foursquare and Andreessen Horowitz, Laura at a small consumer web startup). Immersed in Silicon Valley for the first time, they each saw the tremendous potential for job and wealth creation in the tech industry and the opportunity it could afford those from underrepresented backgrounds. They also realized the sector was struggling to attract and retain diverse talent. CODE2040 was formed to create access and opportunity in the tech sector for talented students without the awareness or connections to break into the field on their own.

TNJ.com: Why do you feel 2040 is necessary?
Iris Gardner: STEM jobs are the fastest-growing category of jobs in the United States, and 70 percent of those jobs involve computing. But at the current rate we are graduating computer scientists, there will be 1 million software jobs unfilled by 2020, threatening our country’s ability to remain competitive. By the year 2040 the US will be majority-minority with 42% being Black or Latino/a, yet they only make up about 9% of the tech workforce.

TNJ.com: Why do you think there is still such a digital gap even though Blacks in particular are early tech adaptors?
Iris Gardner: There are a variety of factors that contribute to a low number of Blacks entering the tech workforce. A recent study on the the state of the US education system highlights the lack of diversity in STEM and attributes the problem to: a access to high quality education, poverty and other social factors, and it is very important that we recognize and find solutions for those as well. There isn’t one answer to creating equity but with many organizations, the government, and individuals attacking the issues from all sides, equity (and progress) is possible.

In our own work—after two cycles of applications—we realized that applicants to our program were fantastic, however they lacked the resources necessary to best prepare for not only our process, but in any technical internship process. Our mission is to create equity and our experience was telling us that we had to add to our programming in order to create equity. Equipped with the right information we would increase the number of qualified applicants to our program—and all tech internships.

With additional input from our company partners we built the CODE2040 Applicant Toolkit. The Toolkit provides students with a repository of resources on how to be a standout applicant for a tech internship. Applicants now have one place to go to when they ask themselves questions like: What should I put on my resume? What experience are companies look for? and How do I practice for a technical interview? We’ve made the technical internship application process more transparent so that applicants know what’s expected of them and how to present it in their materials.

TNJ.com: What are 2040’s goals this year?

Iris Gardner: CODE2040 is looking to grow this year, in a variety of ways. We’ll start by increasing the new class of Fellows. In the fall, we’ll launch a new program to reach more students and prepare them for technical applications. We also look to increase awareness around the issue through speaking engagements, our new blog series (What CODE2040 Is Reading), and other avenues.

TNJ.com: What have been some of the challenges with building 2040?

Iris Gardner: When you look at the main issue we’re solving for, creating opportunities for underrepresented groups to be successful in the innovation economy, there are a myriad of ways that we can do that. Choosing where to start and where to add new programming is something we find ourselves evaluating on a consistent basis.

I think this is a good problem to have because it allows us to get creative with our new programs, like the Applicant Toolkit. With this we’ve been able to gather very important information in one place and lower the barrier for entry into the tech world. As we look to the future we can keep solving for these issues and expand our reach. It’s an exciting prospect!