42’s Contribution to the Success of the African American Leaders of Tomorrow Program (AALT)
A Certificate of Recognition was recently presented to 42 Silicon Valley by the California Legislative Black Caucus in appreciation of 42’s contribution to the success of the African American Leaders of Tomorrow Program (AALT) Conference that was held at California State University, Dominquez Hills from July 11 – 14, 2018. The certificate was presented to Shanna Uhilamoelangi, 42 Program Evangelist, and Kwame Yamgnane, 42’s Co-founder, and Managing Director. This was a journey that started in May when Shanna started knocking on doors at the state capital, and it is a story that starts with the underrepresentation of minorities in tech. 42 is extremely lucky to have such dedicated staff and students who believe in expanding educational access and creating a model of education that promotes equity and inclusion.
Underrepresentation in Tech: Racial Barriers in the Digital Revolution
Diversity naturally leads to innovation because innovation depends on diverse approaches to solving problems. Kwame shared, “Black people must learn how to code and bring their culture to create new services to build the future. To think different…be different!“ In a recent Forbes article, Jenny Abramson, founder and Managing Director of Rethink Impact shared, “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 30% more likely to perform above the mean in their industry.” 42 is all about being on the forefront of the digital revolution, and part of that includes breaking down barriers for underrepresented groups who are trying to get into the tech field. Challenges with getting hired, paying off student debt, and not having access to resources during one’s K-12 education are all important issues that need to be discussed.
It is well known that the digital revolution has left underrepresented folks behind. A report published annually by the National Urban League titled, The State of Black America 2018, noted, “In the vast majority of [social media and tech] companies, fewer than five percent of the workforce is African American…By contrast, at least half of the workforce in these companies is white.” A recent Vox article, inspired by the National Urban League’s report, shed more light on this crisis, “This year’s report pays particular attention to black Americans’ access to jobs in the tech industry and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. The study reveals that while black people are one of the racial groups most likely to use smartphones and have created thriving communities on platforms like Twitter, those high rates of usage haven’t translated into employment. And this is largely because the tech industry has failed to hire black STEM grads and transition them into careers in Silicon Valley, where many of these jobs are based.”
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the black unemployment rate, even among young black college graduates, is typically twice as high as the white unemployment rate, “Since these young graduates have the same basic degree and are in the same labor market position as their peers (whether high school or college), one would hope there would be little disparity in the unemployment rates of each group. The fact that having an equivalent amount of education and a virtual blank slate of prior professional work experience still does not generate parity in unemployment across race is evidence that factors such as discrimination, or unequal access to the informal networks that often lead to job opportunities are in play.”
Part of increasing access to tech jobs is to make tech education more affordable. According to the Brookings Institution, there is a significant and troubling black-white student debt gap that is set to widen even further, “The moment they earn their bachelor’s degrees, black college graduates owe $7,400 more on average than their white peers ($23,400 versus $16,000, including non-borrowers in the averages). But over the next few years, the black-white debt gap more than triples to a whopping $25,000. Differences in interest accrual and graduate school borrowing lead to black graduates holding nearly $53,000 in student loan debt four years after graduation—almost twice as much as their white counterparts.”
Within the K-12 education system, there are many students from underrepresented groups who are interested in going into the tech field. According to Wired, “A 2016 report from Google found that black and Hispanic students were 1.5 and 1.7 times more likely to have an interest in learning CS. And while the nation has, overall, increased the number of CS course offerings in K-12 education, black and Hispanic students are less likely to have access to those resources. They’re also at a disadvantage outside of the classroom: Two-thirds of white students report using computers at home, whereas only half of black and Hispanic students do.” This is why outreach, and fighting for equitable resources in K-12 schools, is so important and why 42 was so honored to attend the AALT Conference.
Engaging Underrepresented Youth at the AALT Conference
The journey that led our team to participate in the AALT Conference started in Sacramento nearly two months earlier. Danny Saetern was representing 42 with his VR game at the 19th Annual lu-Mien Student Conference. He shared his story of transitioning from a chef to a VR game developer through 42. Shanna also attended the conference to speak to students who are interested in non-traditional college pathways like 42 and said it was an honor to participate in the event.
Shanna shared how she wanted to reach out to as many people in the state capital to share with them how 42 is trying to expand educational access with our free tuition and free housing model, “I ended up going to the state capital the next day to approach different committees, including ones that focus on tech.” Shanna met Dr. Kristin Warren, Chief Consultant to the California Legislative Black Caucus, and 42 really resonated with her because she is a STEM equity advocate and has a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering. Dr. Warren invited Shanna to the AALT conference, and thanks to a generous stipend from Verizon, a group of 42 students attended the conference with her.
The team of 42 students conducted several workshop presentations at the AALT Conference. According to Shanna, this was the first time that California’s Black Caucus focused on tech, so it was an honor that 42 was included. The 42 team got to meet State Assembly Members from the Black Caucus. Shanna’s goal is to work more within the community, state and than maybe someday on the federal level.
Kwame and Shanna followed up with the California Legislative Black Caucus about a month and a half after the AALT conference. Not expecting to receive any formal acknowledgment of our efforts, Kwame and Shanna were proud to be presented with a Certificate of Recognition from the Black Caucus. It is really important for us to hear that we had such a great impact, and we can’t wait to give more tours so people can see 42 for themselves.
Meet the Team of Students who Represented 42 @ AALT
Danny Saetern: For those type of students, their lives are a little different, unless you grew up that way. My family were refugees, and I grew up in Stockton and lived in a house with 20 people. When I was little I didn’t know programming was an option, I didn’t know about it or have access to that information. In high school, I had to be working since I was 12. Your focus isn’t higher education, it is about survival, having something like 42 with the gift of free education can teach you the skills you need without having to worry about money, that changes the perspective for a lot of people. I try to attend these outreach events, like the lu-Mien Student Conference which led to everything else. I want to show these kids, I came where you came from, I didn’t have a lot but you can do something drastically different than what your family has done. I know software engineering is not for everyone, but getting them interested and knowledgeable about it, even if they are not sure if they want to pursue it, at least points them in the right direction. We showed them what coding is all about and that it wasn’t so scary, so we gave them the possibilities if you don’t get a choice you don’t have any rights. I am grateful for 42 that they provided those opportunities. That is why we got the recognition from the California Black Caucus, they see it is a good stepping stone for us to go out there and do that for people who grew up like us.
I came from a cooking background and used that discipline when applying it to code, I used my work ethic background to keep up the pace. I think software engineering is one of the few career options where you can do it without a college degree. I have been able to prove my skills and I actually have a job right now. I could get a job without a degree because I can prove I can do it. Your skills and what you can bring to the table is more important.
My job at the AALT Conference at Dominguez Hills was to create something fun for the kids. I had an idea for a game, so I built 10 mini-games, one building atop another and by the time you get to level 10 you have taken all the skills you learned and combine them and see each step. We showed the students the game and asked them to identify different elements of the game. We also showed them the order and demonstrated how to build a game. Whenever you take out a big problem or game, break it down into small steps, see what you can handle, and build on top of your skills. And hopefully, they walked out with that information. I can help teach game development because that’s what I am passionate about, and do every day, so I think the kids see that.
Isamar “Isa” Hodge: The biggest factor for me coming to 42 is that it is free. I come from a pretty poor background and a lot of people from my hometown are mostly immigrants and really poor families so just having it be completely merit-based it is a lot more accessible for people like me who couldn’t afford a traditional school. Also, over a traditional school 42 offers a lot more flexibility, so if you need to support your family and work you can do it on your own time. It may take more time but you can still change careers, of course, you can do part-time at a community college but 42 is more at your own pace and you don’t have to worry about a schedule of classes, it depends on you and you can do whatever you need to do. That is more accessible for underprivileged communities for sure.
Shanna said, “Hey we are going to do this hands-on workshop next week, are you interested?” When she told me it was about underrepresented and underprivileged high school kids we were introducing coding to, I said I wish that we had something like that when I was in high school. We never had computer science classes, I never learned how software is made. I also never knew it was an option to code as a career or make applications to help your community. Just having someone to talk to about that when you are in high school and from an area that is underprivileged is so important. When Shanna explained that it would be like that I was like, “of course I will do that!” I wish that was an option, and that someone made me actually try it out. It’s not just like, “hey this is an option, but hey you can do this too.” This was my first time doing tech outreach. It took a lot of time out of our hands but I would totally do it again, the experience was worth it. For these kids, they never see a programmer who is a woman or black on TV, it doesn’t seem like a real thing for you when you are a minority or female.
I arranged sheets for the students who attended the AALT workshops, a cheat sheet and note-taking sheet that they could take home with them if they want to keep on going further. On the sheet was a link to the website that we presented on that had all the steps. Also during the workshop, I went around and helped each person individually, if they were stuck or wanted to go in a different direction. These kids don’t have any guidance in tech, I know that because I was there too at their age. I would like to participate in more outreach like this because I know that it helps women of color to see other women of color doing this. I think this type of outreach is important because you want to reach out to underrepresented and underprivileged people because they are too busy keeping afloat. So just getting 42 Silicon Valley in front of them and showing them it is real is important.
Michael Lu: I am a first-generation college student. I was actually studying biology and during my first year of college I dropped out and took for granted a college education and my parents kindness. I went to a community college, got my GPA up, and had to do some soul-searching. I got my undergraduate degree in biology, and started grad school for microbiology but didn’t know what to do with that and dropped out again. I took a little break from college to think about what I wanted to do. I got a job and got soft skills, management, and leadership skills, but my dad said I could do better and suggested programming. So he showed me an article in a Chinese newspaper about 42, the school looked like a scam at first, but it wasn’t. The piscine experience was one of the best experiences I had. It was designed to learn from your mistakes, I made a lot of mistakes and learned from them, and this place continues to allow me to make mistakes. I have been here for a little over a year and know that I want to do something in tech now.
There were always higher expectations because I am Asian-American, so I never got extra help. The biggest thing about 42, we are open to everyone, we actually invite diversity. We truly take into account everyone’s unique situation and see if it is the right opportunity for them. We don’t create any barriers, it is about their ability to learn and work with their peers. Not only is it free tuition, but also a place where you can start over. If you have the right mindset you can learn a lot of skills here, it’s not just about programming. There is a misconception that 42 only teaches you to code, but that isn’t true, it teaches you how to tackle problems and figure out solutions. It is one of the safest environments to mess up and learn from it. It is an opportunity for anyone considering breaking into the tech field. You don’t lose anything by coming and trying it, you can leave if it is not a good fit.
I guess the best way to summarize my AALT outreach experience is that I feel blessed. These kids come from a background where they don’t have anything and they were excited. To help these kids and see how excited they were was great, it was very impactful, I felt very lucky and felt like we made a change. Even if they don’t go into tech it may change their future. The workshop was a basic introduction to coding, we created a little game for them and broke it down and had them figure it out on their own. The comments we got were incredible like “programming doesn’t seem difficult” and “it seems like so much fun.”
Akinfemi “Femi” Akin-Aluko: I have family in the U.S. and after I completed my undergrad degree in Nigeria I came to the U.S. to go to San Jose State for my master’s degree. The management aspect of engineering I didn’t really like, I wanted to switch to software engineering and that is how I got to 42. In the Fall of 2016, a friend of mine came from Nigeria to come to 42, and that is when I was thinking of switching to software engineering. My friend went to the piscine, and I decided to try it out too and started the piscine in January 2017. My experience in the U.S has been different but it has been a relief. There are limited opportunities in Nigeria, it is a little more restricted, but here you can do what you want. 42 is more diverse, there are people literally from all over. I like the fact that it is about your code at 42 because I didn’t grow up in an environment where race mattered, it is relieving to come to a place where it doesn’t matter either. Everyone has a story, and it is interesting to learn more. I think that the 42 message, it is a message that anyone regardless of their background can become anything, that is something that resonates with a lot of people. You can come to the U.S., to Silicon Valley, and 42 is all free regardless of background. This speaks to everyone. I told a friend how 42 is a free school with a free dorm, and my friend was like, “what is the catch?” Even if they do believe the free tuition, in America there is a mentality that where you graduate from matters, so I think those factors limit people. 42 has partnerships with different companies, eventually, people will see it is real.
The AALT conference was great, the goal was to offer high schoolers an opportunity to learn more about how to become a software engineer and most importantly to be able to demystify the general idea that you need to be a certain type of person to become a software engineer. On the first day, we tried to introduce them to 42, what we do, how it is free and welcome to everybody. The next day we taught them anyone can become an engineer, solve problems, and if you are passionate about it you can do it. I think we were pretty successful with it and I think we made an impression on the kids. In the end, Shanna asked them about their experiences, and they got the feeling, “I can do this too” and “it isn’t too bad.” It was new to a lot of them, even some with a little program experience, they learned they can write code. It was great, the fact they were able to see that it wasn’t something high-up in the air that they couldn’t obtain, they were able to see that it is doable.
How 42 is Making Tech Education More Affordable and Accessible
The African American Leaders of Tomorrow and the California Black Caucus are doing amazing things to create more pathways to tech education. That is why we are so honored to have received a Certificate of Recognition from the California Black Caucus for our efforts at the AALT Conference. 42 Silicon Valley is trying to create avenues of access through our merit-based admissions process and free tuition for every student that makes it through Basic Training. The Basic Training, which is also known as the “piscine” which means swimming pool in French, gives people a chance to prove that they are able to learn code, regardless of background or educational history. Free room and board in the San Francisco Bay Area gives students access to Silicon Valley and all of the area employers so they can network, and a flexible and self-paced curriculum makes it so students can work and/or seek internships at the same time they are pursuing their education. 42 recently launched an Africa in Tech Meetup series. The series was started by two 42 students, Houssein Abil and Bassirou Rabo Hima. The goal of this series is to promote Africans who have been successful in tech and the first speaker was 42’s own Kwame Yamgnane. This is the first of many Africa in Tech Meetups which will be held on the last Wednesday of every month starting at 7 pm and is open to the public.