Christina Lewis Halpern was juggling many things. She is philanthropist; had been a reporter at the Wall Street Journal; is the author of Lonely At The Top, a memoir about her famous father, trailblazing African-American businessman Reginald F. Lewis; and she served 20 years on the board of directors of the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting youth, arts and education programs that help minority communities.
There were many more avenues open for Lewis Halpern, who received her B.A. from Harvard College. But she chose to use her energies to help others, particularly young boys of color.
She is founder and president of All Star Code, a non-profit initiative that prepares minority boys for full-time jobs in the technology industry. The organization provides mentorship, industry exposure, and intensive training in computer science. The website declares: "We are dedicated to closing the opportunity gap between young men of color and the tech industry."
Lewis Halpern told TNJ.com more about All Star Code:
TNJ.com: What inspired All Star Code?
Christina Lewis Halpern: All Star Code was inspired by an innovative 1965 Harvard Law School summer program that my father attended when he was a young man. That program led to him getting into Harvard Law School, which provided critical and invaluable access to educational and professional opportunities. Or in his own words: "It opened the world" to him. When I learned about this program while I was researching my memoir, Lonely At The Top, I asked myself: Where is the opportunity now? What is the next wave? The answer is clear. It's in tech.
TNJ.com: Why did you find it to be necessary?
CLH: For so many reasons! The problem we are trying to solve is the wealth gap. According to the U.S. Census in 2010, the average net worth of a Black household was $5,000 and for a white household it is $110,000. Yet at the same time, Blacks and Latinos make up a tiny fraction (less than 1 percent per ) of "startup America" and a small percentage of tech sector jobs, which is critical area for job growth and wealth creation. There are already some excellent and fast-growing female-oriented programs in the space. But, there are very few tech career pipeline programs that focus on under-represented minority male youths. We have to invest in our young men as well as our girls in order to ensure they can thrive in the 21st century economy and lend their skills to creating innovation.
TNJ.com: Do you feel the digital divide is closing or getting worse?
CLH: That question is best answered by a PhD. I can say that far too many minority families have a poor understanding of the skills needed to thrive in the tech sector and the innovation economy, generally. Also, many people are accessing the Internet on their smart phones, but that small screen allows you to consume but not to create. True access involves high-speed wireless Internet and a computer. The problem is that the pace of innovation keeps on speeding up, and change always seems to favor those who are best-resourced and connected. But I see many green shoots, so to speak. Far more people are talking about minority representation in tech than even a year ago.
TNJ.com: How do you reach out to potential participants?
CLH: If you mean how did we find participants, we have 100-plus teachers/guidance counselors/principals on our email list. We also have recruiting partnerships with some top education organizations in the city like Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, A Better Chance, Prep for Prep and school networks like Eagle Academy. And students and parents find us via Facebook or even through Google as they are researching tech programs.
TNJ.com: How does All Star Code actually work?
CLH: Simple. We're a summer program that also offers some year-round workshops for recruitment and ongoing engagement. All Star Code is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing under-represented minority boys with the skills, networks and know-how to succeed in the tech sector. Our mission is to attract, prepare and place under-represented minority boys in the tech career pipeline. All Star Code offers a six-week Summer Intensive for high school sophomores and juniors in New York City, piloting in July 2014, plus year-round seminars for recruitment and ongoing engagement designed to boost and maintain interest in pursuing coding.
All Star Coders will receive years of ongoing follow-up as the students search for internships and decide on college and what to study. It also offers interest and awareness-boosting introductory entrepreneurship and coding workshops for students during the school year, as well as parenting programming.
Our Summer Intensive curriculum will include a rigorous computer science course, but also a soft-skills curriculum (leadership, innovation, team-work, etc.) that would help our students stand out years later when they enter the talent pipeline of top companies. ASC’s purpose is to give young men of color an early introduction to the world of technology, providing a mode of entry to an industry that has been closed to them. (To twist the old Walt Disney line: “If you can’t see it, you can’t dream it.”)
TNJ.com: What are your goals for 2014?
CLH: To inspire 100 young of men of color to pursue STEM classes and prepare and place 20 students in paid internships.
TNJ.com: How about long-term goals?
CLH: Closing the wealth gap. Inspiring change. Supporting the next generation of innovators, whose novel ideas and creative abilities will really transform the world.
TNJ.com: What has been your biggest business lesson?
CLH: You can be wrong on many things, but still end up perfectly right if you're nimble and watch what the data is telling you.
(Note: This is the last week to apply for the summer program. The organization is looking for men of color, ages 14-17, who are curious about startups. For more information, check out All Star Code's website.)