Black unicorns: men of color working in tech

The 25th anniversary of my father’s death was last month, so his name — Reginald F. Lewis — has been popping up in my inbox more than usual. (In case you don’t know who he is, check out a copy of “Why Should White Guys Have all the Fun?” which tells the success story of a middle-class African-American kid from Baltimore.)

One friend sent me a story about Clarence Wooten, a Baltimore-born serial tech entrepreneur who spoke eloquently about the emotional isolation of being a successful founder in Silicon Valley, and who happens to be black. High up in the story, Mr. Wooten cited two role models for his professional career: Bill Gates, the most successful tech founder of his era, and my father, who was the first African-American to own a billion-dollar business.

It’s amazing that 25 years after his passing, my dad is still inspiring black men to become successful entrepreneurs today. But honestly, it shows how much work we have to do to get more black and brown people into tech. We need more black unicorns — individuals who thrive in their fields, despite systemic and racial barriers.

Several years ago, I noticed that tech startups were an amazing engine of creativity and job creation, yet there were a minuscule number of black or brown individuals at venture capital-backed startups. To tackle this problem, I founded All Star Code in 2013, an organization that teaches computer science to young men of color with the goal of developing a new generation of entrepreneurs who have the tools to be successful in tech.

Why the focus on young men? Well, there are already many national organizations devoted to teaching girls to code including organizations run by my friends and mentors, Reshma Saujani (Girls Who Code) and Kimberly Bryant (Black Girls Code). But there was a noticeable gap for organizations that focus on young men of color.

In 2017, only 20 percent of black and Latino students (of all genders), took the AP computer science exam. Although this number continues to grow, if we’re only investing in black and Latino girls’ success, we’re not going to level the playing field nationwide.

Education stats show where the inequality starts. In 2015, The Schott Foundation for Public Education found that while graduation rates on the whole were on the rise across the U.S., nationally only 59 percent of young black men graduated compared with 65 percent of Latino and 80 percent of white, non-Hispanic males. With these numbers, we can only expect the economic gap to widen.

Just as Wall Street enabled my father to pursue economic opportunity years ago, Silicon Valley offers similar hopes to today’s young businesspeople. And tech is not just an industry limited to the Bay Area; it is driving many regions across the country. Last year, CityLab reported that the Delaware-Maryland-V-area startups received more than $1 billion in venture capital investments.

To be a successful entrepreneur is not easy — especially when there are racial barriers in the way. Every day can be a struggle and to some extent a competition. It takes hard work to emerge with the best product, raise money, be taken seriously, gain traction and find customers. As a Lewis, I was raised by my parents to always give everything 100 percent. To always keep going.

I know that if my father were a young man today, he would want to be in technology, the growth industry for building wealth in the 21st century. It’s where the opportunity and action is.

At All Star Code, we are developing black unicorns by investing directly in our youth. We run a six-week Summer Intensive program for hundreds of students, and most of them come with little to no coding experience, but 85 percent of ASC alumni have gone on to major or minor in computer science or a related field at college. Our students are on track to be successful in tech and we’re proud to be one of the largest black-led, learn-to-code programs in the country with close to 300 graduates.With the right skills and support system behind them, and just knowing that their success is possible, there is no limit to what our young men can do — my father proved it. Now we need more people of color making it real.

Christina Lewis Halpern is the founder and CEO of All Star Code and the daughter of Reginald F. Lewis; her email is clh@allstarcode.org.

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